Name: Philip Crowther
Nationality or Ethnicity: British, German, and Luxembourgish
Where do you live?: Washington, DC
Languages: English, German, Luxembourgish, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I like to say I got four of these languages for free, without all that much effort. Growing up in Luxembourg, my British (and now Luxembourgish) father and my German mother spoke to me in their respective native tongues. That gave me a good head start. Luxembourgish came pretty naturally to my young brain by interacting with the other kids in my street, and in school. French is acquired early, starting in primary school at the age of 7, at which time German and Luxembourgish grammar are also taught.
Most non-language subjects like history and science are taught in German for the six years of primary school. That switches to French in high school. The school system then gives you the chance to add another language (apart from English) to your repertoire. In my case I chose Spanish at the age of 14 because I wanted to understand the fast-talking football commentary that I encountered on Spanish television, and which was widely accessible in Luxembourg. Spanish was a breath of fresh air because the grammar made perfect sense to me, and all the frustrating and apparently random grammatical exceptions in French were entirely understandable in Spanish.
The Spanish language and the culture of Spain, but above all Spanish football, became my passion and raison d’être. So, I went off to Barcelona to study it some more (and inadvertently learn Catalan too). Hispanic Studies became my course of choice at university in the UK. Once I considered the language fully assimilated, I began to study Portuguese. I now speak something they call “Portuñol” fluently. That’s the unfortunate mélange of Spanish and Portuguese. I’m afraid Portuguese did take the brain space I had given to Catalan, so I lost some of that in the process.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Catalan is the one for me. I love how it sounds, though I didn’t when I first encountered it. That was during my first trip to Spain - or Catalonia depending on your politics - with my dad. We heard it spoken on television in our hotel room and thought it sounded vaguely Portuguese.
We were in Barcelona to witness our first Spanish football match. And since then, I have developed an affinity, not to say a passion, for F.C. Barcelona and the Catalan identity. I went back to Barcelona to live there during my gap year between high school and university, and my love for Catalonia was complete.
I found that by combining Spanish and French I somehow got to Catalan and surprised myself by eventually speaking it.
Since then, opportunities to converse in Catalan have been few and far between, but the recognition and respect I get in Catalonia for doing so is a wonderful by-product of putting it in my “portfolio” of languages. Its status as a minority language surrounded by more widely spoken ones reminds me of Luxembourgish. Both are languages that need to be promoted and defended in the face of the sometimes-overpowering presence of the likes of languages like Spanish, French, and English.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
I dabbled in Japanese and Arabic for a short time, and while I didn’t struggle with the basics, I did notice that it is all forgotten in an instant if you don’t study and practise every day.
The next language, if there is to be one, is going to be one that opens up a part of the world I want to experience to the fullest. So, make that Mandarin, or another attempt at Arabic.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
They say it’s Brazilian Portuguese, and who am I to differ? My wife speaks very attractive English and Spanish though, so that’s what I’ll go with.
I have a bit of an affinity for Romanian too, because while you’d think it might sound like Polish or Russian due to its geographic location, it’s actually a Romance language. When I overhear it, I do a doubletake and first wonder which Spanish regional dialect it could be.
And then there’s Basque, which I find impossibly exotic, and therefore attractive.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Simple: the ability to speak to as many people as possible in their native tongue. In my job as a reporter, it opens so many doors (literally sometimes), puts people at ease, and in the end leads to better interviews. Countless people I have met on the road around the world gave me so much more of themselves simply because our conversations were natural and did not need interpreters.
There’s also a great sense of accomplishment in switching between languages in quick succession. I get to cover a lot of diplomatic gatherings in my line of work, and sometimes they give me the chance to move between four or five of my languages within just a few minutes.
6. Some people say the world is going to have just a few languages left in 100 years; do you think this is really true?
I do not. While some decline is perhaps inevitable, much is being done to defend minority languages and their cultures. So I am optimistic about language survival.
Yes, the main languages spoken around the world will become ever more dominant, but the niche languages will remain. And maybe some of them will even come creeping out of their niches. For example, the less widely spoken languages I use, Luxembourgish and Catalan, are being promoted on a local level and even offered for study in a few choice spots elsewhere. These are steps in the right direction, in my opinion.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Combine the study of a new language with immersion in the culture. In other words, travel. If you have the luxury of time, go and live in a country where the language is spoken. Buy the local newspapers in the morning, watch the evening news on television, and in between, talk to as many locals as possible.
If you don’t have the chance to move or travel abroad, you can still fill your day with interesting and fruitful encounters. Language exchanges are quite easy to find, as long as the language you are learning is not all that obscure.