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Interview with

Paul DuCett

Name: Paul DuCett
Nationality or Ethnicity: American
Where do you live?: New York City
Languages: English (native), Russian, Spanish, French (fluent), Chinese, Italian, German (intermediate), Polish and Greek.

1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?

My story is pretty nerdy, and I’ve never told it before. When I was very young, maybe seven years old, I went with my mother to set up her elementary school classroom. There I saw a chart of the phonemes of the English alphabet. At that time (1967) the predominant method of teaching reading was “phonics” -- one learned the possible spellings of the various phonemes and applied them to reading. When I saw this chart, I was entranced. It just sort of called out to me. The had different pictures to associate the different sounds of the English language. I remember they had a picture of a father for one of the pronunciations of “a” and another picture of a hat for the “short” a, and a picture of the cake for the “long a”. It made sense that the “w” and the “wh” “wheelbarrow” were different sounds, that the “oo” in “spoon” was different from the “oo” of “book”. It was as if a whole world just opened up to me by looking at that one pictographical image. That night when I went home, I prayed to God that he would give me a chart just like that one.

That same summer of 1967, my family and I went to Montreal to see Expo ´67. I knew that French was spoken in Canada, so I asked my mother to buy me a book to learn French. She did, and when we were driving up to Montreal, I was in the back seat learning ¨Je m’appelle Paul. Comment vous appelez-vous?” When we got to Montreal, I walked around the fair grounds with my little French phrase book talking to everyone I could in French. I was too young and naive to know that I was probably butchering the pronunciation and the grammar. But people understood me, and I liked doing it.

The next nerdy moment I remember is perhaps when I was in 8th grade. We were in English class and we read a sentence in the grammar book: “Tom’s uncle speaks six languages fluently”. We were supposed, I think, to identify what was the subject of that sentence, the verb, the direct object, et cetera. But when I read that sentence, the first idea to cross my mind was “I want to do that!”.

So, I believe, that I didn’t choose to dedicate my life to learning languages. It seems to have chosen me.

The next experience I remember which showed that I was destined me to become a lifelong language nerd was the experience with Spanish when I was in 7th grade. When I was in 7th grade, I did my sister’s 9th grade homework in Spanish for her. My sister was not interested in it, and to me it was so easy and interesting. Some people say that the initial impulse which drove them to learn languages was the goal of communicating with people, or to learn about a culture, or to read great works in a language. I like all those things too, but, to be honest, it was the language itself, its grammar and vocabulary, which attracted me to studying languages. When I was in 7th grade, I read my sister’s 9th grade Spanish textbook, and I was fascinated! Wow! If you change the “o” in “chico” to “a”, the boy becomes a girl! Fascinating! Wow! Because Spanish verbs have endings, like the “o” in “hablo”, you don’t need to use the subject “yo” when you speak! So interesting! Why didn’t anyone teach me this earlier?

I took Spanish when I got to 8th grade, and when I got to high school, I took both Spanish and French, which the guidance counselors tried to dissuade me from, but I knew I had to study both. (How did I know? I don’t know. Again, the languages seemed to choose me.) In high school language classes, I was the best. I had a straight 100% average in every course. I won the best student in foreign language.

But, looking back at my high school language learning experience, I now see that it was all grammar exercises and reading, no speaking. Speaking languages came later in life to me.

I went to Middlebury College in Vermont to study languages. People thought I would continue with Spanish and French, but I chose to study Russian, classical Greek and Latin instead. I wanted to do something new. I maintained my French during college, but I let my Spanish go -- until decades later.

After graduating Middlebury, I started studying Chinese at Harvard Univeristy as a special (unenrolled) student. I continued to study Chinese at Middlebury Summer Language Schools and at Columbia University.

In 1984 I had two jobs. One: I went to New York City to interview Russian immigrants in a national survery. Two: I escorted American tourist groups on trips to the Soviet Union. I went to the Soviet Union around 30 times for the next three years. Then I started taking some tours to China as well.

For the next 15 years I taught English as a second language, but I got bored with that. I decided that when I spoke English to foreigners, they got to play speaking a new language, but for me speaking English was not fun.

So, I decided to begin teaching foreign languages. I applied to the University of Salamanca summer program to get a Master’s degree in Spanish Language and Culture. I wrote an essay which they accepted -- I’ve always been better at writing languages than speaking them, so that worked out well for me. By 2006 I had a master’s degree in teaching Spanish and that has been my life every since.

In 2008, something interesting happened to me. There were too many students choosing to study Chinese, so the principal of the school asked me if I could teach beginning Chinese. I started reviewing my Chinese, and I even got the State of New York to certify me to do this. Now, I teach three courses in Spanish and one in Chinese. I got scholarships, one from the U.S, government, one from the Chinese, to review my Chinese over two summers in China.

In my free time I study German, Polish, and Greek. Sometimes I take Italki classes. Sometimes I travel in these countries.

The lifelong mission of learning languages continues on. As I get older, my focus becomes more content-based, less grammar-based -- though I do learn grammar from content. I believe that I will be learning and enjoying languages for the rest of my life.


2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?

All of them. I’d particularly like to improve my Chinese and my German. I’d like to maybe spend summers in Germany, Poland, Greece. Also, when I retire in a few years, I may try living in various countries for a few months at a time.


3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?

I’d like to learn Turkish and Arabic. Also, some African language: maybe Swahili?


4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?

No language is sexier than another. It’s all subjective. If you think a language is sexy, it is.


5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?

Being able to travel easily, meeting new people, appreciating new cultures. But, I like learning the languages for their own sake too. I like grammar and phonology and social uses of language.


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?

Yes, many language are dying. They have been for centuries. There will survive many, but not as many as now.


7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?

If you want to study a language, just do it. With the Internet it’s easier than ever. Don’t let people talk you out of it. If you make it part of your life, you can learn any language.