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, 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

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

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