Interview with

Santiago Betancor

Name: Santiago Betancor Falcón
Nationality or Ethnicity: Spanish
Where do you live?: Spain
Languages: I am fluent in Spanish (native), English (C2), French (C1), Chinese (C1), Italian (C1), Portuguese (C1), Catalan (C1), Tagalog (B2), Neapolitan (B2), Vlax Romani (B1-B2). Then I speak some Russian (B1), Swedish (B1), etc…

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

When I finished my baccalaureate, I did not know what to do with my life. I tried getting into the military (yes, I was that lost) and, lucky me, I did not pass the psycho-technical test. After that, my family and I figured that learning English at university was probably the best available option, so I studied English Philology. Over time, language learning became my main passion, at times obsession, I must admit. I enjoyed studying languages, and so I learned one after another as I fell in love with each one.

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

That changes all the time. However, I would say Chinese. I want to reach a C2 level in this language, but these days I am too busy and mentally exhausted to give it the time that it requires… which is a lot! I would also love to practice more minority languages like Neapolitan, Romani or Siciliano… But it is not easy to find people to talk with.

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

As I have grown older, I am starting to appreciate quality over quantity, so I will likely focus more on improving my weakest languages. For example, I would like to drastically improve my Russian and Hindi. Other languages that I may want to study a bit in the future are Cantonese, Arabic, Rumanian, Persian, Latin, etc… This will also depend on where I live and what languages will surround me in the future.

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

I do not like to attribute human characteristics to languages, that is always a mistake. Over time I have learned that the perceived sexiness of a language depends on how sexy the person speaking is. A hottie can make even Klingon sound suave, #truestory. So yea, as a linguist I cannot give a straight answer to that. As Santi the pervert tho… Catalan and French, hands down. There is something about nasal and closed vowels… I don’t know… YOU don’t wanna know!

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

I simply enjoy the learning process, probably due to some quirks of mine. As a kid, I always enjoyed collecting stuff, and a part of me still likes collecting new cool words. Also, I like activities that are kind of repetitive but still allow me to make progress: like playing instruments or certain videogames (Pokemon, Minecraft, Animal Crossing, etc…). In addition, I love imitating sounds. I am the kind of person that hears the squeak of a chair being dragged and I automatically try to match the pitch… I am like Charlie Puth! Same OCD, yet no particular musical talent. Also, I have a weakness for weird vowels!

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?

Unfortunately, I really think that the number of living languages is going to plummet in the near future. That is why it is so important to try to revive small ones. However, I think that right now what is most important is to hurry up and document all endangered languages. As long as a language is well documented, we can study it and even revive it in the future. The tragedy is when languages die without leaving behind any records, then it is game over.

Nonetheless, on a happier note. Even if many will die, many other small languages will thrive. As different regional identities get stronger and the politics of each country changes there will be opportunities for many languages to become more relevant. Also, let us not forget that we have the internet. Online communities will help revive and document more and more languages as new regions of the planet gain access to the internet. That is assuming of course that things improve in the future… but 2020 has proven how much of a positivity bias that assumption really is.

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

Languages are beautiful, worth learning and very useful in life. Nonetheless, learning multiple languages (like we polyglots do) requires a fair amount of privilege and making tremendous sacrifices that the reader perhaps is not willing to make… Learning tons of languages is feasible, but not for everyone! I do not see how memorizing the numbers 1 to 10 in your 7th language can be any more enriching, meaningful, or transcendental than for example reading Plato’s Republic or educating yourself on the politics of China in South-East Asia… In a way, learning languages is quite shallow. The first ones you learn may teach you a lot about the world, but as you learn more, you will get certain diminishing returns. I encourage everyone to study languages, of course. But polyglottery is not something that I recommend… I guess that it is not about how many you know, but how much the languages you know make your life more meaningful.