Interview with

Teddy Nee

Name: Teddy
Nationality or Ethnicity: Indonesian (Hokkien)
Where do you live?: Taiwan
Languages: Medan Hokkien, Indonesian, English, Chinese, Spanish, Esperanto, Portuguese, French, Malay, Melanesian Pidgin, Dutch

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

As part of the minority Hokkien ethnic from Medan city in Indonesia, I grew up bilingually. We switch languages easily and naturally based on whom we are talking with. I studied English from a very young age, followed by Chinese since primary school time. I also enjoyed learning a bit of Cantonese from my maternal grandmother on our Sunday visits to her house. Therefore, I am already aware of language differences since the beginning of my life. However, my passion and love for language learning did not surge up until university time, when I had the chance to study with classmates from around the world.

Despite studying in Taiwan where the official language is Chinese, it was in an international program so we used English for everything... because English is the commonly used language for international communication. I soon realized that not everyone could express themselves well in English or wanted to talk in English all the time. So, I learned their languages to learn about them. It was nice for me because I could learn about other countries without even traveling to that country.

I got full tuition waiver scholarships to study for a Master, and apparently, I studied with mostly Latino students... in Taiwan. I had known that many Latino students were studying here, and at that time, they happened to study together with me. As a result, I got so much exposure to the Spanish language, and I thought that it would be a good idea to learn it. 

I like reading about languages, and Esperanto is always mentioned in many articles. Led by curiosity, I decided to learn it. Esperanto is the first conlang that I have ever learned. Four months after learning it, I wrote a short article for an Esperanto magazine in Rio de Janeiro, and they published it one month later. This was the biggest language achievement I have ever had in my life. Esperanto communities and Esperantists are very welcoming, so I don’t have any problems making friends with them.

No one would deny that the knowledge of Spanish helps so much in learning Portuguese. Despite their similarities, I also learn Portuguese for a personal reason. As an Indonesian and an Asian, there is a sense of belonging related to the history, such as the Portuguese colonization that left their legacy in our food and language; Timor Leste which was once a province of Indonesia became an independent country and adopted Portuguese as one of their official languages, making it an Asian Lusophone country; and Macau where the Portuguese language is still used in naming and a mix of Chinese (Cantonese) and Portuguese culture is visible anywhere.

One day I made a dream goal: knowing all of the official languages of the United Nations. French is one of them. I thought to myself, I had known Spanish, Esperanto, and Portuguese, so French won’t be so difficult to learn. In addition to that, most French speakers are African, and I enjoy reading about the African Francophone stories in French. Besides, the Polynesian Francophone in the Tahiti also caught my attention.

I was lucky to know someone from Papua Niugini (PNG) here. I soon found out that their language Tok Pisin is related to Bislama from Vanuatu where French is also used as one of its official languages. It is also related to Solomon Island Pidgin, and there were students from the Solomon Islands studying here too. So, I got the chance to learn and use three of them in real life! Just recently I found out that Indonesians living near the border of PNG also use Tok Pisin as a daily language, mainly in the local markets to talk with people from PNG.

My language learning does not stop and it will never stop, in addition to the languages mentioned above, I have the habit of reading and listening in several more languages, such as Italian, Dutch, Afrikaans, and Haitian Creole; having fun chatting in Toki Pona, and learning many more, like Vietnamese, Tagalog, Russian, Arabic, etc. I have many language exchanges on the internet.

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

Latin. The reason is that it’s one of the least studied languages, not to mention the reason for studying it for non-literature-related purposes. So, it’s kinda hard to maintain motivation.

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

Turkic languages and Polynesian languages.

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

Well, I think my answer would be unique. Latvian always has a place in my heart. Even angry Latvian sounds sexy.

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

I like reading and chatting. Having the multilingual skill lets me access a lot of information, such as the news from the locals without being altered through translation. I can also learn things from the local’s perspectives. This helps me to crosscheck the information I read from the media.

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, I might be one of the last speakers, or at least, witnesses of the decline of my language, Medan Hokkien, being replaced gradually by the country’s official language and global languages.

Indonesia and Taiwan are facing many challenges to preserve their local and indigenous languages.

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

Of course. It always benefits you to know another language. This world is so big, there are many things to explore, and one of the fastest and easiest ways to do that is through languages. You can talk directly to the locals or consume the information that the locals consume, such as TV programs or magazines, to learn about certain matters from their perspectives. Besides, exercising your brain is good for your well-being.