Dr. Usman W. Chohan
Name: Usman W. "Voodoo" Chohan*
Role at HYPIA: President
Nationality or Ethnicity:
American-born Canadian of Pakistani Descent
Where do you live? I bounce between Australia,
Canada, Thailand, Eastern Europe, Pakistan and Fiji
Languages: Urdu, Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, English, Punjabi, French, Hindi, Mandarin**, Japanese**
*Alternatively: عثمان وقاص چوہان | 楚浩云
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.