Ioannis Ikonomou is the one of the world's most exceptional polyglots. Illustration: Martin O'Neill for New Statesman
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The man who speaks 32 languages - and counting

When Ioannis Ikonomou arrived in Brussels as an interpreter, the EU had 12 official languages. He learnt them all - then kept going.

One Sunday evening in January, in a high-rise apartment in the upmarket European Quarter of Brussels, Ioannis Ikonomou, who is Greek, was anxiously watching the television news. The left-wing Syriza party, which had pledged to end austerity, was poised to win the election, pushing Greece towards confrontation with its international creditors.

He was, however, more worried about the showing of the far-right Golden Dawn, which he detests. “I’m the opposite of Odys­seus,” said Ikonomou, who looks younger than his 50 years, with close-cropped hair, a soul patch and a jawline beard. “He wanted to go home but I am always trying to open myself up to the world.”

Ikonomou achieves this aim in two ways. First, by travelling widely and frequently, and second, and more importantly, by using his remarkable linguistic skills. During his summer holiday in Athens last year he spoke Greek to his relatives and Bengali while eating at the restaurants run by Bangladeshi immigrants near Omonoia Square.

He then celebrated his birthday by visiting Israel for three weeks. In Jerusalem he chatted to Jewish Israelis in Hebrew, and in Ramallah to Palestinians in Arabic. He spent last Christmas in Colombia, talking Spanish in the slums and nightclubs. His next trip, he told me, was to Taiwan, to improve his already fluent Mandarin.

Had he visited Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Albania, Iran, or Kurdistan, he could have addressed the local people there in their mother tongues. There are also the languages Ikonomou uses daily in his job as a translator at the European Commission. Among the more than 2,000 full-time linguists in Brussels, only a few can operate from eight or more of the 24 official EU languages. Ikonomou works from 21 of them – Estonian, Maltese and Irish are his exceptions. In all, he speaks 32 living languages – and has studied many ancient ones, from Old Church Slavic to Sogdian. (Reading the hieroglyphics in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo is, for him, “the closest thing possible to a mental orgasm”.)

The list keeps growing. Ikonomou told me he was interested in Korean culture and was thinking of studying the language. Perhaps Japanese, too. Neither would be easy, even for him: the more different a new tongue is from those you already know, the harder it is, he explained. But that is little deterrent to one who describes Mandarin as the “Everest of languages” because of its complexity; and then adds that his favourite pastime is reading Chinese books, making small, neat pencil notes in the margin as he goes. Restless curiosity is his defining characteristic. “The thing that killed the cat is very important to me,” he said, sipping sage tea with honey in his apartment. “If I am not learning, I am not happy.”

 

***

 

Polyglots have been subjects of marvel for thousands of years. Cleopatra was said to speak nine languages. The 17th-century poet John Milton knew ten and the lexicographer Noah Webster at least 20. The explorer Richard Francis Burton reportedly learned 29 languages, at least one of them while lying down: his knowledge of Somali supposedly came from prostitutes. Perhaps best-known of all was the man who Byron described as “a monster of languages”, the Vatican cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, whose story is told in Michael Erard’s fascinating book Babel No More.

Born in Bologna in 1774, Mezzofanti started school at the age of three and studied Latin, ancient Greek and French. At 12 he entered a seminary, where he learned Hebrew, Arabic, Coptic and German. Around the time he was ordained in his twenties, Bologna’s hospitals overflowed with casualties as Napoleon’s army battled troops from the linguistically diverse Austrian empire. A priest’s services were in demand, and Mezzofanti’s in particular because of his exceptional ability to absorb new languages. The thin, pale confessor claimed to be able to learn a foreign tongue in 14 days. One of his methods was to ask a speaker repeatedly to recite the Lord’s Prayer in his or her mother tongue, allowing him to absorb its rhythms and sounds.

Charles William Russell, an Irish priest who knew Mezzofanti and wrote a biography of him, estimated that the Italian had “mastered” 30 languages, with lesser knowledge of another 42. Even if the standards of mastery were lower in previous centuries than today – scholars spent much more time reading and translating than on the significantly harder task of communicating with people – it was an extraordinary achievement. (Ikonomou’s definition of “knowing” a language is “being comfortable reading a newspaper, following a soap opera and news bulletin; understanding what is said by a native speaker; and being able to hold a conversation”.)

How did Mezzofanti, and others like him, do it? Was it something innate, or the result of strong motivation and determination, or a bit of both? In his book, Erard conducted a survey of polyglots, most of whom spoke at least six languages, and found that while many believed they had a special talent, they also thought they were more driven than the average person. (Among Erard’s other observations: there are more male polyglots than female, and, among their ranks, there is a disproportionate number of gay and left-handed people.)

