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Interview with

Timothy Douglas

Name: Timothy Douglas
Nationality or Ethnicity: British
Where do you live?: United Kingdom
Languages: English (native), German, Dutch, Russian, Polish (fluent), Czech, Italian, French (conversational)

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

I had always liked travel and languages since my childhood in the UK, but I became fascinated when I studied for a year in Germany as an Erasmus student. I remember how refreshing it was to live abroad and live in another language - German was not merely a subject, but something I was using to make friends and enjoy life! In Germany, the range of languages offered is wider than in the UK and I became interested in Russian. I always liked learning “less popular” languages as these were more exotic and the class sizes were smaller – and because the speakers of these languages reacted more positively to my attempts to speak! Curiosity led me from German to Dutch, from Russian to Polish to Czech and from French to Italian. During my career as a researcher at different universities in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, I learned how to combine my interests in languages and science by building up international collaborations.


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

All of them! Luckily due to the nature of my career, I can integrate languages into everyday life when I communicate with my collaborators in other countries.


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

I don’t choose languages; languages choose me. If I feel an emotional connection to a language, i.e. if any language “calls” to me, I’ll start (re) learning it. I have been interested in Chinese and Finnish, and dabbled in Ukrainian, Greek, Turkish and Swedish, but other languages have been more successful in winning my affections, so to speak. At the moment, Italian and Czech have most of my attention.


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

There are sexy people in every language; that helps to drive my multilingualism 😊


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

The greatest short-term pleasure is the look of shock and/or delight when I surprise someone by speaking their language. The greatest long-term pleasure is making friendships and feeling at home in many countries thanks to knowing other languages. But the deepest pleasure is however using my languages to give people good experiences; thanks to languages I establish collaborations, which has helped me to organize conferences and host visitors in my research group – generally, people find stays abroad very memorable!


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?

With people being more mobile and mass media being more widely available, I can imagine that it will be harder for smaller languages to survive. What I think will survive another 100 years is the significance of language: not just purely for transmission of information, but as part of one’s identity and as a means of establishing rapport with others.


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

Your own advice is probably the best advice! I will mention what has helped me in case others find it useful.

I learned the languages I wanted to much more effectively than those I had to.

There will always be people who reply in English when you speak their language in their country: I used to become very annoyed by this, but looking back, I should have told myself “I didn’t learn the language to talk to this person who is replying in English, but to the majority who do want to speak their language to me”

I integrate languages into my everyday life, so I am practicing them and letting them enrich my life without trying.

When I stopped noticing that I was obviously making progress, that was probably a good sign, because it meant that I was no longer a beginner!

There are lots of ups and downs in languages learning: one day I can have a fantastic conversation in a language and another day I can have great trouble expressing simple concepts. Now I realize that this happens in English, my first language, so I expect it to happen in all the other languages I have learned.

There’s lots of language learning advice out there: find out what works best for you. Also, be open to new ideas even if you think your approach already works for you. Recently, I have been basing my learning mainly on listening and it has really helped my confidence in communicating orally.