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Naoki Watanabe: "When I visited Belarus for the first time, at the airport NO ONE spoke to me in Belarusian apart from the KDB"

Naoki Watanabe (his name is written 渡辺 尚輝 in Japanese, Ізяслаў Кацуміёвіч Наокі in Belarusian, and Naoki Turul Szervác in Hungarian), 24, is a unique polyglot who learns rare and endangered languages, and lives them as well. Born in Japan, he lives now in Budapest, Hungary. Naoki can speak American English, Hungarian, Kalmyk Oirat, Manchu, Erzya, Moksha, Old Prussian, Crimean Tatar, Belarusian, Okinawan and Guarani. I wondered how he succeeded to learn so many, so we had a small internet talk.

Mindaugas Peleckis
2021 m. Kovo 11 d., 17:45
Skaityta: 449 k.
Naoki Watanabe in Belarusian Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia, December 2019. All photos taken from N. Watanabe's personal archive.
Naoki Watanabe in Belarusian Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia, December 2019. All photos taken from N. Watanabe's personal archive.

You are a polyglot and speak at least dozen of languages fluently (please, correct me if I'm wrong). Could You remember how it all began? In what languages are You fluent?

I only claim fluency in 3 languages: Japanese, American English, and Hungarian. The rest I speak at varying levels but in general the ones I nowadays list when asked which languages I speak (in addition to the first 3) are (in order of descending fluency) Belarusian, Estonian, Manchu, Kalmyk, Crimean Tatar, Erzya, and Guarani (though I have serious difficulties with all of these which I am trying to address, especially with the latter 2).

Additionally I’ve attempted to learn Moksha, Old Prussian, and Okinawan and also at times listed them as languages I speak but nowadays I don’t as my level in these languages was never significant to begin with and has eroded over the years.

Naoki in Cuman clothes in Kiskunhalas

As for how it all began, it began with my fascination with Hungary that eventually gave rise to a general fascination with Uralic peoples and languages. Concurrently, I became fascinated with history, starting from an interest in World War II I developed around the age of 10, which resulted in me reading about various nations I gained an interest in as a result of being exposed to them in World War II related literature.  These fascination eventually overlapped and resulted in an interest in history in general and the languages associated with historical nations and individuals I like.

I've read that You are a Magyarophile from childhood and now live in Budapest. What attracted Your attention in this culture and language?

I started learning Hungarian when I was 12 and my Magyarophilia started when I got a book from my mom called Vampyre: The Terrifying Lost Journal of Dr. Cornelius Van Helsing. This book contained multiple sections containing Hungarian phrases as well as details on Hungarian folklore and history such as the tale of Erzsébet Báthory and traditional anti-vampire rituals used in Transylvania.  As a result of this book I started learning Hungarian on my own and actively sought out Hungarians.

I was living in Michigan at the time and first encountered them at a Hungarian restaurant where I attempted to speak Hungarian using the phrases in the book.  Over time I became attracted to Hungarian history and traditional culture (especially the Cuman culture in central Hungary) and when I moved to Hungary for the first time in 2017 to study at Pécsi Tudományegyetem, I was able to truly improve my Hungarian.

You know at least several rather rare and endangered Finno-Ugric languages, as well as Manchu. How do You use them in life? Did You visit all the countries which native languages You know?

The only rare and endangered Finno-Ugric languages I’ve actively studied are Erzya and Moksha, and the latter I barely use outside of interactions with Mokshans online and occasional attempts to write poetry in Moksha.

When I lived in Estonia in 2019, I had multiple opportunities to use Erzya (and on one occasion Moksha with a Mokshan woman) and even had Erzya language classes at the University of Tartu under the esteemed Prof. Denys Teptyuk, who speaks Erzya as well as Estonian, Russian, Ukrainian, and English. 

Naoki with the Manchu Empire flag in Turkey

I also used Erzya during my first visit to Estonia in January 2018 where I met Natalia Ermakova, head of the Erzya-Moksha association in Estonia, as well as Prof. Niina Aasmäe, author of the first Erzya language textbook for English speakers; when I traveled to Finland that same month I visited a Hungarian friend who speaks Erzya.  I also used Erzya at the 2019 International Finno-Ugric Students Conference in Vienna where I gave a trilingual presentation in English, Hungarian, and Erzya.  I haven’t visited any of the traditional Erzya or Moksha lands though.  And Erzya I mainly use when talking to Erzyans online, though I do often listen to Erzya language music.

As for Manchu, the language is relatively easy for me due to both the grammar and phonology having many similarities to Japanese. My main problems are memorizing vocabulary and finding people to practice with; the script is also quite difficult but I can read and write with some effort. Though I’ve managed to alleviate the problem of finding speakers to an extent by gathering several enthusiasts online to regularly use the language with (of particular note is my Turkish friend Prof. Mehmet Levent Kaya, a true Manchu language and culture expert who has visited Qapqal, where the closely related Xibe language is spoken). I also use Manchu in my calligraphy and in 2019 I wrote a diary in Belarus to document my experiences. I wrote this diary in 4 languages: Belarusian, Japanese, Hungarian, and Manchu.

Naoki speaking Okinawan in 2013 during his school trip to Okinawa

I've read your story of visiting the Belarusian embassy in Tallinn. That's awesome! I guess they were quite surprised, – as far as I know, not all Belarusians know their language and many speak Russian. What do You think about what’s happening in Belarus from the last summer?