Yet scientific studies have yet to show conclusively that talented language learners are born, not made. As Vivian Cook, professor of applied linguistics at Newcastle University, points out, there are parts of India and Africa where switching between three or four languages a day is common.

“We think of this thing [polyglotism] as a feat and an unusual thing to do,” Cook told me. “But it does not seem to be a matter of intelligence. It’s motivation – you have to be a certain type of person to do this.”

 

***

 

Like Mezzofanti, Ikonomou’s obsession started early. For the few years when he understood only one language (Greek) he lived in the Mediterranean city of Herak­lion, in Crete. The archaeological site of Knossos was a few miles away, and because Ikonomou’s parents were friendly with the guards, he spent many weekends there, mingling with the foreign tourists.

“I listened to the Germans, Dutch, Italians, and thought: ‘What they hell are they talking about?’ These were not languages to me, just sounds.”

When he was five his family moved to Athens and he started English lessons. The following summer he returned to Crete to stay with his grandparents. A British couple walked past him on the street one afternoon talking about visiting a fish taverna in the evening. Without having to think, he understood that they would be eating seafood for dinner. To the young boy it seemed like a miracle; it was a turning point.

From a German woman in Crete he started learning his third tongue: in the mornings he read textbooks on the beach while the other children played, and when they took a siesta he took classes with Frau Rosi. “I was a nerd,” Ikonomou said.

Back at school in the capital he heard a rumour that Italian would soon be offered as a subject. By the time he realised it was false, he had worked through a “teach yourself Italian” guide. At the start of secondary school he could speak four languages.

Number five was Russian, after he discovered a translated version of Anna Karenina and decided he needed to read the original. “Also, at that time, it was cool to be a communist,” Ikonomou said. An interest in Islam led him to pursue Arabic. What he most wanted to learn was Turkish, which was not offered by language schools. “Turks were meant to be our enemies. But my family was very pacifist and I, too, hated this hatred,” he said. His mother found a Turkish political refugee who agreed to teach him.

At university in Thessaloniki, where he read classical languages, he became a vegetarian, frequented a Hare Krishna ashram and listened to the music of Egypt’s Umm Kulthum, “the greatest singer the Arab world ever produced”. His parents “started to freak out”. But he also studied intensely, for his degree and for his own amusement, adding Persian, Hebrew, Serbo-Croat and Sanskrit to his list of languages. In the university holidays, while completing his compulsory military service in the tank division of the Greek army, he made use of his sentry duties and long toilet breaks to learn classical Armenian. “Thankfully the Turks did not attack at that time,” he said.

Postgraduate work at Columbia University and Harvard followed, and Ikonomou might have stayed in academia, had he not seen an advertisement placed by the European Parliament, which was looking for interpreters (who deal with oral communication) and translators (who work with the written word). The jobs paid well. Although he had no experience he was awarded a scholarship to study interpretation at a university in Spain. “So I decided to prostitute myself and go to Tenerife,” he said.

***

The European Commission’s interpretation service is the biggest operation of its kind in the world, facilitating roughly 10,000 meetings a year. The director of interpretation is Brian Fox, a genial man who was raised in Newcastle and moved to Belgium to become an interpreter in 1976, when the EU had nine member states. Now there are 28 but closer integration has done little to improve the average European’s proficiency in languages.

A Eurobarometer survey in 2012 found that just 54 per cent of EU citizens could hold a conversation in at least one additional tongue. The UK fared third worst in terms of people speaking a second language, with 61 per cent of the population monolingual (only Hungary and Italy ranked lower). Fox, who speaks six languages, said the first is ­often the hardest.

“It’s like going to the gym,” he told me when I met him in his office. “Once you’ve got one language, the next is easier.”

A typical member of his staff can interpret four languages into her or his mother tongue. “You have to know the language inside out. You are either right immediately or wrong for ever.”

A few interpreters can work from eight languages. Fox smiled when I mentioned Ikonomou. “He is a phenomenon. Outstanding – even among us.”

When Ikonomou arrived in Brussels in 1996 the EU had 12 official languages. He decided to learn them all. On his own, he improved his Dutch, Portuguese and Norwegian. The European Commission sent him to Sweden to study, and after he spent a summer in Helsinki speaking Finnish he had achieved his goal. I asked if a few months was how long it took him to achieve fluency. Sometimes it was a shorter period and sometimes longer, he replied: the thought of keeping track seemed not to have occurred to him.

“I don’t look at my watch. It’s like when you have sex: you enjoy it rather than looking at the time,” he said.

