Montreal student speaks 19 languages — and he's still learning more

Many people in Quebec speak more than one language, and some even speak several.

But Montreal student Georges Awaad may be in a category all his own. He speaks 19 languages, teaching himself many of them.

A search conducted by the Student Life Network in collaboration with language-learning app Babbel found that Georges Awaad is the most multilingual student in Canada.

The 20-year-old linguistics student speaks languages including Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin, Swedish, Russian and Japanese. And he's still learning more languages.

Georges Awaad spoke with CBC Montreal's All in a Weekend host Sonali Karnick (in English).

Sonali Karnick: You speak Romanian, Georgian, Portuguese, German, Italian and Korean and others. Why did you want to learn so many languages?

Georges Awaad: When I was a kid at the age of 10, I was at my elementary school and we had an improv event where we had to sit around a table and debate. Each person had to talk about a certain topic in a different language. I got to hear the sounds of so many different accents and languages and that really is when the language bug bit me and I wanted to learn more to understand what they meant. It was like a code that I wanted to crack.

SK: What languages did you grow up speaking?

GA: French at home, a little bit of Arabic with some family members and also English at an elementary school.

SK: How did you teach yourself — because you taught yourself pretty much most of the languages?

GA: I mostly went online and looked up some resources to learn by myself; YouTube tutorials or web. I also had some friends in Montreal who speak other languages and I asked them, "Can I practice with you or chat with you online or in person?"

SK: How long does it take for you to learn a language?

GA: It depends on the level of similarity between French and that language. I would say if it's a Latin language, maybe Spanish or Portuguese, it'll probably take five or six months. If it's Mandarin or Japanese, these ones took longer, especially Mandarin, I would say two years approximately.

SK:  How much of the language do you do you learn? Can you write in Chinese and Japanese now?

GA: Yes I can. I think the hardest part was learning [Chinese] characters but I think there's an inherent logic behind it that you can learn. When you know that logic, you can notice the pattern in every single character and that makes it easier.

SK: When you were picked by Student Life Network as the most multilingual Canadian student, how did they test your proficiency?

GA: They asked me to film videos of myself speaking in all the different languages …. They saw them they were really really impressed.

SK: Well obviously you said more than "where's the bathroom!"

GA: Yes, exactly. But I I talked about myself. I just described myself as a person; who I am, what I like to do, things like that. And it was a whole video of two minutes long and so they really liked it. They thought I had a good pronunciation and I spoke naturally in them.

SK: What was the most difficult language to learn?

GA: I would say definitely Georgian, especially because of how different the grammar is from the other languages that I had learned before. It's not in the same family as many other languages out there. It's not Indo-European, it's not even not even similar to Russian at all even though it's close geographically.

Verity Stevenson/CBC

SK What's your favourite language to speak?

GA: Mandarin because I really enjoy the accent of Mandarin. I think especially because of the tones because it's a language where the words that you say have to have a specific pitch or movement of your voice in order to convey the meaning you want. So as an example, ma means mother or a mom and maa means horse.

SK: How fluent are you though in those 19 languages?

GA: I speak the first eight or nine really naturally and fluently and the other the other 10 I'm more conversational. I make some mistakes sometimes but I can still converse.

SK: Part of it is fear, though, when you are learning a language that you're just going to speak to somebody and make a lot of mistakes. How did you get rid of that self-consciousness?

GA: I think it's you have to understand that mistakes are a normal part of learning anything in general but especially learning other languages because I think I used to be that way too. I don't want to look ridiculous if I make a mistake, but I realized that the words that I know the best now are the ones that I have made a mistake with in the past because someone had corrected me on the spot. For me, it was a moment that was that marked me. And so I remember, "okay I won't make that mistake again" and I don't make it. Then it's easier for me. You have to know that it's gonna help you move on and learn, it's not just something bad.

SK: What's the value of learning so many languages?

GA: It brings so much value, I think, especially on a human level because you can connect with people from other cultures a lot more easily and with a lot deeper connection than with just English as a medium language. There are even some studies that have been done on the emotional aspect of language. When you speak your mother tongue, it activates parts in your brain that have to do with emotional affect that other languages don't do. So, this means that if you speak to someone in their mother tongue they will feel very comfortable and a lot more natural with you than if they have to force themselves. And that's what I have felt with my friends when I speak to them like they they open up more easily and they speak faster and it's more fun for me to speak with them.

SK: What do you plan on doing with all of this knowledge?

GA: Right now, I'm studying linguistics at McGill so it's definitely helpful for me to understand and study in depth the patterns of languages in terms of a career. I would say right now I'm thinking to continue in linguistics, a Master's or PhD because I would I really like to do some research and to teach. But it on a more personal level, I would like to travel more and talk to people in their languages and understand their cultures more and that way I can have a more enriching experiences in the countries I go to.

SK: What language are you learning right now?

GA: I'm working on a language that's called chuj. It's a language from the Mayan family, spoken in northern Guatemala. It's because at university I'm working on a research project on that language. And along with a prof and grad students we are documenting this language because it is a bit in danger of disappearing right now so we're working on preserving it. Along the way, I have been picking up some sentences and words but I can't speak it yet. Eventually, hopefully, I will.

SK: Can you tell us a word in that language, for example?

GA: EE-chach-vill-ah. It means "I saw you."

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.