Ziad Fazah’s Story in the Financial Times

About a week ago the Financial Times published an interview that the reporter Ed Hammond conducted about a month ago. In it, Ziad tells interesting stories about his dealings with the CIA, Mossad and the PLO. Here is a link to the article.

Interview with the Greatest Linguist Since Mezzofanti

Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire is quite possibly the greatest linguist in known history. When Ziad Fazah lived in Southern Brazil, he borrowed books from Dr. Freire’s vast personal library. His studies and achievements rival those of the legendary Giuseppe Mezzofanti. His travels, insights and abilities are extraordinary, so much so that I had to find him and talk to him myself. A few weeks ago the two of us had a very pleasant chat on the telephone and I have been wanting to write more about him on this blog ever since. Given that he has already been interviewed many times, I thought that it might be better to translate one of those interviews so all of you could read it and draw your own conclusions.

This interview was conducted by Janer Cristaldo for Jornaleco on April 15th, 2008 in São Paulo, Brazil. I’ve only finished translating half of it and will include the other half in the next few days. Those of you who know Portuguese can read the article here. I hope you enjoy this first half of the interview as much as I did.

The University of Cambridge considers him one of the greatest scholars of the 21st century. To date, he has systematically studied more than one hundred languages and mastered sixty. For the past forty years he has been developing a project to systematically and scientifically study two new languages a year. He has translated sixty languages into Portuguese, from Sanskrit to Chinese, which have been gathered together in a poetry anthology called Babel de Poemas. A publishing contract is being negotiated with L&PM. One of his monographs, Los fonemas oclusivos y africados del aymara y del georgiano (Plosive and Fricative Phonemes of Aymara and Georgian), was published in Spanish by the University of Sucre and translated into Russian and Serbo-Croatian. He was born seventy years ago in Dom Pedrito, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and has studied in the United States, Spain, Italy, China and the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and USSR. His name is Carlos do Amaral Freire, he is 70 years old and he currently lives in Florianopolis, Brazil.

Janer Where and how did your interest in languages come about?
Carlos – My interest in studying foreign languages came about early on – when I was still a gymnastics student – when I realized that reading translations of foreign classics was an enormous disadvantage. That is, I realized that only by reading the original could I enjoy the esthetic pleasure that only the original can fully offer. Later on I became captivated by the fascination of studying and discovering, through languages, so many other worlds, cultures and different ways of thinking. This was mainly due to the many travels I would have later on. My knowledge of foreign languages gave me the opportunity to make friends with a lot of people in many different parts of the world. Perhaps mastering foreign languages offers us a more effective tool for obtaining knowledge and accepting what is different.

Janer You’ve dedicated the past few years to an incredible undertaking in Portuguese, as well as in your other languages: the translation of sixty poems into sixty different languages. Have you had any trouble with the publication of this project?
Carlos – I have been translating many, many foreign languages into Portuguese for more than twenty years, both prose and poetry. First I started translating short stories, mainly as a hobby or rather as a linguistic challenge, to test my own knowledge and abilities acquired during more than forty years of systematic study. Let me explain…when I study a certain language, I set a goal to get to the point where I can translate a bit of that language into Portuguese and, if possible, communicate in it orally. I started translating short poems in Latin, Germanic and Slavic languages. Later on…I tried the rest of them. After that, acting on advice from friends, I resolved to put together all of my translations in a multilingual anthology which included the originals with their corresponding translations into Portuguese. And, as an addendum, I included short biographical and linguistic notes where I provide a little bit of information about some of the exotic languages, ones that are less well known to Brazilian readers, like Georgian, Maltese, Papiamento, Romansh, Indonesian, Swahili, Albanese, etc. I did have trouble finding a publisher. Some publishers (university ones mainly) told me that there were technical problems – twelve different alphabets, the need to make numerous diacritic signs and symbols – however, the main reason was the fact that publishing it would be tricky and not very lucrative.

Janer – Where did you learn your non-Latin languages like Chinese, Russian and Arabic?
Carlos – I studied Latin and Germanic languages in Porto Alegre in the PUC (Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul). I studied the Slavic ones in the United States, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia and in the former USSR. I had already started Russian here in Brazil during my college days with a few immigrants. With Russian I created a method that I find extremely efficient. I went to live with a Russian family so I would be able to practice it in day to day life. I took care of the theoretical part on my own.

