MANY people are able to speak two languages fluently, or maybe three or even four, but Ioannis Ikonomou, who is comfortable speaking almost three dozen, is not like many people.
In a telephone interview with the Athens News (in English) from his office at the European Commission in Brussels, the 46-year-old translator says he began learning English, his first foreign language, at the age of 6.
“I liked it so much that there was no stopping me,” says Ikonomou, whose mother tongue is Greek.
“The next language was German. Then after a few years I stated learning Italian. And then, more and more. While I was in high school I wanted to learn Russian, Turkish and Arabic. I always wanted to learn more. I feel comfortable speaking about 32 languages.”
Chinese is among them. In fact he is the only in-house translator the EC trusts to translate classified Chinese documents and so the commission will be sending Ikonomou to Beijing next week to work for the EU delegation as a translator.
“They don’t have other people speaking Chinese,” he says. “I’m looking forward to going.”
This trip will be for three months, with another three months next year, and starting as of 2012 he’ll be spending six months of the year there.
“It’s part of the EU’s effort to build relations with China, which are extremely important,” Ikonomou says. “The commission want to have in-house translators to translate classified documents – so I’m their man.”
In a 2008 report published to mark the European Day of Languages on September 26, Ikonomou said: “Translation is about commuting between languages – and this is like magic to me: you stand alone facing a text which few people would understand without your acting as an intermediary. You start working with a document, you transform it, you breathe new life into it by giving it meaning in another language and tah dah! – you come up with a new text, a product of your knowledge, intelligence and sensitivity.”
There’s no secret to learning languages, Ikonomou says. “You just have to immerse yourself in the language and the culture. It’s easier now with the internet and satellite television.”
So which languages are difficult to pick up?
“There’s really no hard or easy language to learn,” he says. “Anyone can learn a language if they fall in love with it.”
Dives right in
When learning a new language, Ikonomou says he lives and breathes everything connected to it. He spends time studying the language, of course, but also the people who speak it and the food they eat.
Basically, you have to try to live like a native of that language, he says. Travelling and spending time in the country where the language is spoken is also very important.
Ikonomou travels every chance he gets. He has visited Scandinavia, the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa and the former Soviet Union, as well as China, Pakistan, Latin America, Europe, Canada and the United States.
He has studied ancient languages. His studies in Indo-European linguistics included courses in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Avestan, Old Persian, Middle Iranian languages, Classical Armenian, Gothic, Pali, Old Church Slavonic, Hittite, Luwian, Oscan, Umbrian and Irish.
“When I was learning Polish,” he says, “I cooked Polish pierogies, read Polish newspapers and watched Polish television.”
Clearly, the man is passionate. “If I choose to learn a language it’s because I’ve fallen in love with it,” he says. “When I started learning Sanskrit I had a love affair with this language which lasted for very many years.”
Now he’s in love with Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. It’s the oldest African language with its own characters and is still spoken today.
“I love Ethiopian food,” Ikonomou says. “I dine at Ethiopian restaurants every chance I get. I have to put it on hold for now though because I have to concentrate on brushing up on my Chinese for work.”
IOANNIS Ikonomou was born in Irakleio, Crete, in 1964. He studied linguistics at the University of Thessaloniki before pursuing an MA in Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Columbia University in the United States. He continued with a PhD in Indo-European linguistics at Harvard University. He has been employed as a translator at the European Commission in Brussels since 2002.