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Ioannis Ikonomou

 Language Learning Forum : Polyglots Post Reply
9 messages over 2 pages: 1 2  Next >>
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 Message 1 of 9
08 February 2009 at 8:10am | IP Logged 
EU interpreter speaks 32 languages (article in German)

FAZ article

Edited by urubu on 08 February 2009 at 8:20am

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 Message 2 of 9
11 February 2009 at 12:22am | IP Logged 
Interesting article. Thanks for posting it.
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 Message 3 of 9
20 February 2009 at 1:46pm | IP Logged 
One more thread about an interesting man that just got buried under a heap of new threads. Ioannis Ikonomou, born in Cyprus and now working as an interpreter at the EU headquarter in Brussel, seems to be one of these sponge-like learners that learn through total immersion without ever doing a formal study. He doesn't really understand how people can want to learn the rules of a language just for the sake of the language, for him it is all about getting immersed and absorbing the foreign culture - even to the point that he changes religion and eating habits according the his current projects. And he was a selfconfessed lousy language teacher because he didn't understand that others couldn't absorb a new language as fast as himself.

Apparently this approach works for him because it is claimed that he speaks 32 languages. For me it would be difficult NOT to be fascinated by the mechanics of a new language as a thing in its own right, but there are just different types of learners in this world.

I have tried to find more information on the internet about him, but the few references apparently refer to his namesake, who is a musician.

Edited by Iversen on 13 March 2009 at 11:56pm

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 Message 4 of 9
22 February 2009 at 6:02pm | IP Logged 
What interests me in reading about polyglots is not the number of languages they speak, but how their way of life is. I find this article published in a German newspaper very interesting, because it gives some impressions about how he lives polyglottery. I would assume that Ikonomou is an exception having learned languages without having studied the grammar, vocabulary etc. of his languages. In my opinion polyglottery normally is the result of a life-long consequent learning and practicing process of foreign languages. That can mean that a lot of work on the languages is included, which Ikonomou doesn't do. Striking for me is that polyglottery makes him a lonely person, because other people don't understand his way of life and his language-related special interests. I am myself aware of the fact that living polyglottery can make life very fascinating - but not always easy. Like me Ikonomou has a family background which is not very supportive for developing polyglottery.

Edited by Fasulye on 22 February 2009 at 9:03pm

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 Message 5 of 9
22 February 2009 at 7:14pm | IP Logged 
Thanks for this link - it's a great article. :-)
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 Message 6 of 9
04 March 2009 at 4:06am | IP Logged 
Hey everyone. I thought this was a very fascinating article and I wanted to make it available to everyone on the forum, so I translated it. Hope you enjoy it!


The Speaker of Everything
by Hendrik Kafsack, Brussels
February 6, 2009

Ioannis Ikonomou doesn’t undestand such people. People who learn a language and then another, and then another, and then yet another – and simply are not able to get their fill of cramming vocabulary and grammar rules: “That’s so boring!” All that energy just to pick up a language to speak or to land a job. He doesn’t understand that. Ikonomou speaks 32 languages plus several old languages and dialects that he has only passively mastered or knows imperfectly. But that is the by-product. “Was fascinates me is the civilization, the culture, the music and the food behind the language,” he says. “I immerse myself in all that. Then the love for the language emerges all on its own.” Ikonomou speaks of love often where languages are concerned. “Whenever I learn a language, I’m in love with it.”

One doesn’t go about learning a language with modal verbs, believes Ikonomou. “You need to want to know everything, absolutely everything, about the country, the culture, the language.” One must “live” a language, be curious, and love it. Learning Polish means also cooking pierogi. Russian is Dostojewski, Persian old poetry, Hungarian folk music, German the “Weltspiegel” in early Sunday evenings. And of course television. “You need to watch TV to daily see normal people.” And read books and live religion: When he studied Urdu and Hindi, Ikonomou even lived out the values of Hinduism by being strictly vegetarian for 18 years. Then he learned Persian, occupied himself with Islam and became Sufist, a follower of Islamic mysticism. Today he is atheist. “What counts is being good,” says the 44 year old Greek. One cannot convey everything through words, no matter the language.

