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  • Olivier Chassot

Learning languages: why and how to become a polyglot?

As people think about good resolutions for the New Year, such as spending more time with their beloved ones, quitting smoking, or going back to the gym to shed those extra pounds (I guess those should be habits more than good resolutions), I decided to challenge myself by learning a new language. I already speak French, Spanish, English and Portuguese fluently, as well as a bit of German, and I have a good basic level of Indonesian that allows me to express myself in most situations. My professional outreach is global, and, theoretically speaking, I already have the ability to communicate with approximately 2,381 million people in the World (French: 229 million; Spanish: 527 million; English: 983 million; Portuguese: 229 million; German: 132 million; Indonesian / Malay: 281 million). Of course, many of these native speakers already master two or more of these languages, but you get the idea: I aim at being able to speak with as many human beings as possible. This leaves out 1,100 million people that speak Mandarin (almost 1 out of every 5 people in the World, even if Mandarin is an official language in only a few countries: China obviously, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Singapore). This is one of the reasons why I decided to start learning Mandarin. So, every Saturday, I attend Mandarin classes at the Kung Tse Confucius Institute in San Pedro, Costa Rica, where my companions and I happily struggle with almost undiscernible tones and complex and beautiful traditional Chinese characters under the patient look from our native teacher. What I enjoy the most is calligraphy; spending hours in this activity is soothing, and I find that it helps me relax, just the same as when I cook exotic (Chinese?) dishes for my family.



But really, why learning so many languages? You would probably think that English, as our lingua franca is enough for international business, education, science, technology and diplomacy. Well, there is one main reason that drives me to keep on learning new languages: cultural sensibility and awareness. I believe that a cultural sensibility is paramount to the interaction with people in different countries and from different walks of life. In this regard, languages have helped me to develop a strong cultural competence, a process that allows me to respond respectfully and effectively to people of different cultures, languages, classes, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other diversity factors in a manner where I recognize, value and cherish cultural diversity. Because I can speak a few languages, I have developed cultural awareness, including self-awareness about my own culture; and I have developed cross-cultural skills. This makes me feel at ease almost anywhere, and in any cultural context. Last year only, I traveled to 24 different countries, and I would never do so without first researching about a country’s history, culture and learn at least a few useful words to pay my hosts proper respect. When I can, I read books, mostly from a country’s celebrated iconic literature (either before a visit to get acquainted with the country’s culture, or afterwards to reinforce cultural knowledge and further enjoy the memory of a past travel). Literature is a great window to a country’s culture. And, honestly, what better way to start understanding a country or a culture by learning its language? A language contains many clues to a specific culture. When I was studying French linguistics at the University of Lausanne, we reflected on how language allows us to express our thoughts and feelings, to communicate and share knowledge, and on the fact that culture and language are intricately linked.


You just cannot understand a culture until you have immersed yourself in a study of a language, and similarly, you will probably not fully master a language unless you understand its main cultural underlying traits.

I think that we sometimes take for granted that people from everywhere have the ability to communicate in English, but this is far from being true. In Yunnan, China, last year, almost no one spoke English, and our Google Translate app proved to be pretty much useless. This and other real time translation applications might be useful in some cases, but in my opinion, they are more a barrier than a bridge, and I would prefer using sign language over recurring to technology for that matter: it is more humane and more fun, too!


Awareness about my own and others’ culture is one huge personal driver to learn different languages, because I really like people and I believe that while visiting another country making an effort to speak someone else’s language is a token of respect and appreciation. But of course, engaging in the endeavor of learning languages also provides a competitive edge in career choices, allows you to connect with more people from different backgrounds, feeds your brain like nothing else so powerful, and it also boosts your confidence.


As a Swiss citizen I grew up in the French speaking part of Switzerland (ah, that extraordinary Lavaux World Heritage!), and French is my native language, but my parents didn’t teach me or my brother any other languages, although my mother was bilingual and spoke perfect Swiss German (a dialect and a separate language from German). Of course, as a child, the first foreign language we learnt at school was mandatory German. For some mysterious reason, learning German was a rather torturous process, and I still don’t understand why this was the case; but I spent a total of 9 years for an estimated 1,000 hours in the classroom from 4th grade (Elementary School) until the end of High School. When I think that it took me just 216 classroom hours (over 18 months) to learn Portuguese, I am still baffled at why I could never really master German. Or else I am mistaken and it has already been so long that I do not remember clearly that I mastered it. We used to read Günter Grass, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Heinrich Böll, Bertolt Brecht and Franz Kafka in class, but I always felt them to be difficult. And this is the point: after learning German for 9 years, I have not had further occasions to practice it since I left High School, although I feel that my German comes back surprisingly quickly when I travel to Germany, Austria or the German speaking regions of Switzerland. After all, fortunately enough, it is maybe still all stored there in some hidden parts of my brain!


