Localization professionals tend to be the sort of people you’d call ‘globally minded’: we’re a multicultural melting pot; many of us love travel; a lot of us study languages. We are proud to be citizens of the world.
But while a lot of us have studied other languages, few of us are truly bilingual, let alone multilingual. Marie Kotajsova, our Director of Supply Chain Management, speaks four languages. We spoke with Marie about what it means to be a polyglot, her multilingual experience and how much richer her life has been as a result. Here’s our interview.
Marie, what’s the story of your multilingualism? Where did you learn your languages?
My native language is Czech. I began learning Arabic when I was six because my parents were working in Algeria. The next language was French because my parents put me in a French school when I was 12. English was the last language, and I learned it in college.
You learned your first three languages because of where you lived. What was the motivation for learning English?
English is just the most universal language, right? It was logical. So, in college I chose to study English and French philology.
What is philology?
It’s language, literature, history and culture. It involves studying the language, its development and its history, which I find extremely interesting. Aside from the history of the language itself, you also study the history of the regions where the language is spoken. So, I studied the history of France and Britain. Since those two countries conquered much of the world, their history touches a lot of places around the globe! It was definitely an interesting thing to study.
How has being multilingual benefited you?
I think it’s greatly benefited me. It definitely changes the way you think. It helps you understand the culture of whatever language you learn because people think differently in different parts of the world. The language you speak allows certain, specific thought processes to take place. Language learning opens up different spaces in the brain and allows you to combine ideas and concepts.
Talk to me more about the tie between culture and language and what you have found to be true.
Language represents and describes a culture, and a culture influences a language. An example is the subtle references within a language that influence how you describe something. Let’s say I’m talking to someone in Czech, which is my native language. Instead of explaining a concept, it’s very easy to just use a cultural reference that most Czech people would understand. Doing that makes the conversation faster, more fluent, funny, and helps the purpose of the conversation. That, of course, happens differently in different languages. I lack the ability to do this sometimes in English—I can’t use English in the same way I use Czech because there’s an entire cultural background that’s attached to it that I don’t have. For example, in the United States, there’s this whole culture related to movies and music that is more pronounced than in other places in the world. So, the references to movies and music in US English reflect that culture, and I’m not that familiar with it.
How has being multilingual influenced your career path?
It’s helped me understand people. I started off as a vendor manager and it was easier for me to grasp the concept that I needed to adapt the way that I’m talking to the supplier depending on where they come from. If you don’t have that connection, it can be difficult to explain things. I’ve seen it many times throughout my career. For example, let’s say someone in Asia received an email from someone in Central Europe and it’s offensive to them, yet the person in Central Europe didn’t mean to offend the person in Asia at all and is confused by what might have happened. It’s the different way of speaking and of conveying information that caused the problem.
Research shows it’s easier to learn a third language after the second. Do you think that’s true?
Yes. Once you’ve learned one language, you understand how languages work, especially if your next language is in the same language family—for example, when someone who already speaks French learns Spanish. You understand the patterns behind the language. But even if the languages are completely different, it’s still easier because you already have an idea of foreign language concepts and a structure that you can build on.
What skills does it take to learn another language?
That’s a very interesting question. Personally, I’m not the studying type. I tried to learn another language several times, but when I found out that it would require a lot of book study and reading, because the language structure was complex, I gave up and instead focused on a language that is easily picked up by just listening to it. To me, Spanish is such a language. I think you can pick up Spanish by listening, especially if you already speak French. But when I tried to study Romanian, I found that the grammar was just too complex for me and would require a lot of studying, and so I dropped it.
Yet, there are people who can learn a language from books. They have, in many cases, what I would call a mathematical mind: they can learn the rules of the language pretty easily and can craft sentences by following them. But it might be that those people never become truly fluent. They can use the language, they understand it well, they can talk clearly, but they don’t tend to expand their vocabulary very easily or go deep into the cultural aspects associated with that language. They don’t become familiar with colloquialisms, for example. You don’t learn those things from a book.
On the other hand, it seems there are people who tend to pick up a language just by hearing people speaking it. They seem to be more at ease with it, but sometimes they don’t even know the rules and what it means to be grammatically correct.
What have you enjoyed most about studying languages?
I love to learn the origins of words. It’s always interesting for me to see where a French word or a Spanish word originated—because both have the same parent language, Latin—and how they’re still similar or have become dissimilar. The same with English, because English has a lot of words that originally came from Latin as well. I love to look at where those words started and what their evolution has been.
Some scientists think that bilinguals may actually have denser, more capable brains than monolinguals. For more of the science behind learning languages, check out this post here.
Are you bilingual or multilingual? If so, how has it affected your life?