Naturally I support the Revolution because my main position when it comes to Belarus is supporting the Belarusian language, and the opposition is far more in favor of this compared to the Lukashenka regime that’s been in power for 26 years and actively pursued a policy of Russification.

I personally experienced the frustration resulting from such policies when I visited Belarus for the first time in 2019.  The first example being how at the airport NO ONE spoke to me in Belarusian apart from the KDB (Belarusian secret police, Камітэт дзяржаўнай бяспекі; it's better known as KGB in Russian, – M. P.).  I also have many Belarusian friends who are fighting in the Revolution and have been arrested so I have a personal reason to support them. Last year I attempted to write poetry in support of the revolution and I wrote 9 different types of poems in 9 different languages: Japanese (Chouka), Estonian (Free verse), Guarani (Sonnet), Hungarian (Song), Kalmyk (Ode), Crimean Tatar (Ghazal), Manchu (Calligraphic poem/Tanka), Erzya (Acrostic), and English (Triolet). Ironically the only language I didn’t write a poem in was Belarusian, though I plan to write one much longer than the others eventually.

Naoki with the Belarusian flag in Northumbria

Have You ever used any programs like Duolingo, Mondly or Memrise for language learning? What methods would You recommend for those interested?

I’m not familiar with Mondly but I’ve used Duolingo and Memrise. The former I actively use to practice Hungarian as well as Scots Gaelic when I feel like it (I briefly attempted to learn Scots Gaelic last year because I lived in Scotland for 7 months and even had lessons at the Celtic Department of the University of Glasgow with Prof. Kathleen Reddy). 

Naoki presenting at the 2019 International Finno-Ugric Students Conference

Duolingo’s method is great overall as it forces you to practice everyday and covers a variety of topics while introducing new vocabulary at a gradual pace but has two downsides: the lack of variety when it comes to languages (as apart from Hungarian there is no language I truly want there) and the fact that the courses are clearly designed for people with a least SOME prior exposure; complete beginners who don’t know a single word of their target language would definitely struggle. As for Memrise, there is a wider variety of languages and the fact that users can make their own courses is a huge plus. I myself made an Ainu language course as well as an Old Prussian one years ago and last year I managed to learn Toki Pona in 3 days through Memrise (although I’ve largely forgotten it now due to a lack of use).  While nowadays I don’t really use Memrise I may go back to it to at least regain Toki Pona.

Naoki and one of his best friends, who is a Crimean Tatar

As for methods, it depends on the individual but in general, I recommend people only learn a language they’re truly interested in because motivation is the key factor. This is why I oppose teaching foreign languages in schools: the selections are always too small and limited to the same “major” Western European Romance-Germanic options + Mandarin.  In my childhood and education in America and Japan, there were no compulsory foreign languages in schools (unless you count English in Japan) and I’m grateful for that because having some language I have no interest in forced upon me would’ve hindered my personal efforts in my own time to learn the languages I’m truly interested in.  I started learning Hungarian at the age of 12, Manchu and Belarusian at the age of 15, Kalmyk, Old Prussian, and Okinawan at the age of 16, and Crimean Tatar at the age of 17; if I had some “major” language irrelevant to my actual interests forced upon me, it would’ve hindered my personal studies.

Do You still learn new languages or plan to do it?

Not at the moment as my primary goal is to consolidate the ones I claim to speak and when that is done truly put more effort into Moksha, Old Prussian, and Okinawan.  If I were to start some new languages, my choices would be Mapudungun, Seto, Udmurt, Komi, Mari, Algerian Arabic, Basque, Adyghe, Uyghur, or Sanskrit.

As You are a Japanese, I must ask about Okinawans / Ryūkyūans and Ainus. What’s their language situation in Japan? Are there grammars, dictionaries not in Japanese?

The languages themselves are in dire straits as very few people speak them and the Ryukyuan languages aren’t even recognized by most Japanese as distinct languages; they’re condescendingly referred to as 方言 (dialects) even though the mutual intelligibility between Japanese and Okinawan is only between 58% and 65% (for comparison, Spanish and Portuguese have an 89% mutual intelligibility rate but no one calls them dialects of one or the other).

When I went to Okinawa in 2013 for a school trip, I was the only person in my grade who attempted to learn Okinawan beforehand and even carried around a small phrasebook. Many Okinawans felt flattered by my efforts but on my last day, in Naha, I visited an old antique shop and there was this shopkeeper who rudely told me “not to speak dialect” when I greeted her in Okinawan. And I doubt she was even Okinawan, as her skin was too light (and Ryukyuans tend to have darker skin than Yamato Japanese).  As for Ainu, I haven’t been to Hokkaido yet so I haven’t seen the situation firsthand, though I’ve encountered Ainu enthusiasts and experts in Tokyo.  But for both Ainu and Okinawan (and to a lesser extent other Ryukyuan languages), materials such as grammar guides, dictionaries, and even textbooks are quite easy to find in Japanese bookstores.  Interestingly, there’s even an Okinawan-Portuguese dictionary, written by Prof. Lucila Etsuko Gibo, an Okinawan-Brazilian and my favorite professor from Sophia University/上智大学, my BA alma mater.

Good luck, and many thanks.

Komentarai
  • Harris Mowbray
    2021 m. Kovo 11 d., 21:26
    Naoki is very talented :)