Sara Maria Hasbun
Name: Sara Maria Hasbun
Nationality or Ethnicity: American
Where do you live?: China
Languages: English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, Korean, ASL, Indonesian, Malay, Cantonese, Russian, Mongolian, Uyghur, Chinese Sign Language.
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I grew up in the United States, a completely monolingual English speaker until the age of about 20. I even struggled with high school Spanish. This was particularly embarrassing given the fact that my father is a native Spanish speaker! To make matters worse, I look very much like a Spanish speaker myself, so I was constantly approached by Spanish speakers, only to disappoint them with my lack of ability. My family only spoke English in the home, Spanish wasn’t a language that I ever heard as a child, and I didn’t seem to have much aptitude for learning it as a foreign language, either. My father would shake his head amusedly as he edited my essays and corrected my homework with extensive markings of his red pen.
Thankfully, at university, I discovered the field of Linguistics. Over time, as I learned about the structures of language, I was able to apply known principles to my learning strategies. After eight years of study, I finally became fluent in Spanish.
After Spanish, I tried my hand at French. It worked! In about three years, I was able to reach fluency in French.
After so many years carrying around a bruised ego with respect to language learning, my new success had me flying high. I was eager to learn more. I added Mandarin and Russian (although I’ve since forgotten most of my Russian).
While working in a linguistics research laboratory focused on sign language acquisition, I learned American Sign Language and Nicaraguan Sign Language. As two of my coworkers in that lab were Deaf Americans, American Sign Language became my primary language for 8 hours per day, for about two years. I also had the opportunity to travel for research and learn basic Costa Rican Sign Language and Spanish Sign Language.
Becoming immersed in Deaf culture put me in the middle of several funny situations, especially when I met up with Deaf friends at cafes or bars. One of my favorite realizations from this time was that sign language endows users with a unique ability to communicate in a 3D space: sign language is actually a much more efficient language for description and for storytelling than is language based on sound. Once, a Deaf friend realized I was impressed by her ability to communicate with a friend through a café’s glass window. “Who is the disabled one now?” she signed, wryly.
I then moved to Korea, where I lived for six years, studying the language at Seogang University. During that time I established a linguistic consulting company whose staff was mostly remote and international. This meant that I ended up spending a good part of those six years on the road, traveling to conferences and to visit with clients and employees. I also spent extensive stints in Indonesia, a hub for digital entrepreneurs. There, I studied Indonesian. Later during a two-month stint in Malaysia, I focused on Malay.
I now live in China, and have finally passed the HSK 6 (the final level of China’s proficiency test). I’m working on reviving my Russian, but also very much enjoying the freedom to dabble: over the last few years I’ve studied basic Cantonese as well as a smattering of Mongolian, Uyghur, Chinese Sign Language, Ukrainian, Swedish, Thai, Malay and Vietnamese.
With each language I learn I gain so much insight into new cultures and new ways of perceiving the world: even when all I learn in a basic introduction to the structures and vocabulary. For this reason I find myself serving as a language activist within all my professional and social circles: encouraging everyone to learn a new language if only for the mental benefits, the creativity, the mental agility it can afford you.
You can read more about my language stories on my Instagram page (this is probably where I post most prolifically) and at my blog misslinguistic.com.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Mongolian. I don’t get that many opportunities to practice it right now. But I’m hoping to spend more of this year in Inner or Outer Mongolia so that I can claw myself up to a higher level and learn more about their fascinating history.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Italian, Hebrew, and Turkish are on my wishlist!
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I like a good affricate, so languages like Hebrew and Ukrainian are really beautiful to me. Mongolian is also full of these incredible hushed whisper sounds. Finally, Americans are genetically predispositioned to respond well to Italian and French, there’s not much I can do about that.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
The greatest pleasure I get from speaking a language, aside from making a connection with a new person, is from realizing that my mindset has shifted. Languages carve up the world in a variety of different ways, they use different categories, they highlight different parts of reality. And when I realize that I’m viewing the world in a new way because I was taught a new way to describe it…I haven’t played many video games but I imagine that’s what it feels like to level-up.
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 do think we will lose a good number of the world’s existing languages, unfortunately. However, the good news is that as it becomes easier and cheaper to create content in more and more languages (thanks to AI, thanks to crowdsourcing) people are coming to expect content in the languages closest to their hearts. It is no longer sufficient to translate your e-commerce website into Hindi: Indians now expect to be able to access online shopping in Marathi, Tamil, Telugu. Chinese app users want voice recognition to recognize Hakka, Hokkien, Shanghainese. I think this will contribute to a strengthening and revitalization of so-called “minority” languages.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Don’t put off learning because you are intimidated by the concept of “fluency”: just start learning! Everything you learn will serve you, even if you never reach the highest level of ability. And in the end, by learning to enjoy the process, you might just reach fluency even faster!