Name: Rebecca Giersiefen
Nationality or Ethnicity: German
Where do you live?: France
Languages: German, French, English, Dutch, Russian, Turkish, conversational: Esperanto,
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I always wanted to learn a lot of languages, and I knew I could make that dream come
true if I moved abroad, so I moved to Britain and then France when I turned 18, and
then I just never stopped.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Indonesian & Swahili
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Getting better in languages I have already started always takes precedence for me. I have
good bases in Urdu and Swahili, so I might take one of these to another level in the
coming years. I am also interested in studying minority languages although I harbour no
illusions of becoming truly fluent in them. I've studied Tatar, Nenets and Northern Sami
in the past. Why not Greenlandic, Hadza or Amis next?
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
Once you use a language every day, it becomes ordinary and loses its sex appeal. If I
think of a language as sexy, I'm definitely not fluent in it. Swahili sounds very soft and
sensual in my ears. That's probably because I associate it with someone I've dated.
Maybe Vietnamese can sound insanely hot, too, I just haven't met that person yet (if you
are Vietnamese, insanely hot and between the ages of 30 and 40, please apply).
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
I volunteer interpreting for refugees imprisoned in deportation centres. I love speaking
to Kurds, Iranians and Afghans, since I love them as people, and it also makes me feel
like I am doing something worthwhile.
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?
Of course not. Drastic numerical decline of speakers can happen very fast, even within a
single generation, but complete extinction of that many languages is very unlikely. It is
true that people often become aware of the cultural heritage that their mother tongue
represents just a little too late. However, there is now growing awareness around the
globe that languages are cultural artefacts and that humanity is richer for each and every
one of them. Indigenous peoples are putting up a fight, and revitalisation movements for
endangered languages have sprung up with the aid of linguists. While a lot of small
languages will die, we're still going to be looking at a four-digit number in a hundred
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are
interested in studying multiple languages?
If you are in high school and you have the option to take Latin, go for it. I had five years
of Latin, and it prepared me for learning other languages, even totally unrelated ones,
like nothing else. I became familiar with a grammar so complex that it made everything
that came after seem easy in comparison. When I come across a particularly convoluted
sentence while reading something in Turkish or Persian today (two languages whose
syntax can be fiendishly tricky), I still go back to the sentence parsing techniques that I
learnt when studying Latin.
Being a polyglot is not a purely intellectual endeavour that runs as subplot through your
life, it's going to be your main plot. You don't just live the life you'd live anyway, and
then you also speak those languages. Your whole life becomes dominated by travelling
and making friends with people from the right backgrounds. All those foreign cultures
also become a part of you in the process, and you are going to feel at least a little bit torn
between all these different identities.