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Interview with

Stefan Ivanovski

Name: Stefan Ivanovski
Nationality or Ethnicity: Macedonian/Serbian
Where do you live?: USA
Languages: Macedonian (native), English, Serbian, Bosnian/Croatian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, German (conversational), Bulgarian (conversational).

Member since:


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

I was born in a country that no longer exists, the Former Yugoslavia. My mother is from Serbia and my father is from Macedonia. I grew up in Macedonia, and at home we spoke Macedonian. My older brother and I would spend the summers with my grandparents in Serbia. There I practiced Serbian.

In elementary school, I studied French and English. I did not get very far in French. I know a few basic words. When I was thirteen, we moved to the Netherlands, and I studied at an international school. There I became fluent in English and studied German for three years. I became conversational in German. Unfortunately, I did not learn Dutch.

When I was eighteen, I moved to the U.S. for my undergraduate studies at Bucknell University. I wanted to major in International Relations and another language. I chose Spanish because it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. I also thought it would be a useful language to know while living in the United States. When selecting a secondary language, I remembered my experience from my first trip to the United States. I was in Washington, D.C. and I ordered food from one of the food courts. The cashier turned back to the manager to clarify something. After consulting with the manager in Spanish, the cashier turned back to me and responded in heavily accented English. I thought to myself: “Well, I better learn Spanish while in the U.S. It will make communication easier.”

While pursuing my undergraduate degree, I also took German classes, but I dropped them about a year and a half later after I started confusing it Spanish. I realized it was difficult for me to study two languages that were at the beginner (Spanish) and intermediate (German) levels. I had to master one and later focus on another one. I opted to master Spanish first. I took advantage of the “study-abroad” programs. I was already “studying-abroad,” and I embarked to study one semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina (2010) and one semester in Granada, Spain (2011). I opted for two countries I had not visited before because I wanted to experience different cultures and be exposed to distinct Spanish accents. I had lived with host families in both countries. It made learning Spanish challenging, immersive, and rewarding. I moved to Buenos Aires with very limited knowledge of Spanish. In five months, I was fluent. The following semester, I studied abroad in Spain. Years later, I had lived and worked one summer in each, Puerto Rico (2012) and Mexico (2014). I had been fortunate to be exposed to different accents and cultures in the Spanish-speaking world.

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

German. It has deteriorated over the last few years. I would also like to become better at Portuguese.

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

I have always liked the sound of German and Arabic. I would like to become fluent in German and Arabic. I would like to be able to read academic texts in German. They have a rich literature. Regarding Arabic, there is something I find very enjoyable in their music and beats. I especially enjoy watching master dancers of dabhke, a traditional Arab dance, move to the beats and sounds of traditional Arabic music.

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

It’s the “language” the person who you want to perceive you as sexy, finds sexy.

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

Humor and comedy are culture and context specific. Knowing multiple languages opens possibilities to understand and enjoy humor in English, Spanish, Serbian, Macedonian and so forth. Humor and comedy are a great way to learn about and connect to people from different cultures. I feel I’ve developed bonds with people faster when I speak their language, especially when I can understand and relate to their humor.

I also enjoy learning and understanding idioms in different languages. Idioms and folk wisdom tell us a lot about the culture. Like humor and comedy, knowing idioms and folk wisdom in different languages helps relate more closely to others. When I can use and understand idioms in another language, I feel my interlocutors perceive me as one of their own.

Lastly, I enjoy the different personalities that are highlighted when I speak different languages. I am not the same when I speak English, Serbian or Spanish. Certain social interactions do not exist because there are no words for it in that language, and neither is there a cultural context.

My favorite example is a phrase we use in Macedonia when someone buys themselves something new. Let’s say, you bought a new shirt. You would expect that your friends notice. At least this is the case in Macedonia. In the U.S., your friends may say: “Nice shirt!” And this would be it. In Macedonia, they would say: “Нова кошула? Со здравје да си ја носиш!“ (A new shirt? May you wear it in good health!). They may throw in more compliments as well about how they like the shirt than in the example. The key is the emphasis on health. Even when one gets a new hair cut we say: “Со здравје новата фризура!“ (May you wear your new hairstyle in good health). When I am in other countries, and I notice something new on my friends, I hold myself back from wishing them good health because they do not have the cultural reference or context.

Knowing a different language unlocks new and previously unknown social interactions. Another example is the Brazilian Portuguese word cafuné.It means to caress gently a loved one’s hair. What is one word in Brazilian Portuguese is a whole sentence in other languages. The fact that Brazilians coined a term for this interaction speaks of the importance of caressing and cuddling with a loved one.

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?

It is difficult to predict with high accuracy whether this would be true. I think that 100 years is not a very long time for languages to become instinct. I believe a few languages will be dominant ones, but I think that we will be able to preserve other languages, at least in some shape or form. Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help us preserve our global linguistic heritage.

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

Go out and learn a new language! In my experience, speaking multiple languages has multiple benefits:

· Live multiple lives in one person: I am not the same person when I speak Spanish or English or Macedonian. Different aspects of my personality are emphasized when I speak different languages. It is like living different lives at the same time.

· Make deeper connections: Because I can relate to other people’s jokes, cultures, and idioms, I can build deeper connections. Nelson Mandela said: “If you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his head. If you speak to him in his language, you speak to his heart.”

· Unlock new social interactions: I don’t speak most of the world’s other languages, so I don’t know what I am missing out. Having learned a few different languages, I feel like I have unlocked new feelings and emotions by learning the words for different social interactions I’ve never known before. To illustrate what we know and don’t know, I will borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, a US Secretary of the United States (2001 – 2006), “[A]s we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

· Enjoy humor and comedy in multiple languages: I enjoy standup comedy! I’ve been watching standup performances in English, Spanish, Macedonian, and Serbian for years now. Although there is convergence in the format and the way standups are performed across cultures, the jokes are culture specific. Some jokes are untranslatable. They need to be experienced verbatim.

· Experience the native language:

o Read: Yes, we can read translated copies of books. Yes, we can watch dubbed movies. However, some things are lost in translation.

o Watch movies: The passion and zeal expressed by actors is not the same as in the native language. Subtitles don’t capture the nuances. You get the big picture, but miss out on the details that make the movie rich. I am not a big movie buff or Netflix watcher. However, my favorite series is the Spanish La Casa de Papel (Money Heist in English) and some of my favorite movies are Argentine movie, El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) starring one of Argentine’s greatest actors, Ricardo Darín and comedian Guillermo Francella and It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable, one of Hollywood’s greatest actors. I enjoy these movies and series for the great acting, the dialogues, and the witty humor packed in them. I’ve watched parts of La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) in English as well, but so much of the spirit and fun is lost. I did not enjoy watching it in English. But, in Spanish, I loved it. Also, there is a bit of Serbian thrown in, so it was nice to understand what they were saying without needing subtitles. Adds a new dimension to the movie experience.

o Listen to music: Same things goes for music. Nothing excites me as the right song at the right time. Sometimes it is salsa, sometimes a bachata, and sometimes folk songs in Macedonian or Serbian. The music comes to life once I can sing along and understand the lyrics, not just listen to the beats.

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