At Secondary School (when 13 years old), I chose Latin and English. Latin was highly interesting in many aspects, but of course it is a “dead” language, and likely not your first resource when traveling the World (except for Roman sites in the Mediterranean Basin maybe!). So, I spent 6 years learning English with an estimated 750 classroom hours. English was much easier to me than German, and we would read English classic writers such as Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, V.S. Naipaul, George Orwell, and Shakespeare, of course. I had a blast with all of them! At the University of Lausanne, I graduated in History, Ancient History (Greek and Roman Ancient History: I cannot remember if Latin was mandatory as a previous knowledge, but it certainly proved highly useful) and French Language and Literature. But no more study of foreign languages unfortunately. On the other hand, this is also the time when I started traveling to different countries, mainly Europe, but also North Africa, the USA and Asia; and in that regard, English was always as necessary as useful. I spent a year in Paris at La Sorbonne and resided at the Cité Universitaire at the French House where half of the residents were from at least 20 different countries; many of my new friends would not necessarily speak French, and English was our way of communication. While preparing travels to Indonesia at that time, I studied its language from a book for six months (no powerful Internet yet in 1992, and no native speaker to interact with). Visiting Sumatra, Java and Bali during a few months was a revelation, because speaking Indonesian opened many doors and allowed for a whole different relationship with people (in some remote places of Sumatra, English was not widely spoken). Indonesia made me self-conscious about the value of learning and practicing languages in a cultural context.


After graduating from the University of Lausanne, I traveled to Costa Rica to learn Spanish. I remember that I took what they called a four days Spanish crash course in San José, and that was enough to manage myself while traveling in Central America. As I had no money to attend a language school, I volunteered in Las Baulas National Park where I eventually met Guisselle, my wife and the love of my life, who did a great job at teaching me Spanish. The funny thing is that I never took formal Spanish classes, but now, after living for more than two decades in Costa Rica, Spanish has become my second language and I feel truly bilingual. I think and dream in Spanish, and I swear and mentally count in Spanish or French, depending on specific situations, but I also feel that I have lost some confidence in French. As pretty much my entire professional life has happened in Costa Rica, I sometimes lack some technical vocabulary in French. My work, over the last two decades has been as much in Spanish than in English, and I feel confident in these two languages, even if my accent still betrays me. Although not a native Spanish speaker, I act many times as a philologist while reading and editing my students’ papers and thesis. Something that I enjoy a lot in Spanish is the ability to recognize the different accents and ways of speaking from most countries in Latin America. On the other hand, I don’t use quite much Costa Rican slang myself, as it still feels a bit unnatural, or inadequate in some way, although I like to hear it.


Last year, I studied Portuguese formally at Costa Rica’s Centro de Estudios Brasileños in my home town of Santa Ana. Speaking Spanish and French, plus having a Latin background was very useful and made the learning process smooth. Portuguese is a language that I enjoy a lot, but the danger, again is falling out of practice.


During the last two years, I had the opportunity to travel more frequently to Malaysia and Indonesia, and I decided to dust off my Indonesian. I got back to my French book on Indonesian language from almost 30 years ago and then started with a complete Indonesian audio book for English speakers. Basically, I am learning Indonesian from French and English; no doubt it is a bit strange at times. But Indonesian is a wonderful language, and I find it extremely rewarding. It is relatively easy at the beginning (simple and logical grammar with almost no exceptions - unlike French), but the more you study it, the subtler it becomes. I love Indonesian and focus on learning it while going out to run almost every day, with long (2-4 hours) running sessions on week-ends. Focusing on learning a language while running makes the long runs’ suffering more tolerable, and the state of mind I reach after a few miles, strengthens my ability to focus on the audio tapes; so, running and learning a language at the same time is a pretty efficient system in my case, but it is maybe not for everyone, as some people need more tranquility and probably no distraction at all (running in Costa Rica’s road network is a risky business!).


Now that I manage to speak six languages, and that I am learning Mandarin, I just decided and started to learn standard Arabic with an Egyptian professor (private lessons). Arabic is the official or co-official language in 25 countries. I enjoy it very much, and if I am to keep on working at the global level in conservation, being proficient in Arabic is, I firmly believe, a must. You would think that learning Mandarin and Arabic at the same time would prove to be a difficult challenge, but I believe that it is not much more so than when I was a child learning German and English simultaneously. And I still have some room left in my brain to learn more languages in the near future: Japanese, Korean, Hindi and Russian, for instance, or else, who knows where life will take me in the next few years?



There is no secret recipe to become a polyglot. It surely takes motivation and self-discipline. But if, like me, you like languages and are curious about other cultures; if you like to travel and to discover this beautiful world and its people, then do not hesitate, follow your dreams and aspirations, and take that step: start learning a new language today!

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