I practiced Chinese, which I had also started here in Brazil, with natives of that language (Mandarin) and later on I had the opportunity to take a normal course at the University of Madrid and then, after that, at the University of Texas. After that, around 1985, I took an intensive course at the University of Beijing. I studied Arabic mainly with Palestinian friends that I had here in Brazil. Later I had the opportunity to take a theoretical/practical class in that language, which was also at the University of Madrid.

In the end, I could say that I studied around thirty languages in regular, official university courses. The rest are self-taught. Someone once said that the first ten are the most difficult. After that, depending on your objective or momentary need, people invent their own method.

Janer – Do you consider Chinese to be a simple language?
Carlos – Yes. Chinese is very simple in linguistic terms. That is, it is a simple language in comparison to Indo-European languages, which are complex. I think that this is precisely the reason why learning it ends up being so difficult for Westerners like us. We are used to complex linguistic structures, like that of Portuguese. Chinese is extremely concise. It has no gender or numeral grammar and its verbs are not conjugated. Simple is not a synonym for easy. When it comes to Chinese, the word is an antonym. Its simple structures become difficult and confusing because we don’t know how know how to compare them to our own.

Janer – In Bolivia you found a “non-Aristotelian” future in Aymara. Tell us more about this discovery.
Carlos – During my long stay (ten years) in Bolivia, where I was assigned by the Ministry of External Relations as the director of the Center for Brazilian Studies in La Paz, I quickly began studying the languages of the Altiplano with native speakers. That was a very valuable experience for me because, later on, I was invited to teach comparative linguistics at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, in La Paz. The course compared the linguistic structures of those languages with many others, some Indo-European and others not Indo-European. I came to some interesting conclusions about the notable phonetic similarities between these languages and Caucasian languages as well as structural similarities with Altaic languages. Regarding Aymara, the Bolivian mathematician and Aymarist, Guzman de Rojas said, “A different non-Aristotelian linguistic logic is clearly incorporated in the syntax of that language.”

The deficient communication or rather the age old misunderstanding between the Indians and the Conquistadors is greatly explained due to their different concepts of reality. In the Aymara’s case this is distinctly reflected in their syntax of special morphemes that are very well defined. Those of us who speak Indo-European languages are instilled with the Aristotelian concept: dichotomy, with the truly false X and truly correct X, X yes and X no. We have some trouble with accepting or comprehending the trivalent concept of Aymara: correct-incorrect-verisimilar, with ambiguity or the third value of truth. To make the trivalent logic of Aymara a little clearer, I will use two examples from the remarkable monograph of Guzman de Rojas, Problemática Lógico-lingüística de la Comunicación Social en el Pueblo Aimara (Logical and Linguistic Problems of Social Communication with the Aymara people). When a native speaker of Aymara expresses himself in Spanish and says, “Mañana he de venir nomás.” (Tomorrow I shall come no more/I just have to come tomorrow) the words he uses do not coincide with the meaning of those very same words in Spanish or Portuguese. The expression “nomás”, that is so common in popular Bolivian and Peruvian Spanish – in similar situations – really reveals a thought in Aymara that is poorly translated into Spanish. In his native language he would use the phrase, “Qharürux jutätki.” where the morpheme “ki” translates into or expresses a symmetric doubt, the third value of truth. This is something that simply does not exist in our languages. Therefore, he uses the expression “nomás” to translate the suffix “ki” which indicates verisimilitude.

What he really means to say is this, “Maybe I’ll come tomorrow or maybe I won’t. I’m not making a commitment.” However, when he says, “Mañana he de venir pues” he uses the word “pues” to translate the suffix “pi” in Aymara, which indicates certainty. Therefore, “Qharüru jutätpi” is the way one says in Aymara that would correspond to our way of saying, “I am certain to come tomorrow, I have made a commitment.” So we see that Aymara has a positive future tense, a negative future tense and a future tense of symmetrical doubt. Consequently, if our politicians spoke in Aymara they would have to be very careful about what type of future tense they used.

Janer – I did some research on Guzman de Rojas. I don’t know if you know, but he created the Qopuchawi, an ICQ that translates messages instantly into six languages.
Carlos – During my long stay in La Paz I had the privilege to become Guzman de Rojas’ friend and to follow his project closely. And do you know which language he uses as a base for translation into the other five? Aymara: an agglutinative language that has extraordinarily regular suffixes.

