sobota, 13 júla, 2024


The most difficult languages are those you don’t know anything about


Interview with prof. Henri Wittmann – a famous Canadian linguist

1. When and where did you start to learn your first foreign language? What language was it?

My first two languages were German and French: My mother spoke to me only in German, and my paternal grandmother who took care of me spoke to me only in French. At the age of 7, I came into contact with a 3rd language, Yiddish, which I learned from other kids in a concentration camp and I started to use the new language alongside my German and my French.

At liberation in 1945, I came into contact with a 4th language, American English. I was almost 8 by then. As it is, none of these language I learned up to that age were of my choosing. Later on, in high school and university, I came to learn other languages grammar-wise, but never well enough to sustain an intelligent conversation in.

2. Why did you start learning the foreign language? Was it compulsory, or did you have any other motivation?

The learning of my first four languages was motivated by necessity. The learning of other languages later on was motivated by my interest in grammatical structure.

It seemed to me a game of logic.

3. What was the most difficult for you to learn? What is the best way according to you to learn a language?

I don’t remember any difficulty learning my first four languages. The most difficult part of learning languages after that was memorizing vocabulary.

Language is vocabulary cast into the mould of a syntax. Vocabulary should be acquired in context without fear of ridicule. The learning of grammar requires formal tools. After all, it’s the knowledge of grammar that wiil eventually stigmatize the speaker of a given language as educated our uneducated.

4. Did you like learning a foreign language? Why yes? Why not?

Yes, I liked learning languages, but I hated memorizing vocabulary. 

5. What languages can you speak?

American English, French, German, Yiddish, Creole French, in that order may be. The other languages I learned, I can understand to some extent, read or talk about in a linguistics course on syntax or universal grammar.

6. When did you start having a feeling that you are able to speak a foreign language fluently?

I don’t remember any feelings other than the satisfaction I got out of being able to talk back to one of my former wifes in her native Creole French.

7. Is there any language you would like to learn? Why?

I’d like to learn Israely Hebrew, Palestinian Arabic and Italian, all languages I never used in any of my courses. Why? Just for fun.

8. Which language is according to you: the easiest, the most difficult and the most beautiful?

Once you’ve got away from expecting languages as being cast in a particuar mould, here is no “easiest”. The most difficult languages are those you don’t know anything about. The most beautiful language to me is Hittite, precisely because it’s a dead language.

9. When and why did you decide to become a professional linguist? Have you experienced any funny / terrible story thanks to languages?

When I started learning Latin, I became fascinated with comparing the grammar with the grammar of other languages. 

Eventually I learned there were language families, i. e. sets of languages that were related to each other phylogenetically, such as indo-European, Malayo-Polynesian (now called Austronesian), etc.; and sets of languages based on typology, such as languages with SOV-syntax (Turkish, Urdu-Hindi, etc.). Without really realizing, I was on the road to becoming a “professional” linguist.

About Henri Wittmann

  •  He was born in Alsatia in 1937. After studying at the Sorbonne, he exiled himself to North America. He taught successively at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the University of Windsor, McGill Univeristy in Montreal, the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, etc..
  • He retired from teaching in 1997. In the following years, he became the first Director of the Presses universitaires de Trois-Rivières and emeritus researcher at the Centre d’Analyse des Littératures Francophones des Amériques (CALIFA) at Carleton University in Ottawa.
  • He is a member of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), he cofounded the Linguistics Department at McGill University and also the Linguistic Society of Quebec, and he also became the first Editor of the Revue québécoise de linguistique théorique et appliquée.
  • A list of his work would amount to hundreds of items.
  • More about Henri Wittmann and his work.

Interview was done in 2011.