Name: Peter Grudina
Nationality or Ethnicity: Slovenian and Italian
Where do you live?: Paris, France
Languages: Slovenian (native), Italian (native), French (C2), English (C1), Portuguese (C1), Spanish (B2), Croatian / Serbian (B2), Levantine Arabic (B1), Russian (B1)
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I was born in a small town, Gorizia, split by the border between Italy and Slovenia. I grew up on the Italian side, but my parents are both of mixed backgrounds – they met each other and started their relationship in Italian, but they eventually switched to Slovenian after a few months, and this became also the main language spoken at home. However, mixing the two was very common since we were also speaking Italian a lot. English came as a compulsory subject at school, but I’ve soon started to watch films in English on my own – a rather weird choice in a country where everything is dubbed.
At high school I’ve studied Latin and Ancient Greek applied to written translation, but I admit I did not enjoy it that much, probably because there was no communication involved. For five years, I’ve been spending at least ten hours per week on ancient texts, trying to decrypt what philosophers, military generals, historians, and even Jesus Christ were saying. I was quite good at it, but I eventually forgot almost everything. What I’ve retained from it, however, is the understanding of a language’s structure and rules, which has been very handy while learning other languages afterwards.
While I was studying urban planning in Ljubljana, the small Slovenian capital, I was sharing my apartment with a friend of mine who is very keen on linguistics. He proposed me to attend a Portuguese language course offered by the university. I was really excited by the idea of understanding and expressing myself in those beautiful sounds that at the time of travelling to Portugal I felt as an exotic mixture of Spanish and French. We’ve started to attend classes together, and after a few months of studying the European variant of the language we have resorted to films and series dubbed in Brazilian Portuguese to enrich our vocabulary. We’ve really enjoyed observing Harry Potter, John Snow and Anakin Skywalker speaking like cariocas, it was totally out of context. And while we’ve been having a lot of fun, we’ve started to adopt (European) Portuguese as our main language of communication, and it’s here that my polyglot journey has actually begun, thanks to that friend who opened for me the door leading to this fantastic world. In the full swing of my polyglot growth, I’ve then learnt other languages – Croatian at the university (as I did for Portuguese), French in Paris during an Erasmus there, Arabic in Beirut during a second semester abroad, Spanish by visiting my brother in Andalusia and listening to Denver’s exaggerated, muffled swearing in Casa de Papel… And I have the chance to practice all these languages through my active involvement in an international organisation promoting unity among people and dialogue between different cultures and religions.
The latest linguistic adventure I’ve had is with Russian, a language that I wanted to learn since a long time but never found the good circumstances for it. These actually came along with the war in Ukraine – while many universities in Italy and France were randomly cancelling courses and conferences about Russian language and students were asking themselves if it is good to continue pursuing their studies, I’ve immediately felt that now is the time to learn it. I personally believe that no event or act should have the power or be the excuse to ostracise a language, and I don’t believe that doing so with Russian could help end the war, at the contrary.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
In this moment I would really like to continue improving my Russian, but at the same time I don’t want to lose my Croatian, as the risk of interferences here is quite high. I also want to enrich my Levantine Arabic which still suffers from rather limited vocabulary – learning MSA along could be a good idea.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Definitely Romanian, as I really like how it sounds, especially in music, and I found the country utterly beautiful. On top of that, it is a meeting point between Slavic and Latin languages, which reflects my identity as bilingual in Slovenian and Italian.
I would also like to learn a tonal language with ideograms (Mandarin being the most obvious choice), and Turkish, as I’m really fascinated by agglutinative languages. These two are more for the fun of getting to know entirely different language systems and enter rather foreign cultures, but I also know I have limited time and energies, and these two are languages that require full commitment. I’m still not sure if I wish to do it, and I prefer to feel a “call” for it, as I don’t want to spread myself too thin and start losing the languages I have nourished with that much care.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
Well, I think it is more the way you’re speaking it than the language itself. If I really had to choose one, I think it would be Brazilian Portuguese, as its sound and melody are really cute. Romanian would come second.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
There are many. I really enjoy being able to listen, read and watch original content that is a showcase of the culture of a different country. However, the most important thing for me is being able to communicate with people in the language in which they can express themselves the best, with their own words that flow directly from their heart. I like the idea of being able to carry the burden of translation for people who are less used to it, and seeing the smile and relief on their face when they realise that I understand them as they are and that no adaptations are needed. I think it really helps to connect with others.
A good example is my recent adventure with Russian. I’ve also had a really practical reason to learn it - a trip to Central Asia this summer. Therefore, I found myself in my first big “language challenge” – learning Russian in six months in order to be able to travel independently. It worked, and it was really worth it – I cannot imagine doing the same trip without being able to talk for hours with locals about their way of life, geopolitics, society, traditions and so on. I came back from that three weeks’ trip with the feeling that I’ve stayed abroad for months, just because it was so profound and enriching.
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’m not sure about it, there are situations where the opposite is happening. In the Middle East, we observe how Arabic dialects are becoming increasingly more used in all spheres of life instead of MSA, leading to greater diversification.
However, what I really fear is the dominance of English and of the culture(s) it brings along. It is really sad to me to see that in so many countries younger generations prefer English (or they want to convince themselves they prefer it) rather than their local language. It is happening in the Nordics, but also in the Middle East – English is taking over both French and Arabic in Lebanon.
I personally really support the idea of coexistence of local languages with big, regional ones that promote the interaction with neighbours. In Slovenia, for instance, younger generations are fluent in English but don’t know any more Serbian / Croatian. The country could be an excellent bridge between the Balkans and Central Europe, but such linguistic policies are probably hampering it. The same can be said of my city – Slovenes from previous generations living close to the Italian border are fluent in Italian, but younger ones are only fluent in English, which is rather useless for interaction with their Italian fellows. If learning English means ditching other languages, including those spoken by your neighbours, I think there is a problem.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
I’m increasingly more convinced that it is languages who choose us, not the contrary. There are special circumstances in life – moving somewhere, meeting someone, travelling, or just a new interest for a culture that seems coming out of the blue – that are basically invitations to step into a new language and all the riches it comes with. As with any invitation, we can accept it or refuse it, and as with any invitation one tries to weigh the energies and time he has and the possible benefits that could come by accepting it. You refuse it, and while you save a lot of time and energies, you will always fear that you are missing something out. You accept it, and you embark on a journey that might be really tiring, but definitely worth it.
Be curious and open, and let the languages choose you, even when you do not expect it. At the same time, be realistic with yourself and the resources you have, since languages are like relationships and therefore require commitment. Having many shallow relationships will not change your life, but having few, very deep ones, will do.