Janer – You did a study about the phonological affinities between Aymara and the Caucasian languages that was Published at the University of Sucre and translated into Russian.
Carlos – My monograph is called Los fonemas oclusivos y africados del aymara y del georgiano (Plosive and Fricative Phonemes of Aymara and Georgian) and it was published by the University of Sucre. Later on it was translated into Russian because the comparison with Georgian was always interesting to Soviet linguistics. After that, between 1968 and 1988 – when I had the position of lecturer of the Portuguese language at the University of Belgrade – that project was translated into Serbo-Croatian because it had not only made the linguists curious but also some anthropologists and other academics that listened to my lectures. I am convinced that Quechua and also Aymara are typologically Altaic languages. However, phonologically they are similar to the Caucasian languages, particularly Georgian, which was Stalin’s native language.

Janer – Can you tell us how you arrived at that conclusion?
Carlos – How did I arrive at that conclusion? Well…I was teaching a phonology class to my Latin Languages students at the University of La Paz. I played them a tape of a language that was unknown to them (as well as to me at that time). After having played the text several times in the language lab I had them transcribe these words that they had repeatedly listened to using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). When the project was done I found that the students whose native language was Quechua or Aymara got at least an 80% on the project while the native speakers of other languages got a 20%, at best. What was my conclusion? If you hear an unknown language for the first time and are able to identify more than 80% of its phonemes it is because these phonemes almost certainly exist in your native language.

After that I continued with my research. I came into contact with friends from the University of Tbilissi, which is the capital of Georgia, and to my surprise I was invited to conduct some field research for the Academy of Sciences of what was then the Socialist Republic of Georgia. My paper, Los fonemas oclusivos y africados del quechua y del aymara is the practical result of that research. In fact, Georgian, which was the unknown language from my phonology class, has a remarkably similar phonology to that of Aymara.

One National Language

The politics of languages are rather thorny. The USA, curiously, has no official language even though most families can only speak English one or two generations after immigrating. India has two official languages and recognizes twenty one scheduled languages. China has one official language but over 400 million Chinese people speak at least one of the hundreds of mutually unintelligible dialects in addition to the state endorsed language. In Germany many of the southern dialects, which are mostly unintelligible to people in the north, are fading away, making standard German even more of a unifying factor. In Spain, regional languages like Catalan, Basque and Galician are resurging. Eleena, over at Voices en Español, has written an interesting article about how if the current trend continues, Spain could end up with a large number of citizens who are functionally illiterate in Spanish. Since no country speaks only one language, how much should multilingualism be encouraged, if at all?

Just One Common Language?

The Greeks and the Romans had a standardized version of their languages. Since the time of the French revolutions the Parisian dialect has been taught to all Frenchmen so as to blur the lines of social class and educate the people; Germany and Italy have done something similar. The Arab speaking countries have MSA and Indonesia has Bahasa Indonesian. Curiously, most of the former European colonies have continued speaking the language of their previous rulers. When the Jews reestablished Israel they resurrected the Hebrew language and started teaching it to their children who spoke a large number of different languages.

Is all of this trouble worth it? Yes, because it is easier and more practical. It has to do with the phenomenon of synergy: 1 + 1 = 3. It’s the idea that two people working together can achieve more than half of what they would have achieved by themselves. How well can you work with someone if you cannot understand what that person says, or vice versa? Have you ever had a foreign professor or teacher’s assistant with a thick foreign accent try to teach you an unfamiliar concept? A nation whose citizens speak a common language will almost always be more efficient and productive than one that is united by physical boundaries but separated by different languages. Few nations have ever achieved greatness without a single unifying language.

Thriving Multilingual Societies

Luxembourg, Sweden and Holland are just three examples of successful multilingual countries. There are many reasons why they succeed when others have failed but there is one that I think is very important: even though they have one common language, they do not limit themselves to just one. Whenever they need to expedite their communication they talk in the common language which all of them have been speaking and learning since elementary school. When they are in groups of friends and family who speak another language or feel like reading a newspaper in another language or decide to watch a TV show or movie in another language they have that option.

Some countries are trying to follow suite. Estonia is trying to become a functionally multilingual society adding English and German to Russian and their native Estonian. Chile has announced that it wishes to become an officially and functionally bilingual country, English being the second language. South Africa will undoubtedly keep and lose many of its languages as education becomes more accessible to all of its citizens.

Do you live in a multilingual society? Maybe you do but you don’t know it or have been raised in a monolingual bubble. Learning a new language is about making connections, so if you are considering which new language to learn, try learning one commonly spoken in your community. It’s true that immigrants, and even expatriates, should learn the local majority language but what’s wrong with locals learning the language of their neighbors? Functional multilingual societies are ones where no language barrier exists in the mist of several different languages.