The work could be thrilling, such as when he was interpreting the words of European leaders such as Germany’s former chancellor Helmut Kohl and Tony Blair. But after six years he needed a change, so he applied for a translation job. (Fox said that only “a few handfuls” of people have switched between the two departments in the past 20 years.) After initially being posted to Luxembourg, which he disliked – “a rich village, very boring” – Ikonomou, who is gay, was transferred back to Brussels, where he married his Polish husband.

All along he kept acquiring languages by using his wide range of linguistic skills to pick the best method: for example, using a Russian self-study course to learn Ethiopia’s official language, Amharic; a Spanish one for Quechua; and a Czech method for Assyro-Babylonian. Technology was also making it simpler to become fluent. “When I was an undergrad, I craved the opportunity to learn Kurdish or Hindi, but it was hard to find someone who knew that language [and could teach me],” he said. “Twenty or 30 years ago you could say: I cannot learn Japanese. But now there are no excuses – all you need is determination.”

Satellite television was the first transformative learning aid. Richard Simcott, a co-founder of the annual Polyglot Conference – “bring[ing] together the community’s most respected polyglots” – told me that he uses foreign channels to help maintain his French, German, Serbian and Albanian, some of the more than 40 languages he has studied. (Simcott, who grew up in Chester and now lives in Macedonia, said he uses about 25 of them regularly.)

The internet, with its countless language-learning websites, apps and podcasts, has been of even greater advantage. Duolingo, a free language-learning platform, has more than 100 million registered users. When we spoke, Simcott was using italki.com, a site that connects freelance tutors and pupils, to learn Indonesian and Slovenian from teachers in those countries. One of his most useful tools is the Euronews mobile app, which has news broadcasts in 13 languages.

If you consider that cheap air travel has made it more affordable to immerse yourself in a foreign country, it could be argued that this should be a golden age for language learning. “Today, everything is at your fingertips,” Simcott said. “I don’t know how people did it before.”

Ikonomou has been learning languages since the age of five. Photo: Ezequiel Scagnetti.

***

Multilingualism can be a lonely hobby, especially for someone like Ikonomou, who has no interest in conferences or internet communities for polyglots. He said he has never met anybody who can speak more than 20 languages. “I would be happy to, but it’s not important to me. I’m not in competition with anyone.”

He seems more amused by his limitations than his brilliance. When we talked about mastering a language, he used the idiom “under my knee”, which is the correct one – if you’re talking Dutch. He caught himself immediately and laughed. “I am not a machine. I do not speak languages perfectly. I have a Greek accent!” he said.

Ikonomou’s secret, if he has one, is making languages part of his daily routine. It helps that his job requires that. His work on the seventh floor of a drab building in the Brussels suburbs can be exciting, such as when he was translating documents on the official EU position on Ukraine during the Kyiv protests in 2014. But mostly it is more mundane policy translation. Even so, it’s a job he takes seriously. He was recently tasked with translating into Greek a complicated EU ruling on the rights of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe to play outside. His choice of wording would determine if the refugee children – of whom there are many in Greece – would get to exercise in the open air, or merely outside the rooms in which they sleep.

“That’s a big responsibility, so I am proud of what I do,” he said.

At night, after dinner, Ikonomou practises his languages (“It’s use it or lose it”) or studies new ones. This involves reading extensively; his living room is filled with scores of dictionaries, textbooks and novels. He also watches a lot of foreign television, from Russian talk shows to Turkish movies, and converses with people on the internet.

I asked him to recommend a method for someone learning a new language. He described a three-stage process that requires 15 minutes of study, six or seven days a week. First, you would assimilate the basic grammar, vocabulary and alphabet by using online aids, such as YouTube video tutorials and textbooks and CDs. (Linguaphone, Teach Yourself, Colloquial and Assimil are among his favourite “traditional” methods.)

The second step he called “taking the plunge”. Here you start to read newspapers on the web and watch news broadcasts. At first, you may understand only 10 per cent of what is being said.

“Don’t give up. Read, listen. Talk to people on Skype,” he said. “Expose yourself to language. You need self-discipline and persistence if there’s no private teacher. By being in constant contact with language, you tame it, like a wild horse, and become the master of that horse.”

The third and final step is achieving basic fluency, which requires going “far beyond the grammar and syntax and irregular verbs that are only 20 or 30 per cent of language”. At this point you eat the country’s food, watch its television programmes and films, listen to its music and read its literature. Learning about the history of the nation and language will also help. If possible, you should travel to the country. “Make friends with people who do not speak a word of English,” Ikonomou said.

And keep up those friendships. It was 10.30pm when I left his apartment but he was not ready to go to sleep. Mexican taxi drivers, Chinese students and friends he had met on his travels were logged on to Facebook, ready to chat.

Xan Rice is the features editor of the NS

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself.”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double