Name and Title: H.E. Ambassador Naela Chohan
Nationality or Ethnicity: Pakistani
Where do you live? Australia
Languages: English, Persian*, Urdu, French, Spanish**, Punjabi, Bengali
*Learned at age 35
* Learned at age 51
1. Madam Ambassador, tell us about your experience learning all these languages.
I grew up in a household that encouraged multilingualism. Before my fifth birthday I had already been exposed to four different languages: English, Urdu, Bengali, and Punjabi. I traveled a lot within South Asia as a child and so developed a familiarity with an even larger cohort of Indo-Iranian languages. When I joined the Foreign Service of Pakistan, I chose French as my professional language. All new officers in the Foreign Service must take on a new professional language, and my choice of French allowed me to go to Vichy, France for language training. So that covers the first five languages. In the late 1980’s I was posted to the Pakistan mission in Tehran, Iran. I was the first woman diplomat to be received by the Revolution. In order to effectuate my diplomatic mandate more effectively, I began to learn Farsi (Persian). I was 35 years old at the time, but given my love for languages and cultures; as well as my ample exposure to Indo-Iranian languages at a young age; as well as a good deal of effort on my part; I was able to gain fluency in Farsi by the time I left Tehran. In 2009, I was appointed Ambassador of Pakistan to Latin America, with my embassy based in Buenos Aires and concurrent accreditation to several other capitals including Montevideo, Quito, and Lima. Although the brain’s plasticity is normally bounded by the age that I was appointed Ambassador, I made a sincere effort to learn Spanish and to converse with the locals in their tongue. I had a formal teacher at the time as well. After two years, I even addressed the Argentinian Congress in Spanish. I also appeared at various intervals on television and radio as part of the cultural mission of my Embassy to introduce the beauty of Pakistan to a Latin American audience. So that is the history of my seven languages.
2. Madam Ambassador, which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
I do get ample occasion to speak Farsi, Urdu, Punjabi, and English; but I wish I had more time for Bengali, French, and Spanish.
3. Do you find these languages assist you in effectuating your work as a diplomat?
Indeed, as language is the bedrock of effective communication, and because communication is the bedrock of effective diplomacy, I believe that a mastery of language (and better yet, many languages) is a core aspect of what it means to be a successful diplomat.
4. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
I have not chartered a course for language acquisition – often the demands of learning new languages have imposed themselves on me. For example, it is because I was the first female diplomat to be received by the Iranian Revolution that I studied Persian. Similarly, it was because I was Ambassador to several Hispanophone countries that I chose to dedicate myself to Spanish. So it will depend on what the future holds for me.
5. Which is your favourite language?
All languages, without exception, possess a certain beauty, but it changes from language to language. My personal favourite is Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. This is because it is uniquely positioned to form expressions of great elegance, in part because of its hybridity through which it receives sustenance from several language families; but also because it is the language of royalty – and during its inception, for royalty alone.
6. Do you think that having a nurturing environment helps people learn languages?
Indeed, I was brought up in a household that allowed me to be familiarized with four languages before I was five years old. I have insisted on the same exposure for my children to the world. The results speak for themselves, as my son [Usman W. Chohan] is the president of this organization [HYPIA]. Parents should insist on the creation of a stimulating environment that both invites and challenges children to stretch the boundary of their abilities, as well as their imagination.
7. What scope for linguistic inquiry do you see in Pakistan?
Linguistic inquiry is part-and-parcel of Pakistan's history and culture. The first linguist was a 5th century scholar named Panini who compiled the first grammar of Sanskrit - he was born in Charsadda, Pakistan. Since the very first linguist was from our country, it's safe to say that there shall be many more linguists to spring from this soil in the years to come.
8. Madam Ambassador, what is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
There is no age limit to learning languages. Look at me, I took to Persian in my mid-thirties, and to Spanish in my early fifties. I encourage everyone to pick up new languages, and not think of factors such as their age or their literacy as barriers. The only barriers are those that arise from within.