Interview with

Petra Van Caneghem

Name: Petra Van Caneghem
Nationality or Ethnicity: Belgian, born and raised in Ghent, in the Flemish (northern) part of the country
Where do you live?: I live in Deinze, south of Ghent, with my husband and 3 sons
Languages: Dutch native, French, English, German, Danish, Spanish, Italian, Afrikaans, Luxembourgish, Bulgarian (A2), Icelandic (beginner), Yiddish (beginner) (and I dabble in Korean and Esperanto)

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

I never planned to become a polyglot. Until the age of 10 I wasn’t really aware that there were many other languages. I knew that my maternal grandfather was German, but he had lived in Belgium his whole life and spoke only Flemish, so I didn’t make the link to another language.

My passion started for real in the fifth year of primary school. I live in Belgium, where we have 3 official languages, Dutch, French and German. In primary school and in Flanders it is compulsory to learn French. And so did I. I had no idea what to expect, but I remember my first lesson clearly, as if it were yesterday.

Imagine this: early eighties, an old classroom, high ceilings, heavy curtains, a very small class group (we were only 10), all eager to start French. The teacher closed the curtains, turned on the old movie projector, there was a bunch of cassettes lying around as well.

And then the cartoon came to life on the white wall. It was about a little girl and a dog, taking the train (la valise a tombé, le chien a aboyé, I can still remember it).

I was enchanted, I have no other words for it. A new world … The teacher recognised that I had a gift for languages, because he always made me read out loud and made me answer the questions (praise to my teacher!). I knew there and then that I wanted to do something with languages (preferably interpreter … and so I did!).

In secondary school, I picked languages as well (English and German). At university I continued with French, English and German, graduated (best student overall for German, with a special mention, a podium appearance and a prize).

I went to Denmark for a year, to work. I didn’t speak any Danish at that point, but I asked everyone to only speak Danish to me. I wanted to learn the language as quickly as I could, to understand what my roommates were talking about, to integrate, basically to live there. That was the first time that I noticed that learning languages was easy for me.

Back home I picked up Spanish (I had studied it for 2 years while still at university, but the combination of school and language school proved too difficult), but I had 2 children at that time, which was again a difficult combination.

It wasn’t until 5 years ago that I really went ahead, that I realised I could learn more. I picked up Spanish again, took Danish classes to perfect my knowledge, started a crash course Italian (I was a bit scared though that I would ‘contaminate’ Spanish, but it worked out just fine – but don’t make me speak the two languages one after the other).

From then on there was no stopping me.

I added Afrikaans (very similar to Dutch, so I picked that up really quickly), Luxembourgish (very similar to German, so no problem there), started studying Bulgarian (A2 at the moment) and recently swapped Faroese for Icelandic (because there are more resources) and added Yiddish to the mix. I also dabble a bit in Korean (I studied it for a year, but then I followed my heart and went for the Germanic languages) and Esperanto, but my focus is not on the both of them.

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

I wish I had more time to practise my smaller languages, Luxembourgish, Afrikaans, Icelandic, Bulgarian and Yiddish. There is not a lot of content available (audio, video, movies, books) or much opportunity where I live to come in contact with native speakers of these languages.

Luckily I found a teacher for each of these languages on a language learning platform.

I have a good connection with all of them and I try to book lessons as much as I can to have speaking practice.

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

I have this undefined goal of learning all the Germanic languages, which means I have to tackle Yiddish (which I have started recently) and Frysian. I dabbled in Faroese before and intent to pick that up after I master Icelandic.

Right now I don’t intent to study Swedish or Norwegian, because of Danish. I feel that they are too similar and I will start mixing them up.

But that is what I am saying right now. For some reason, I know that in the future I probably will learn them as well.

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

It’s going to sound like a cliché, but for me it has to be Italian. It took me a while before I fell in love with this language. I took a crash course, together with a friend, but my heart wasn’t in it. I kept thinking about how much I loved Spanish. But after half a year, it clicked. I can’t explain why. And now I am so happy I did persevere. I just love the sound of Italian. It’s something emotional, I can’t explain why.

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

The greatest pleasure I get from learning languages is the moment when you shift from hearing just sounds to hearing words, understanding what is being said. A close second is the moment you can start having a meaningful conversation in your target language. There is no describing the level of euphoria, of satisfaction once you can do this. A fellow polyglot described it as an addiction and I fully agree with that!

The please from speaking so many languages is that the more languages you speak, the more similarities you recognize, the easier it gets adding one more language, the broader your vocabulary becomes, also in your native language, because a lot of words are tied to each other.

And last but not least, the self-confidence you get from studying a (sometimes difficult) language on your own, figuring out the grammar, memorising the vocabulary.

For me this is one of the best feelings!

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?

This is inevitable I think, considering how English is taking over the world. I even notice it listening to my children. Their Flemish/Dutch is peppered with English and sometimes they struggle to find the Dutch word or use wrong expressions (literal English expressions).

If you look at minority languages, many of the younger speakers don’t see the added value in their native language and prefer speaking another, bigger one.

Luckily there will always be people interested in smaller or endangered languages, people who do the effort to document these languages and preserve them for the future.

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

I would say, go for it. Follow your heart. Never mind people telling you it’s useless (I have heard the comment ‘But what’s the use of this or that language?’). If this is what you want to do, then do it. And believe in yourself, you can do it.

A practical tip also maybe, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Give yourself time to learn the language (because it takes time, a long time). I don’t have any goals for myself, as in ‘reach B1 in 6 months. I enjoy the ride and whatever I achieve is a bonus!

The International Association of Hyperpolyglots - HYPIA. (c) 2020

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