Name: Sebastián Alarcón
Nationality or Ethnicity: Mexican
Where do you live?: Currently in Mexico City
Languages: From the most to the least fluent one: Spanish (native), English, Italian, Basque, Esperanto, Catalan, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Polish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Persian, Georgian, Turkish, Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian, German, Irish Gaelic, Ukrainian, Arabic, Latin, Korean, Hindi, Guarani, Swahili, Indonesian, Romanian, Bulgarian.
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
It all started when I was scrolling through Encarta Encyclopedia (Wikipedia’s father) and there was a section with excerpts of several languages around the world. I set muy goal of learning all of them. Image, I was only six years old. Another thing to the toss: I had a trip to Orlando, FL, where I was drowning in all the fun from Epcot Centre. I was 16 and I had no complains about my English, but I felt something was missing. I just had envy towards people at bilingual schools.
My passion towards languages comes thanks to three persons:
Alberto Lati, Mexican sport journalist who learns the language of the country where he is sent to. That’s how he learnt Japanese (Korea-Japan 2002), Modern Greek (Athens 2004), German (Germany 2006), Mandarin Chinese (Beijing 2008), Zulu (South Africa 2010), Portuguese (Brazil 2014) and Russian (Russia 2018).
My teacher of Greco-Latin Etymologies. A 70-year-old woman who was not paid attention in class. It was fascinating to invent new words with Greek roots and to transliterate my deepest secrets into Greek alphabet so I would not be caught.
My uncle Adolfo: when was studying at the National Polytechnic Institute he realized that he had classmates who lived two hours away of the university and his house was only five minutes away, so he didn’t have to commute. In order to seize the day, he got enrolled to learn the Big 4: English, Italian, German and French. All that knowledge helped him to his career as an oenologist and now he brews his own wine in Windsor, CA.
This is how my career with languages was launched. As Italy won the FIFA World Cup in Germany, I chose Italian as my debut. My aunt had an Italian course published in the 50 years (it was recorded on LP disks) and on each break I used to study with a recorder (my aunt had already recorded those disks into cassettes). Since the religious order of my school came from Italy, I practiced my Italian with the priests.
Then I was lucky to study at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). There is one of the best language learning centers from my country: National School of Linguistics and Translation. I was so crazy to start learning at the same time Basque and Esperanto. This combination allowed me to become fearless of successful language learning.
Long story short: there are several reasons why a language enters my life. I learnt Catalan to Kindle with the roots of my grandparent, I learnt Mandarin Chinese for a revenge with my family. I learnt Portuguese because of a woman who was no tinto me. I learnt Russian because I wanted to connect not only with Russians, but with people from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. I learnt Turkish, Persian and Hebrew because I met people from those countries and they were so king. I learnt German because I had the brilliant idea of going once to the German Embassy wearing the Brazilian shirt (Brazil was trashed 7-1). The most random reason was for Serbo-Croatian: Mexico was drawn in Brazil 2014 into Group A together with Brazil, Cameroon and Croatian. I already knew Portuguese (Brazil) and English and French as well (Cameroon). What about Croatia? That’s why.
Each language has furnished me with different things. Besides a lifestyle, it has helped me to write about football with Geopolitics, Society, Culture and History. All of this merged into a concept called Geobalón and an article of mine is published every Thursday at El Nueve y Medio and you don’t want to miss it. Languages have helped me to get access to prime-quality sources. For example, thanks to Russian I was able to translate an article about Shostakovich’s passion towards this sport.
It has also let me to know firsthand cultures without traveling to the target country. I could take part in a UN Conference with just my language knowledge. Now I can handle more significant conversations with people specialized in the topic, such as internationalists.
There are yet more stories. Do you want to hear them? Let’s go drink a couple of Stout beers and/or a cappuccino.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Ну, извини если я связываю всё с футболом. Дла меня, языки я вижу как футбольная начальная одинатсятка. Я расставляю самые употревленные языки на старте и изменяю какой-нибудь в зависимости от такой случаи. Например, мне надо дать интервью в иностранстве немцу. Вот, я обязательно буду практиковать каждый день немецский для того, чтобы совершить успешно в задаче.
Поэтому, я решил выучить арабский. Через два года случится чемпионат мира по-футболу в Катаре. Если я хочу воспользоваться возможностью путешествия туда и не только являться обычным мексиканским фанатлм, но и связываться с земланцами, надо учить арабский. Представь себе взять ключь к Западной Азии, Северной Африки и во время этого, дружаться с 300 миллионами людей.
