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Interview with

Trevor Kafka

Name: Trevor Kafka
Nationality or Ethnicity: United States
Where do you live?: Boston, USA
Languages: English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, Japanese, Cantonese, Dutch, and Thai, along with occasional dabbling in Vietnamese and German

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

Having grown up in the United States, I have been speaking English since I was a child. In high school I had an interest in languages. I had originally been studying Spanish in school for a while, but at some point I decided for myself I wanted to expand into learning French and Mandarin as well. It was interesting to learn all of these languages, but I think my interest in languages was most piqued by Mandarin, particularly because of its unique writing system, pronunciation, and grammar (at least compared to the other languages I knew). I continued to study Mandarin quite solidly through college and then took a break of a few years from all languages as I transitioned myself from school life to working life.

Inspired by an upcoming trip to Japan, I decided for myself to begin to learn Japanese. I loved the process so much that it reinspired my desire to learn other languages, both old and new. I decided to put my older languages back into practice and continue embarking on studying new ones as well. Since beginning Japanese, I have also started learning Cantonese, Dutch, and Thai up to a conversational level. I have also dabbled in Vietnamese and German and hope to be able too at some point to bring these languages to a conversational level as well.

I have been greatly inspired by travel as I have gotten older, and languages are a great tool to discover the world and connect with other people. Sometimes I am inspired to learn a language based on places I would like to visit (such as was the situation with Japanese), and other times I am inspired to learn a language purely based on how it sounds or how it is written (such as was the situation with Thai).


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

If I had all the time in the world (and all the brain capacity in the world), I would spend more time learning Cantonese and German. Both of these languages are quite similar to two other languages that I already intensively study: Mandarin and Dutch. Therefore, sometimes they sit on the back-burner and don't quite get the time they deserve.


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

In the future, I'd love to be able to learn at least some of the basics of Korean, Hindi, Swahili, and Xhosa. All of these languages have interesting quirks and/or sounds that I'd love to get a better understanding of.


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

I don't really believe in there being a sexiest language. I don't think I've ever found any one language more attractive than another. Every language has a way of being beautiful according to its own standards of pronunciation, intonation, and delivery.

However, accents of English are a different story. There definitely are some pronunciations of English that I find more pleasing on the ear over others, but I think I'd be hopeless to try to pick out a top favorite.


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

There are two benefits among which I am having trouble picking a favorite:

(1) Being able to communicate with almost anyone I encounter in the world.

While travelling, this is an immense benefit and allows me to comfortably operate when I'm far away from home and exploring new places. I also really love being able to use language as a way to break anxiety with people while I'm travelling. Sometimes the idea of talking to a "foreigner" (i.e. myself, when I am travelling somewhere else) can be intimidating, since sometimes the idea of speaking English to a native speaker can be stressful for a non-native speaker. Speaking to people in the language they are most comfortable using (or using their language to help support our communication in English if they prefer) helps to really remove a sense of judgement from our interaction, no matter how simple our interaction may be.

(2) Gaining an appreciation of the power of the human brain and the diversity of human languages.

From the mind-bending orthographic rules of Thai, to the complex writing involved in languages using Chinese characters, to the pitch-based tones of Cantonese, and to the amazing word-order dance of Dutch, each language truly has its own unique sets of linguistic features and challenges. Only if you actually try to master these languages yourself can you have an understanding for how brains actually are able to do these sorts of mental gymnastics (ultimately without much effort!) in our fast-paced world.


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?

I definitely don't think this is true. Language is a key part of culture in many parts of the world, and there are many people who work hard to protect their languages. I think many current languages, especially those that have been declared as official languages of regions in the world, have a long future awaiting for them. However, I do think that it is possible that we will have much fewer people who don't speak English proficiently in 100 years. English really has developed into an invaluable lingua franca across the world, so the benefit of its use is undoubtable. However, I could never see it completely replacing the immense diversity of languages that we have in the world today.


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

Languages take a really, really, really long time to learn. Like, a really long time to learn! Embarking on a language journey is an immense commitment of time and practice.

As both a language learner and teacher, I have noticed that often times people's expectations of the length of time or amount of effort required in order to learn a language underestimates reality. Because of this, when people reflect on their own progress, they often feel that it is due to their own inherent inability to grasp language that has gotten in the way of them learning foreign languages.

In reality, the process is slow, but will work out in the end if the process is (or can be made to be) enjoyable for you. Different people learn in different ways and different people enjoy learning in different ways. Once you find what works well for you (which is something that may change over time), keep progressing one little baby step at a time. Lots of repetition will be needed, and you may not notice progress day to day, but in the end you'll reflect on your progress and hard work and be really proud of what you have done.