Edufire’s Top 20 Language Blogs

Edufire is a website that I found out about only yesterday when a representative from the site made a comment on the About page of this blog. Edufire is a kind of a nexus where language tutors and language learners from all over the world can come together to teach and learn thirty five languages over the internet. They also have a lot of other free services like language games and forums where you can meet people from all parts of the globe. The tutors set up their rates themselves and then pay a percentage to Edufire, who did the advertising for them in the first place. The tutors are ranked by their students so that potential students can read these ratings before they pick and choose who they want to hire.

Guess Who Is On the List?

Edufire just made a list of what they feel are the best language blogs on the internet. Read here to find out just which blogs made the list. I was happily surprised to find out that The Linguist Blogger was included! I started this blog in December of 2007 and was going to erase it the following April because I didn’t think that anyone was reading. I installed a function to track how many times my blog was viewed and where the readers were coming from and I found that there were dozens of them. From then on I got delved into writing my posts and have had a lot of fun doing it.

Thanks to Readers and Commenters

Now this blog is viewed over a hundred times a day. You wonderful readers are from six continents and dozens of countries; I am humbled by the idea that you would take time out of your day to read anything that I write. Thank you for reading, for the insightful comments that you leave at the end of each post and for all of your encouragement.

Free Lessons

Edufire is looking to attract new learners and is going to be offering free tutoring sessions. Anyone who is interested can email Jon Bischke at jon@edufire.com. Let me go on record by saying that I will not get any money for referring you but perhaps you might be more likely to get some free service by mentioning that you were referred by Ryan at The Linguist Blogger.

Celebrities Speaking English at Different Levels

I have spoken several times about the US Government’s five point rating of a person’s mastery of a language. Instead of writing more about it in great detail, I thought it would be fun to give examples of what these levels of foreign language mastery sound like. Please understand that this is my own interpretation of what people sound like at levels one through five based on what I have read. I would also like to point out that these examples only have to do with spoken language and not any other aspect like reading or writing.

Tom Hanks Has a Hard Time with English

In this clip from the movie Terminal, Tom Hanks portrays a Slavic tourist who is, at the beginning of the movie, a great example of someone who has a level 1 mastery of a language.

Paz Vega Gets Her Point Across

This clip comes from the movie Spanglish. The Spanish actress Paz Vega plays a Mexican immigrant to the USA who decides to learn English so as not to need her daughter to act as an interpreter for her. This conversation with her boss (played by Adam Sandler) is a good example of someone speaking a foreign language at a level 2.

Her English is pretty authentic here. At the time of filming, Paz Vega was conversational in English but not much more than that so the studio hired an escort interpreter to follow her around the set to make sure nothing was lost in translation.

Gaspar Ulliel Is Very Good But Still Sounds French

In this recording Gaspar Ulliel is being interviewed about his role in the movie Hannibal Rising. Notice that he says some words perfectly, with no accent at all! Then he mispronounces the words youth and events and uses expressions that sound a little weird in English. This is a good example of a level 3 mastery. He’s confident enough to act and be interviewed in English, just as long as we are patient with his accent.

A Croatian with Very Impressive English

This is another interview but with actor Goran Visnjic who plays a doctor on the hospital drama E.R. If his name didn’t sound foreign (to Americans) and if I weren’t including him in this list you might not pick up on his accent. This is amazing because he didn’t get serious about learning English until his twenties and said that he was uninterested in and was bad at English in school. His English is a good example of level 4.

How Does Hauer Rutger Do It?

This Dutch actor speaks perfect English. He could, and probably does, pass for an American and probably even a British person. This, in and of itself, is amazing but what is even more amazing is that I don’t believe he had any big advantage in learning English. He was a horrible student who dropped out of school early and did a stint in the Dutch military at a young age. Both of his parents were Dutch so I don’t think that he was raised in a bilingual home. It seems that, at the age of an adult and with a poor academic record, Hauer was able to learn to speak English with a perfect British accent and a perfect American accent! He is one of the few people I know of to attain a level 5 in adulthood.

This first clip is from his famous monologue in the movie Blade Runner where I always thought that he was a British actor. The next clip is several decades later when he was being interviewed about his role in Blade Runner, but this time with an American accent.

Dr. Arguelles’ Six Most Important Languages

I think competency in foreign languages has almost always been looked on as a positive thing. Most of the world is at least bilingual and many people choose to learn more than just two languages. Eventually, the avid language learner will invariably ask him/herself, “Which language should I learn now?” I think that Dr. Alexander Arguelles has a wonderful answer to this question and you are free to read his words instead of just reading my comments about them. He claims that educated people should strive to learn at least six languages.