Мне хотелось бы практиковать чаще самые слабые языки, как корейский или турейский. И тоже улучшать важные обществу языки, особенно немецский, ведь здесь в Мексике такой язык занимает третое место по популярности.
Well, forgive me if connect everything with football. For me, I regard languages as a football starting line-up. I place the most used languages at the first time and I rotate any of them depending of the situation. For example, I need to interview a German person abroad. I’m going to practice German every day so that I can complete this task successfully.
For this reason, I decided to learn Arabic. In two years the next FIFA World Cup will be held in Qatar. If I want to seize this opportunity to go there and not to behave like a typical Mexican fan, I need to learn Arabic so that I can connect with the native people there. Just imagine to be able to get the keys to Middle East and Northern Africa and at the same time, to become friends with 300 million people.
I would like to practice more often the weakest languages, like Korean and Turkish. And I would like to improve the most important languages for society, like German, as here in Mexico this language ranks third according to popularity.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Ez dut erantzuteko oso galdera erraza. Zergatik? Hiztunkza askok bere gauza maitegarririk dutelako. Batzuek nire bizitzara esperientzia bikainak dakartzate, besteekin nire lanean erabilgarri asko izaten dira. Hori dela eta, ez dut erantzun onena.
Halako, ikasi nahi ez dudanean hizkuntza bat baita: turkmeniera. Turkiera badakit eta turkmeniarra haren familiakide da; gramatika oso berdina da eta zerbait irakurtzen badut, %70-80 uler dezaket. Niretzat, problema pronunziazioa da. Turkmenieran ceceo dago eta oso txar entzuten da. Haren ezik, beste hizkuntzak ongi etorri nire bihotza izango litzateke.
This is a tough question to answer. Why? Many languages have their own sex appeal. Some of them have brought excellent experiences, other ones tend to be useful in my job. For that reason, there is no correct answer.
However, there is a language that I don’t want to learn: Turkmen. I know Turkish and Turkmen belongs to the same family, the grammar is so similar and if I read something, I will understand around 70-80%. For me the issue is pronunciation. In Turkmen there is ceceo and it sounds awful. Apart from that, the other languages are welcome to my heart.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
اوف! نمیتوانم بگیرم کدام زبان است که به دل و گوش زنان بیشتر لذت میدد. باید بهشان بپورسم.
سر نظر من قشنگترین زبان طبق تلفظ روسس است. وقتی که دختری میشناسه که روسی بلدم, میخواهد که یک آواز بهش بخندد. در کریسمس سال ٢٠١٣، من ایدۀ دیوانه داشتم: یک دختر میشناختم که اشق مرا کشید. در سال واقا فقظ یک شانس داشتم و در آن سبب یک شعر آلکساندر پوشکین خندن تصمیم گرفتم. چرا؟ برای این که وقتی که شناختمش, صورتش برایم به نظر لینا کاتینا است. میتوانستم که او و خوانوادش نمیفهمندم اما اهمیتی ندادم.
زبان دیگر که طبق کلیمات خیلی دوست دارم فارسی است. ایران, افغانستان و تاجیکستان همه اهالیند که در جانشان شعررا میگذارند. هیچ سورپریز نیست وقتی که میبینیم که چندان شاعر در اوقات ضحبی شاهنشاهی پارسی تولد شدند مثلا عمر خیام, حافظ شیرازی, رمی و سعدی, تنها مشهورترین شعرارا نکر میکنم. آیا میخواستی بشناسی؟ نام شیراز ببینی: شیراز, «شهر گل و بلبل».
Uff! I can’t say which language is pleasant to women’s heart and ears. I should ask them;)
In my opinion, the most beautiful language in terms of pronunciation is Russian. When a woman knows that I know Russian, she wants me to sing a bit of Russian. In Christmas of 2013, I had a crazy idea: I knew a girl whom I fell in love with. I really just had one chance and in that case I read her a poem from Alexander Pushkin. Why? Because when I met her, her face looked like Lena Katina from t.A.t.U. Obvious she and her family understood nothing but I didn’t care.
