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