Name: Otto Mendonça
Nationality or Ethnicity: Brazilian
Where do you live?: Foz do Iguaçu, State of Paraná, Brazil.
Languages: Portuguese (mother tongue), English (C2), Spanish (C2), French (C1/C2), Italian (B1), and German (B1/B2).
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
My mom had an astrological map of me drawn at my birth. The astrologist issued her a warning – your son must study languages! We used to live in the Amazon region, and I had already heard some Spanish words when I started out learning English at 9 in Rio de Janeiro at Cultura Inglesa (an English School funded by the British government). Then back to the south of the Amazon area – State of Rondônia – I resumed English, had a 2-month exchange program in California then landed my first job as an English teacher.
Following a family move, I ended up in the Iguaçu Falls city, a melting point at the crossroads of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, where Arabic-speaking ethnicities along with Guaraní indigenous people, together with Paraguayans, Argentineans, Chinese people… all shopping at the same supermarket.
I became a tour guide and served 2,000 people from 60 countries in 5 languages (English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese) – learned Spanish in the border and perfected it to C2 level, along with English and French (C1/C2). French and Italian I learned hands-on as a tour guide, following a method of repeating the same script for the different tourists, which allowed me to enhance my speech, correct mistakes and add new structures and vocabulary on the way. Later I added German mostly through a lot of reading and speaking to a specific friend from Frankfurt, who used to be close at the time.
I also read Latin to a point I could translate a text from Cicero – De Optimo Genere Oratorum – and a fable from Phaedrus. I’d say I reached B1 in reading, but that has faded a bit and I don’t add that to my languages, but I do read Latin aphorisms, maxims, and sayings.
Esperanto was a short endeavour. Learned with a couple of friends at the end of a polyglot conference, and I could enjoy the vibe for 2 hours. Spoke with a colleague for a while, then my interest also faded away.
Had interest in Dutch and Classic Greek. But didn’t put the effort required. Same happened with Guaraní, which I could use to exchange basic sentences when I was a tour guide.
I am a sworn French translator in Brazil and have worked as a conference interpreter since 2008, with Portuguese, English, Spanish, and French. German and Italian remain for fun, and Latin for endeavours with classic books and ancient knowledge.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Nowadays it’s French, because I’ve been having demand for French simultaneous interpretation from and into English, and for someone who speaks Portuguese as a mother tongue is quite a challenge.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Greek > Modern Greek is a first step into the riches of Ancient Greece. This is a cultural trip scheduled to happen in the future.
Arabic > This is a challenge in and by itself, and there’s a vibrant Arabic-speaking community where I live.
Dutch > it’s within arm’s reach from German and English, and I like the culture.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I believe Spanish, also because I feel I master small talk in this language. French is also sexy, but I feel like it’s more of a friendship language.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Connection. And the pride of being an insider even if I’m an outsider.
Above all, I’d say the privilege of speaking many languages is being able to mediate between peoples of different language and cultures for peace’s sake. I’ve enshrined this mandate as my mission, as my professional life exemplifies.
6. Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in a 100 years, do you think this is really true?
Technically, it’s a matter of applying the current languages dying rate to the 7,000 languages out there and come to a number. Apart from that, I don’t believe in such projections. What I think could happen is a future of people who speak a handful of the same languages.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Use the principle of convergence to try and make language learning and its applications your bread and butter for life. Even better, find and serve a mission in life connected to languages.