By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB
Q: When did you first become interested in languages?
A: Although I grew up hearing both Swedish and English around the house, I don’t think I really got interested in actively learning other languages until I started taking French in the 6th grade and, around the same time, was given an old copy (1910 edition) of Bennet’s Latin Grammar by my grandmother. When I started going through it, I noticed how many similarities there were in the vocabulary of Latin and French…but the way the words were used and arranged in a sentence was so different! I think that got me hooked.
Q: You have travelled to a number of countries. In which country did you have the most rewarding experience?
A: I think the most rewarding place I’ve spent significant time in was Mongolia, for two main reasons. The first is that I was prepared before I went. I had studied Mongolian and spoke it well enough to have good conversations; I had learned a lot about the culture and customs; I was in love with much of the art, especially the music. In short, I was ready to have a deeper, more meaningful experience. Secondly, although less picturesque than touring the Gobi, living and working in the capital city let me have the most interesting conversations. I remember having an argument with a student about whether or not Native Americans are “really” Mongolians or not (he said they were); a conversation with a vegan cafe owner about Putin and the Crimea (she was pro-Russia); and a cab driver who had a CD of all the bird calls in Mongolia, and insisted on playing me all of them on our hour-ride to the airport, and asking me whether or not I had heard the species in America, and what I was personally doing to protect mother earth. I’ve been to a lot of beautiful and interesting places, but it’s rare that I’ve known enough and spent enough time to have experiences like that.
Q: Which of the languages you have mastered was the most difficult?
A: “Mastered” is such a big word when it comes to languages; sometimes I think I know English pretty well, but if I picked up, say, a book on boat rigging or farming in Victorian England, I’d discover pretty quickly how incomplete my vocabulary is! Language learning is never really done or mastered–a fact that is both disheartening but exciting, I think. It’s far from one I’ve even come close to mastering, but I’ve studied enough Navajo to say it’s probably my most challenging encounter. The verbs are just so dense, and so much information is encoded. If you translate “I will go” into other languages, it will be fairly straightforward; in Navajo, you have to ask yourself, “Am I seeing anyone along the way? Am I coming back? How much time will I spend there?” It’s a lot to think about!
Q: Do you have a special method you use to learn foreign languages?
A: To quote Lenin: “во-первых — учиться, во-вторых — учиться и в-третьих — учиться” (First—study. Then—study. Finally—study.). There’s no substitute for just putting the hours in. There are useful ways to study and less useful ways, though. I think it helps me to learn things in context. Rather than learning five items of vocabulary, come up with a dialogue or sentences that use the five items. If you’re having trouble memorizing a verbal paradigm, use sentences instead. Sometimes it can be a lot easier to remember, “My friend John, he’s going to the party later! Are you going? I’m going for sure,” than “I go, you go, he goes”. I don’t think I can dig up an appropriate Soviet quote for this, but I think it’s vital to stay interested. It will be hard to put in a lot of time with something you don’t really care about, and time spent working on something you’d rather not do probably won’t be very fruitful in terms of learning anyway. Find something you love about the culture you’re learning—the music, the poetry, the philosophy, the religion–and bind it to the language aspect.
Q: How important were classical languages like Latin and Ancient Greek in your life and overall language learning?
A: It’s invaluable. It’s hard to overemphasize just how useful a background in Latin can be for learning other languages, or even for understanding English. And the more you know about the philosophy and thought of Ancient Greece and Rome, the more you can see just how deep the influence still is on the modern world.
Q: Who is your favorite author? Do you prefer ancient or modern literature? Why?
A: I don’t have a favorite author, although there are authors I keep coming back to. Horace is someone I read again every couple of years—and always find new things to love. And it would be impossible to choose between ancient and modern authors. To quote John of Salisbury, I don’t think there’s anything out there that isn’t worth reading. There’s nothing like the Odyssey in modern day literature, but there’s nothing like Ulysses in the ancient. Read what you enjoy, and read a lot.
Q: You have learned a number of Native American languages. Do you think the U.S government should do more to promote the learning of these languages?
A: Given the history of the American government with Native Americans, and the British government with Celtic speakers, I’d be deeply suspicious of any government-sponsored programs designed to help the groups in question. I dearly want the languages and cultures to thrive again, but I think a lot of that work needs to be done by the speakers—referring back to question 4 above. I think that the most helpful thing for the government, or society at large, to do would be getting informed. Many people still think that Native American languages—and even European languages like Irish—are backward and insufficient, and that English is inherently better. Likewise, many people still think that the Irish don’t have a history prior to English invasion, or that all Native Americans lived in teepees and had the same religion and customs. Views like that are discouraging for modern day speakers/learners.
Q: Do you have any advice for the next generation of language students and philologists?
A: It’s nothing profound, but do what you love, and do it a lot!
Erik Ogle tutors Latin, as well as more than 20 other languages, for Carmenta Latin Tutors.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.