“I Was a Terrible Teacher”

Ikonomou cannot pass on any better guidance for language learning. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t a good teacher, either. At the end of the eighties as he came to the end of his comparative linguistics studies in Saloniki, he went to New York to study Middle Eastern languages at Columbia University, he taught Turkish and Russian on the side. “I was a terrible teacher,” he recalls. “I simply could not grasp that it could be difficult for someone to absorb a new language.” However, he also has had failures. Vietnamese simply didn’t work out. The grammar wasn’t the problem; it’s simple. But Ikonomou couldn’t get the right tones, and that is crucial for a tonal language like Vietnamese.

But the majority of other languages come to him readily. Everything began with the sounds that all the tourists produced while on his home island Crete. “To me they were all meaningless sounds. So Ikonomou began to study the foreign sounds, English’s sounds when he was five, German’s when he was seven or eight and then Italian’s. There as a Greek married to a German woman who gave me German lessons.” The Ö was terribly hard. It took forever before he could say “Öl” instead of “Äl”.

“My Life is Often a Lonely Journey.”

His parents helped where they could. They themselves spoke English, at least a little bit. His father worked in the ministry; his mother was a teacher. They could never comprehend the compassion their son had for civilizations and languages. But while taking part in a peace demonstration in Athens they used the opportunity to find a Turkish teacher for their son. That was Aisha, who taught him the language of the Greeks’ adversaries. The also sent Ikonomou to Peking during his university studies so that he could improve his Mandarin.

His specific passions are for the ancient languages. He learned Ancient Greek and Latin in school. Later on he studied ancient proverbs in Sanskrit and ancient Iranian languages, such as Parthian or Khotanese. And lastly he learned the Mayan language and script in Mexico. “Later when I was in Mexico City, in the ‘Museo Antropologia’, and read the old written characters, it was as if I had my own guide into the past,” he recalls. “Me, alone with the Mayan speakers.” Many people are not able to understand what he finds so fascinating. “My life is often a lonely journey.” Many people speak several languages. – but hardly anyone shares his fascination for cultures and histories with. Not even his life partner. Indeed, he’s bored by the “Weltspiegel.” But he doesn’t even speak any German, only the two EU-standard languages French and English aside from his native Polish.

There is No Better Resource Against Alzheimer’s.

Ikonomou cannot remove himself from languages. After his time in New York he studied Indo-Iranian and Scandinavian languages, followed by research in Vienna. A grant from the European Parliament brought him to Brussels in 1994. Afterwards he worked as an interpreter in the EU-Commision. It was a stressful life in the interpreter’s booth. Today Ikonomou translates legal texts. It is a little boring, he says. On the other hand it’s great that any European, for example his father, is able to read texts from the EU in his or her own language. That is democracy. In addition he can live in Brussels and speak with peoples from 27 member states about their cultures, foods and music. And above all the job is not too stressful. It leaves a lot of time to travel.

And that’s what Ikonomou needs whenever he wants to train in his many languages. “It’s like a sport: If you don’t use it, you lose it,” he says. At one time he could speak Armenian. He learned it while he was in the military. While using the bathroom. “At least I had some free space in there.” Most of it he’s forgotten again. Too little practice. Nor does he speak Lithuanian any more. Since then it’s easier to maintain in contact with a language. There’s the internet and satellite television. Ikonomou watches the news in Spanish. He has a favorite Russian talkshow. And every Sunday at 7:20 PM: “Weltspiegel.” There is no better resource against Alzheimer’s. “Studies show that people who often switch back and forth between languages never fall ill to Alzheimer’s,” says Ikonomou. “I can therefore look calmly await the future.” His next project is Ethiopian – or even Amharian, which the Ethiopian’s lingua franca is called. “That is the oldest African language with its own script that is still spoken today,” says Ikonomou. “Above all, I love Ethiopian food.”

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 Message 7 of 9
11 March 2009 at 5:05pm | IP Logged 
Nice. Haha, it's always the tones that get people!
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 Message 8 of 9
13 March 2009 at 8:20pm | IP Logged 
Awsome translation! Thanks for helping the community to understand this interesting article!

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