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Interview with

Yasmin Meyer

Name: Yasmin Meyer
Nationality or Ethnicity: American and German
Where do you live?: Barcelona
Languages: English, German, Russian, Spanish, Catalan, French, Portuguese

Member since:

2024-03-08

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

I was raised monolingually in the USA. When it came time for me to choose my foreign language credit in high school, I naturally gravitated to German due to my German roots. I must admit that I was disheartened from the beginning - I thought that I would never be able to truly master this language since I wasn’t raised speaking it. After four years of endless verb memorization and conjugation tables, I reached an upper intermediate (B2) level. Despite this, I wasn’t confident in my speaking ability. Moreover, I dreaded making errors and as a result avoided opportunities to practice German with those around me.

Around when I finished high school, I stumbled upon the website of polyglot Benny Lewis. I was amazed to find out that some people manage to learn not just one foreign language, but several! These cultural chameleons fascinated me.…Yet I was convinced that I didn’t have the ‘language gene’ - I wasn’t comfortable speaking German after several years of study. How could I ever learn other languages? Nonetheless, this fortuitous encounter planted the seed of what was to come…

What came first, however, was four years in England during which I promptly forgot most of my German. But as fate would have it, the opportunity arose to study medicine in Germany. I decided to take this leap into the unknown - I saw this as my last chance to connect with my roots and learn the language I had struggled with for years. Indeed, I was able to achieve both objectives - with blood sweat and tears - through immersing myself in the German culture and language.

Love (the best source of motivation!) inspired me to learn my third language - Russian. I made incredible progress in several months. How? Unlike my approach with German, I tried to maximize my exposure to authentic content and used every opportunity to speak. When I was working in the hospital, I would even practice writing Russian sentences on the back of my patient list. This success boosted my confidence as a language-learner.

Several months later, I was completing a medical rotation in my American hometown. I was frustrated by having to rely on tele-interpreters to speak with Latino patients that I resolved to learn Spanish. I went about doing this by immersing myself in authentic material, as I did with Russian. I supplemented this with tandem language exchanges. When I returned to the US the following year, I was able to communicate directly with Latino patients and even interpret for doctors. No tele-interpreter needed!

My ego was humbled with my next language, French. I started and stopped learning it 3 (!) times during my first few years of university in Germany. Everything about this language struck me as difficult - orthography, grammar, the logic of the language…. However, the biggest barrier I faced was mental. I decided to put this language on hold.

At around the same time, I decided to apply for a year abroad in Spain as part of the Erasmus exchange program. A quick google search showed me that the best Spanish university was the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. And another search revealed that the language of instruction was…Catalan? Intrigued, I started learning more about this minority language and reached the conclusion that studying in a bilingual city would be right up my alley. I took a Catalan class offered by my university and taught myself the rest. Now, I speak Catalan every day and couldn’t imagine living in Barcelona without knowing this gem of a language!

What’s more, Catalan allowed me to overcome my mental block with French through the similarities these languages share (e.g. the use of weak pronouns, apostrophe usage). Now French is one of the languages I most enjoy practicing.

My newest language, and the one I learned most quickly, is Portuguese. I decided to learn this language last year after reading books about the colonial history of Brazil. I started my self-study and quickly became hooked on the gorgeous vowels of Brazilian Portuguese. I was able to speak within a few weeks of study and, having reached an intermediate level, can now read Paulo Coelho books in the original language.

I am very proud to have fulfilled my childhood dream of speaking several languages. I now know that there is no ‘language gene’ - only hard work, persistence, and curiosity.


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

French! I have yet to make Francophone friends in Barcelona.


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

Italian and Mandarin Chinese. Probably in that order.


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

I’d have to say Russian. It’s an incredibly melodic and emotionally expressive language. I am a bit biased - my fiancé is Russian.


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

Unlocking the ability to connect with people in daily life. One of my fondest memories is from an internship I completed in a family medicine practice in Berlin. In one morning seeing patients, I was able to use five languages (English, German, Russian, Spanish, and Catalan) and put a smile on my patients’ faces.

More recently, I visited cities in Northern Catalonia, which is in France. I had heard about French and Spanish farmer protests the past few months. I was excited to come across a French farmer vending his products and chat with him (in French and Catalan) about the protests. My knowledge of these languages allowed me to learn about current events - straight from the horse’s mouth!


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’m not sure. On one hand, modern technology enables us to preserve and disseminate minority languages in a way that wasn’t possible decades ago. Instant translation is also becoming a reality, which might counter the pressure for everyone to speak their country’s dominant language or English.

On the other hand, the trend of language loss (fuelled in part by globalization and increased mobility) has continued over the past few years and doesn’t show signs of slowing.

If I had to guess, I think that we will reach a stable number of spoken languages (perhaps several thousand) soon. However, certain categories of words - especially those in technology and science - will only be created in a handful of dominant languages. As a result, speakers of minority languages will need to assimilate calques into their everyday speech.


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

Here are some principles I discovered along my language-learning journey.

- You are a different person in each language you speak (the cliché is true!).

- Learning languages can be tedious. However, the incredible experiences they unlock more than justify the sacrifice.

- You don’t need to spend a lot of money to learn languages (In fact, you shouldn’t because this strategy isn’t sustainable). The biggest investment you make is your time.

- Take advantage of the great privilege it is to be living in the Internet Age. You have everything you need to learn virtually any language from your home, again, at low/no cost. This is priceless!

- If you are a person who performs best under pressure, use this to your advantage in language learning! Plan to be immersed in or obligated to use your target language after x months. Voilà - you have a deadline for your language.

- The world becomes brighter and more familiar with each language you learn. (A great remedy for modern day nihilism).

- I recommend using the natural method of language learning. In a nutshell, learn your target language through consuming interesting content that is comprehensible in the language itself.

- Make sure you are learning your chosen language for strong reasons. If it’s “just because” that probably won’t cut it.

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