Other language I like a lot but because of words is Persian- Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan are all peoples who appreciate poetry. There is no surprise that many poets were born in the golden times of the Persian Empire, for example, Omar Khayyam, Hafez from Shiraz, Rumi and Sadi, just to mention the most important ones. Did you know? The name of Shiraz is “the city of the rose and the mockingbird”.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Per me, il grande piacere che io ottengo per parlare tante lingue è connettare con qualsiasi. Creo che tu conozca la citazione di Nelson Mandela: “Se parli in una lingua che l’altro capisce, quello va al suo cervello. Se parli nella sua madrelingua, esso va al suo cuore”. Le migliore reazioni a una persona quando parlo la sua lingua senza dubbio viene al parlare georgiano. Permettemi raccontarte un’esperienza: Ero andato in Cina per rapresentare il Messico in un conorso chiamato Ponto verso la Cina per degli studenti stranieri che imparano cinese come lingue straniere. Conobbi due ragazze che abitavanno insieme: una di loro era dell’Italia e l’altra era georgiana. Quando le chiesi da dove era lei, mi rispose in cinese che era della Georgia, ma in inglese mi disse che nessuno gliene importava il suo paese. Dissi per me stesso: ah sì? Al seguente giorno, loro uscirono di un ristorante per fumare. Mi dissi: farò una bella figura. Cominciai per chiederle alla mia amica italiana per avere una scusa per pratticare italiano. Senza probleme. Dopo, ho continuiai con la ragazza georgiana… in russo. Si cominciò ad interessarsi. Dopo sganciai la bomba: dissi qualche parola in georgiano. Mai dimenticherò la sua faccia d’incredulità.
Un altro piacere è leggere la letteratura di un paese nella versione originale. Questo mi ha dato delle esperienze atipici. Per esempio, il mese scorso lesi un libro scritto per esperantisti che volevano imparare il cinese. Cioè, leggevo un libro scritto in due lingue che capivo. Per me già è una situazione normale, ma 10 anni prima non me lo potevo immaginare.
For me, the biggest pleasure that I get from talking so many languages is to connect with somebody. I think you know Nelson Mandela’s quote: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his heart. If you talk to a man in a language he speaks, that goes to his heart”. The best reactions ever to a person when I speak their native language with no hesitation come when speaking Georgian. Let me tell you a experience. I was in China to represent Mexico in a contest called Chinese Bridge for foreign students learning Chinese as a foreign language. I met two girls who were roommates: one of them came from Italy and the another one was Georgian. When I asked her where she came from, he answered me that she came from Georgian, but in English she told me that nobody cared about her country. I said to myself, is it so? Next day they went out from the restaurant to smoke. I told to myself: there will be a great time. I started to ask my Italian friend so I could get an excuse to practice Italian. No problem. Then I continued with the Georgian girl… in Russian. She started to get interest. Then I dropped the bomb. I said some words in Georgian. I’ll never forget his face of awe.
Another pleasure is to read the literature of a country in the original version. This has given me atypical experiences. For example, last month I read a book written for Esperantists willing to learn Chinese. This means, I read a book written in two languages I understand. For me this is already a normal situation, but 10 years ago I could have never imagined.
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?
Não acredito nisso porque agora a tecnologia avança e avança. Também a consciência per a salvar toda a riqueça linguística que nós temos no mundo. Haverá muitas iniciativas para enregistrar mesmo palavras que frases ou gramâticas das línguas que correm o perigo de morrer. Um grande exemplo é o tema da Conferência Políglota que será no mês de outubro na cidade de Cholula: rescatar as línguas indígenas. Todo o mundo deve aprender uma língua indígena. Eu já começei com o tupi ou guaraní. É verdade que a variante que falo é o jopará, guaraní mesclado com o espanhol; porêm não faz nada.
I don’t think so because technology goes even more forward, and the concern for saving all the language richness in the world does so as well. There will be many initiatives to record both words and phrases or grammars of the languages in danger of dying. A great example is the topic of the next Polyglot Conference to be held in October in Cholula city: to rescue indigenous languages. Everybody should learn an indigenous language. I started with Guarani. While it’s true that the variant is jopará, Guarani blended with Spanish, it’s not problem for me.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
El cielo es el límite para ti. Tal vez tuviste una historia de derrotas con los idiomas. Tal vez en la escuela tuviste profesores que no te ayudaban a aprender exitosamente un idioma. En la educación tradicional, tendemos a huir del error. Pero tenemos que abrazarlos porque son una parte esencial para aprender.
The sky is the limit for you. Maybe you have had a story of defeats towards the language. Maybe in the school you had teachers who didn’t help you to have success in language learning. In traditional education, we tend to go away from mistake. But we have to embrace them because they are an essential part to learn.