Today we feature Timothy McKeon, a herbalist who speaks quite a few languages. Some I haven’t even heard of such as Tok Pisin or Dehong Dai. In his interview he will answer what languages he speaks, his strategies and what keeps him motivated.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
My name is Timothy, and I’m a language addict. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with languages. As I grew older this fascination slowly ripened into full-blown obsession with learning languages, learning about languages, comparing languages, listening to languages, breathing languages, etc. In university I studied linguistics, but my real passion is for the actual process of learning a language, picking it apart, finding patterns, exploring accents, understanding how it all works. Once I can read a novel and express myself freely in a language, my enthusiasm wanes a bit, and it’s time to move on to the next one.
What languages do you speak?
I speak Irish, English, Spanish, Mandarin, French, and German all more or less fluently. I can read Latin. I can have social conversations in Yiddish, Portuguese, Italian, Swedish, Cantonese, Sichuanese, Breton, Hindi, and Dutch and have more basic conversations in Hebrew, Galician, Ladino, Finnish, Bengali, Catalan, Esperanto, Japanese, Scots Gaelic and Shanghainese. Beyond those, I’ve dabbled in Uyghur, Korean, Tibetan, Tamil, Sanskrit, Pali, Lakota, Halkomelem, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, Tok Pisin, Luxembourgish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Latvian, Estonian, Taiwanese, Russian, Polish, Guaraní, Xhosa, Telugu, Tamil, Manchu, Arabic, Dehong Dai, Toisanese and Hakka. It’s out of control.
Do you dream in a foreign language?
Yes, quite often. People often say that you know you’re really fluent in a language when you start to dream in it, but I haven’t found that to be true. I constantly dream in languages I don’t speak very well at all. I’ll stumble over words and try to work out the proper conjugation or tense all as part of my dream. Once or twice I’ve had dreams of nothing more than just doing grammar exercises. I guess that probably means I’m not getting very restful sleep!
What do you think of constructed languages? Would you be interested to learn one?
I really love the idea of constructed languages. I see it as a form of creative expression using linguistic concepts as the medium, drawing from natural languages (or not) in order to create an entirely new mode of communication. But what really fascinates me is the kind of living culture that develops around constructed languages. I’ve recently started exploring the world of Esperanto, and it’s amazing to me that there is an Esperanto culture and a set of values that many Esperantists adhere to, i.e. universal understanding, peace, social responsibility. Zamenhof created Esperanto as a kind of utopian language, and I think it’s really exciting that over 125 years later that same mentality has continued to flourish through this completely artificial language.
How has your strategy to learn new languages changed over the years?
Well, it is true that the more languages you learn, the easier it becomes to continue learning even more languages. With that in mind, I would say I tend to tackle language families (or at least language family branches) nowadays rather than just a single language. I’ve become really interested in how languages relate to each other, so it’s no longer enough to just learn one language in its standard, static form. I become too curious about what neighboring languages look like or what happens in the different regional dialects of a language, and soon enough I’ve got Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Czech books spread out in front of me when all I really wanted was to learn a few things about Polish. Chinese languages are really great for this kind of exploration because they are all related to and derived from Classical Chinese and are all united under more or less the same written form, but have diverged and developed so distinctly over the centuries. It’s fascinating.
What is your definition of fluency?
This is a tricky question. You don’t want to make false claims about your abilities, but you shouldn’t sell yourself short on your accomplishments with language learning either. Generally, I say if you can live your life in a language comfortably, then you’re fluent. That means you can make friends, do your job, watch the news, read a book, joke with someone, have a deep conversation, sing a song, consult a psychic, fall in love, etc. – all in said language.
What keeps you motivated to keep learning?
That varies from language to language, but generally it’s something in the arts and culture associated with a language that keeps me going back. I was recently in Hong Kong, which should provide enough motivation to keep working on Cantonese, but what really got me to spend serious time studying was going to the Cantonese opera. The poetry, jokes, puns, and overall spectacle of it really inspired me to up my game with Cantonese. When I hear sean-nós songs in Irish, I feel the urge to turn back to Irish poetry or start reading old stories again. Kishore Kumar songs from old films get me to crack open my Bengali books. It’s always something creative that gets me motivated.
Do you watch movies to practice your languages?
I’ll watch movies to keep up languages that I know pretty well, but if I want to practice a language that’s newer or less familiar to me, then trashy TV is the absolute best. Terrible reality shows like Top Model (from whatever country) or ridiculous soap operas are perfect for improving listening skills. They tend to be completely predictable, follow a formula, and never introduce particularly complicated concepts – it’s ideal for gaining confidence in listening to and understanding a new language.
Have you ever started a new language and then given up for some reason?
I do find that some languages just don’t grab me the way others do. Why am I obsessed with Finnish, while its neighbor Russian just doesn’t hold my interest? I have no idea. Past lives…? Anyway, this sort of arbitrary lack of gravity towards some languages would be the only reason I would stop studying them. And even then, it’s never really a full stop.
To learn more about Timothy please visit his web site at https://collectanealinguistica.wordpress.com/.