Name: Stephan Behringer
Nationality or Ethnicity: Germany
Where do you live?: Wuerzburg, Bavaria, Germany
Languages: German, English, French, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Italian, Swedish, Croatian, Romanian, Chinese (order of fluency)
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I grew up only speaking German and hardly travelling outside of Germany until my early 20s. For the first three years of school I went to Waldorfschule (a special school form without any grades) where I had English and French lessons from class one, but rather playing games and singing songs in those languages. After leaving Waldorfschule I only got English as subject again from level 0 in 5th grade at regular German high school and French from 7th grade. I kept both languages up to my A-levels meaning English for a total of 9 and French for 7 years. I was quite good at languages because I enjoyed conversation with mother tongue speakers, mostly around my region in Germany and some rare visits to France for a couple of days or a week with school in London. After graduating neither during my year of civil service with the Red Cross Germany nor throughout my 3 years of university studying business economics I got in touch with a new language.
It was only on a Sunday afternoon early October 2006 one day before my first regular working day in my life (I was almost 25 by that age) that I set myself the goal to travel to a total of 100 countries and speak 10 languages by the end of the next 10 years. First language was Chinese which I studied a Chinese student having 2 h of individual class over one year completed by a 10 day trip to China. To be honest Chinese is my weakest language today as I am lacking practise but I can still get around with it pretty well. My next language was Spanish which I started to learn in a language school during a 1,5 months trip to Cuba and which I almost perfected over the years with heavy travel to South America and Spain and working with Spanish people over the last 5 years.
Coming up next was Russian which I learned during several language courses in St. Petersburg with a total of 3 months in class. Frequent travel to Russia for business and love made me quite fluent in this quite hard to learn language, while I am still not a friend of Russian grammar today to be honest.
After Russian I made an attempt at one of the probably most difficult languages that exist meaning Arabic. I went to Damascus Syria as the Arabic spoken there comes closest to “Fusha” the standard or high Arabic. To be honest it was the first language I did not really advance within four weeks and which I hardly remember today. After these two rather exotic languages I went back to the Roman languages world learning Portuguese first for one month in Floripa in the South of Brazil and later for 2 weeks in Lisbon. As many polyglots know it is not that hard to jump from Spanish to Portuguese. Same goes for Italian which came next with a two weeks course split between Calabria and Roma. With the exemption of using a Spanish word here and there without noticing I think my Italian including pronunciation is quite fluent.
Next on my list was Turkish which I tried for one week in Ankara but again as with Arabic I did not pursue it further for the moment and only can do some small talk. In order to reach my goal of 10 languages I then chose Swedish which is quite common across Scandinavia and which is really easy to learn for a German speaker. Almost the same goes for Croatian which has many elements of Russian. At first I wanted to learn Serbian but because of the Latin alphabet permitting me faster progress I chose Croatian in the end with two crash courses in Dubrovnik.My last language Romanian is kind of a mixture including lots of Italian, Spanish and Russian thus it is not that difficult to be understood or read I just need some more practise to get fluent.
Next on my list is Korean which I shall learn in a 3 weeks course in Pyongyang next summer if Donald and Kim don’t interfere with my plans and maybe Japanese going forward. I think up to 15 languages would be a great achievement before my death.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Swedish. They are all that good in English and usually even answer automatically in English.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Korean, Japanese, Bahasa and of course Esperanto!
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
I can talk to one third of the world total population in their mother tongue.
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 think we have around 6.000 languages being still spoken today. Unfortunately many are going to die out. English is still on the rise as lingua franca as Esperanto did not make it due to the First World War. I can indeed image it to be a few languages especially reduced to less and less world – greetings from 1984…
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Open your mouth and talk, even starting with only one word or phrase at one time. Focus on the “easy” 80 % of a spoken language which you can learn with 20 % effort – you all know Pareto I assume. Meet as many foreign people as possible and gets friends with them and travel as much as you can whilst still being young!