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Interview with

Pavel Golenistsev

Name: Pavel Golenistsev
Nationality or Ethnicity: Estonia (ethnically Russian)
Where do you live?: London, UK
Languages: Russian, English, Spanish, Estonian, French, Catalan, Turkish, Portuguese

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

Coming from a small country, we’re already learning 3 very different languages (Estonian, Russian and English) at school from the first grade plus German in the high school. Looking back to my schooldays, I don’t think it even crossed my mind that it wouldn’t be the case in other countries. In my teens, I started travelling to participate in volunteering work projects in different European countries. I became interested in learning Spanish and found out that the “standard” textbook ways of learning languages, the ones I learned at school, were a good start but not always too helpful.

When I was 17, I got an opportunity to study in the UK, and, to my surprise, people told me that I was good at languages and that it was “impressive” that I could already speak 3. This encouraged me to take up learning languages through high school and into the university.

Later, as I was working in corporate consulting, I noticed that I miss learning languages for the sake of learning them. I enjoy the process of starting from zero and thinking “how difficult can it be?” and then soon enough feeling smashed into pieces, humbled and desperate as I begin to comprehend how difficult the task ahead of me is, to then notice that poco a poco I’d begin to understand something, and can now say something, and know the meaning of this or that word. It’s like starting a life in a new country all over or living another life and learning to discover a different world – fascinating.


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

I’ve been learning Greek for a few months now. I wish I had more chances to practice speaking it, a beautiful language with so many interesting challenges for a language-learner.


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

Currently learning Greek and Japanese, then coming back to improving my, now basic, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic. Then it’s Persian, Hindi, Serbian and Thai. I also enjoy trying to speak Esperanto whenever I find fellow “language geeks”, and would like to practice it more.


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

It depends on who’s speaking!


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

It’s the intellectual challenge of solving a puzzle. Putting together a sentence is like building a Lego castle or playing sudoku. Once you know the rules, the frameworks within which you can “play”, you can start being creative to find new ways to express yourself and connect with people you wouldn’t have a chance to connect with. I especially enjoy situations where I have to switch between several languages within a short amount of time, there’s something about it that’s very pleasantly stimulating for the brain.


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?

I am 100% confident that the answer is “it depends”. This will be defined by geopolitics and their effect on international trade. With languages being closely related to people’s identities, they will continue being a crucial part of self-expression and, sometimes, resistance to whichever is the “established” order in a particular geography, for as long as there are some communities that have political need for that. My guess is that a more united and peaceful world will see a stronger consolidation into fewer languages (to facilitate business and to consolidate the power of nation-states), with smaller languages struggling to survive, whereas a more politically and economically volatile world will see more languages because of languages’ role in reinforcing identities. There is also a chance that future technology will find ways of implanting some sort of machines that will be able to provide accurate contextual and idiomatic translations. In that case, there is a chance that more languages will remain strong but there will be less need to learn foreign languages. That being said, I think that multilingualism will continue to be important in the next few decades and the smaller languages will become stronger thanks to the more universal access to the Internet.


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

One of the unfortunate mistakes that people make is saying that they “don’t have what it takes to learn a foreign language” – this is a “limiting belief”. Yes, there are people who find it easier than others to acquire a new language, but given (1) the mindset of optimism and persistence, (2) a “learning mindset” and experimentation with different learning techniques, and (3) not being afraid of looking “silly” and dusting yourself off quickly when you inevitably make mistakes – is what helps. I often think about learning multiple languages like a good supermarket deal, sort of “learn 3 and get 4th half-price”, because it does get easier with time. Also, do not just rely on the popular language-learning apps – they can be helpful, but they are only a small part of learning a language. Do explore, experiment and seek inspiration with the “learn language quick and easy” solutions, but don’t be deceived by their promises of ease – it’s meant to be challenging, learn to enjoy it.