Is There Really a Single Language Combination that Is Best for Everyone?

Absolutely not! This is why I find his formula to be so reasonable. Instead of making a static list of languages, Dr. Arguelles says that we should all learn six languages that fall into four categories:

  1. Classical languages of one’s own culture.
  2. Major living languages of one’s broader culture.
  3. The international language.
  4. Exotic languages.


If you were Chinese then you would definitely learn Gu Wen (Ancient Chinese). One or two of your languages would probably be Mandarin, Shanghaiese (Wu), Cantonese (Yue) or even Japanese, depending on what part of China you were from. The third language would definitely be English. In the exotic language category you might pick Wolof, Indonesian or Slovak depending on your own personal interests.

If you were Indian then Pali and Sanscrit would fit nicely into the first category. Hindi, Tegulu, Tamil, Bengali, Punjabi and Marathi would all work very well for the second category, depending on what part of India you were from. English would, again, be a must. The exotic category is the most open, obviously, but I think that Arabic, Portuguese or Korean would all do nicely. Again, it depends on who you are.

As an American, Greek and Latin are probably where you want to start for the classical languages. Spanish makes the most sense in the second category though I recognize that Italian, German and Russian are also great choices. You were probably lucky enough to have the “international” language be your native tongue so pick a global language that interests you. For the last category you could pick Estonian, Turkish, Thai or maybe even Farsi.

Flexibility and Practicality

I like this list because each category serves a purpose. The first category gives us insight into our past, our present and possibly even our future. The second category helps us to understand the cultures that surround us or that are close to us. The third category puts us in touch with the world at large. The fourth category broadens us and challenges us to look at the world in a very different way. Proficiency in six languages from these categories would make one cultured, worldly wise and probably very well read, not to mention very employable.

By categorizing, instead of static listing, we are free to choose the languages that interest us while making sure that we learn useful languages at the same time. Since each category can be filed by a single language, the challenge to know six languages allows for more than one language in one or two categories. Never becoming competent in six languages or learning more than six is probably just fine in the end but, nonetheless, I think that knowing six languages in these four categories is a noble goal to strive for. If you were to learn six languages from these four categories what would they be?

Translating and Interpreting to Learn a Language

When developing a skill it’s common to get caught between the intermediate and advanced levels of mastery. Over at Confessions of a Language Addict this topic has been discussed regarding foreign language development. While I’m sure there are numerous ways to get from the intermediate to advanced level of speaking, writing, reading or understanding a language, two acquaintances of mine have used a rather unconventional method from time to time: translation and interpretation.

Isn’t That Counterintuitive?

Yes. At least I think it is counterintuitive but it’s worked for them. One of these people was a friend who needed to work with the Hispanic community in Southern California. He had had an intensive two month Spanish course and then was sent on his way. Getting to the advanced stage of speaking a language is very difficult to do with no language immersion but he was doing his best and getting a long all right. One Sunday at church he was asked to interpret for the Spanish speaking members of the congregation. They would be looking at the speaker while listening to the live interpretation through earphones, similar to the way they do it at the UN.

My friend was quite obviously overwhelmed but the rush of the experience was intoxicating. He was asked to provide this service many times in the future and this made him study up. The speed of the live interpretation got him to stop thinking about how to say things and focus on just saying them quickly enough not to fall behind. It also gave him an excuse that he probably wouldn’t have had otherwise to increase his vocabulary and learn words that weren’t necessarily required for everyday common speech. Later on in his life he had the opportunity to go to South America for a more extended period of time but his advanced level of Spanish allowed him to truly enjoy the experience instead of make him frustrated about not expressing himself well.

Would Professionals Actually Use This Method?

Yes! Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire was named by Cambridge University as one of the 20th century’s greatest intellectuals. He has studied 115 different languages and has a wonderful poetry anthology where he translated poems from sixty languages into his native Portuguese. While talking to him on the phone the other day, Dr. Freire mentioned to me that translation was a wonderful way to really dig in and learn a language.

I assume that this is due to the necessity to learn vocabulary and expressions that are beyond an intermediate level. At an intermediate level one can usually express one’s needs and wants and the basic idea of whatever one wishes to say. Unfortunately, this can end up making the learner quite lazy. If the need to translate arises it forces the learner to delve deeper and learn more than his or her circumstances would normally require