Interview with

Usman W Chohan

Founder and President

Name: Usman W. Chohan
Role at HYPIA: President
Languages: Urdu, Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, English, Punjabi, French, Hindi, Mandarin**, Japanese**
*Alternatively: عثمان وقاص چوہان | 楚浩云
**Earlier fluency, now diminished

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

I've  lived in ten different countries, going from West-to-East: The United  States, Canada, Argentina, France, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, China,  Japan, and Australia. That was the big ingredient in my language  acquisition - or at least the 'nurture' part. The nature part is that  both my parents are diplomats, and my father speaks 5 languages while my  mother 7. So I grew up in a household where polyglotism was the norm,  and in every country I lived in, it was important for me to at least  begin to imbue my mind with the cultural-linguistic traits of the local  population. I've used these languages in my professional life in the  sense that they have enriched my collaboration with organisations that  would be counted among the most diverse in the world, including the  World Bank and the World Economic Forum. However, my main driver in  language acquisition has been in cultivating meaningful friendships and  in advancing an internationalist worldview that I, along with my family,  share in both the functional sense of our daily lives but also in the  deep internalized sense of nurturing multiple, hybrid identities.



What is your vision and inspiration for HYPIA?

I  draw inspiration from my ancestral connection with linguistics. The  first scientific linguistic work was done by a 5th century scholar of  Sanskrit named Panini. He was born in Charsadda, Pakistan at  the height of the Gandhara period. In a sense, I see my work in HYPIA  as continuing that practitioner interest in studying languages. HYPIA  should represent both a continuity with universal human spirit of  inquiry into languages, and it must also be a vehicle for globalisation  that unites people in disparate geographies towards a goal of  celebrating and enhancing linguistic diversity in the contemporary  world. I consider this to be a supreme achievement in my life, not  because it represents a personal effort, but because it is an effort,  more than any other, that reaches out to other people of linguistic  exception, and shares an inspiring message that also infuses their lives  with added meaning and fuller purpose.


Which language do you wish you could spend more time practicing?


Certainly  Mandarin and Japanese because whereas today I would classify these as  'conversant' languages for me, there was I time when I was fully engaged  with them and navigated them with much higher fluency. In particular, I  spent the better part of a year in Beijing at a joint program between  MIT and Tsinghua doing Masters coursework and at that time I was  mustering a level of Mandarin that I could hardly conceive of today  given the vestigial nature of my current aptitude in that language. I  even had a Chinese name, 楚浩云, that was legally binding, and it also  sounded poetic! What a shame to have let this experience wallow without  continued practice!


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

In  the little spare time that I get, I like to study a Finno-Ugric  language (Finnish), an Altaic language (Japanese), and an Afro-Semitic  language (Arabic). I would like to be conversant in Finnish and Arabic  one day. After that, I would like to add an Austronesian language, such  as Fijian, to my repertoire.

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

Just  as we like to make nice distinctions between 'beautiful' and 'sexy'  people, I would draw the distinction between the 'sexiest' and 'most  beautiful' language here. Urdu is the most beautiful, with Persian (her  sister) a close-second. This language boasts a level of elegance that I  have never seen in any other, for two reasons (1) it was constructed to  serve as a medium for royalty - and so bears that regal adornment; and  (2) it is a hybrid language that draws on five major sources: Persian,  Arabic, Turkic, Khariboli, and Sanskrit. That said, Spanish is the  sexiest language - I think being Latino is in itself the sexiest thing,  and so Spanish inasmuch as it is the primary medium of communication for  sexy people becomes the de facto sexy tongue.


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

The  substantiation of my worldview as an internationalist gives me supreme  pleasure. Beyond that, friendships and the seeking of kindred spirits is  a close-second.


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?

This  may sadly be true given the rapid decline of many languages as their  last speakers die out and are not replaced by a new generation since the  youth find these tongues so difficult to apprehend. However, I continue  to remain blindly optimistic that a multiplicity of languages will  prevail.


Where can we hear you using your languages - putting them into action?

My website has a fairly large catalogue of interviews that I have done on various economics topics for a general audience.


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

I  started really only discovering my potential for hyperpolyglotism in my  mid-twenties, so I invite people to continue to learn languages and  preserve the plasticity of their brains at even fairly advanced ages -  It really is a case of willpower taking you through the language  acquisition phase, and then the joys of using multiple languages has no  comparable equivalent in its supreme delight. It is as the Mandarin  proverb puts it: 學海無涯 - there is no limit to what we can learn; an  infinite horizon, to the sea of knowledge.

The International Association of Hyperpolyglots - HYPIA. (c) 2020

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