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*
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.