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Interview with

Timothy McKeon

Name: Timothy McKeon
Nationality or Ethnicity: USA
Where do you live?: Berlin, Germany
Languages: English, Irish, Spanish, German, Mandarin, French, Yiddish, Portuguese, Swedish*, Catalan*, Cantonese*, Hebrew*, Bengali*, Italian*, Breton*

Member since:


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

When  I was about 8 years old I started reading my older brother’s high  school French textbook for fun, and that’s where my love of language  study began. I learned the whole book on my own and basically began  devouring any language materials I could find—Linguaphone German  records, album liner notes in Irish, a Tagalog-English dictionary that  somehow appeared in my parents’ basement. I was hooked.

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

Living  in such an international city, I am lucky that I do get the chance to  practice most of my languages. Any given week in Berlin could have me  speaking English, German, Yiddish, Spanish, French, Irish, Hebrew,  Swedish, Mandarin, etc.

I  recently felt frustrated that I had not had a chance to use Bengali in a  long time, but all it took was reaching out to some people online and  attending a couple of events and suddenly I had plenty of chances to  speak Bengali in Berlin. I even met a rather well-known Bangladeshi poet  at an event at the Indian Embassy because he noticed that I was reading  a novel in Bengali that a friend of his had written!

These  kinds of situations, however, are harder to come by for lesser spoken  languages. I would love to be able to practice my Breton, Papiamentu or  Sichuanese, but short of travelling back to Brittany, Curaçao or  Sichuan, I don’t generally encounter such opportunities. In the meantime  I try to cycle through languages in phases, maintaining passive  knowledge by consuming online media from all over the world.

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

My  latest endeavour is Lower Sorbian, a highly endangered language spoken  just over a hundred kilometers from Berlin. I recently took a day trip  to Cottbus to visit the Serbska Kulturna Informacija LODKA and spent  nearly 2 hours bombarding the very kind woman behind the desk with  questions about the challenges that Sorbian speakers face. I also shared  with her the similarities I saw with the Irish language movement and  other language preservation movements. It was a wonderful conversation,  but I regretted not being able to speak to her in her language. Next  time I’ll aim to have a short, simple conversation in Sorbian.

Aside from that, I’ve got my eye on Amharic, Guaraní, Xhosa, Polish, Lakota and basically anything else.

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

European  Portuguese. I can already sense people raising an eyebrow and thinking,  “Don’t you mean Brazilian Portuguese?” What can I say? I swoon for  palato-alveolar sibilants and nasal vowels.

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

Feeling  somewhat “at home” in so many places around the world. It’s so great to  be able to step off a plane or boat somewhere new and still be able to  communicate, get information, understand what’s going on, share stories,  connect with people….

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?

The  tragedy of language loss is real, and I do regret that there will be  fewer languages left in 100 years. I am, however, reluctant to buy into  sensationalist linguistic doomsday theories that only allow for the  survival of a few languages. Humans are diverse creatures and have  diverse experiences. This diversity is not going anywhere, and I believe  that it will continue to be reflected in the linguistic landscape. I am  very interested in the emergence of new dialects, accents and  languages. Language is in a constant state of change and development,  and I see this as generating diversity as people find new ways to  express themselves in very personalized and localized ways. This doesn’t  change the fact that languages are dying off at an alarming rate, but I  don’t think we’ll be limited to Chinese, English and Spanish in the  next century.

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

Don’t  get too caught up in practicality. There is no rule that you have to  learn the most practical or lucrative or populous languages. There is  also no rule that you must learn a language to fluency. Learn whatever  languages appeal to your heart and learn them to whatever level keeps  you engaged. I used to say that I had the bad habit of getting  distracted by new languages all the time. I’ve come to see this as a  gift, though. This insatiable curiosity keeps my passion for languages  alive and allows me to be in a perpetual state of discovery. It is not  efficient and it does slow down my progress in languages I’ve already  begun studying, but I didn’t start learning languages to attain  quantifiable fluency in X number of languages within Y number of years. I  began studying languages because they absolutely seduced my brain and  left me with no choice but to explore, ask, learn and expand. After so  many years, I’m proud of the abilities I’ve attained, but it was never  about that. It was always and continues to be about the sheer journey of  discovery.

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