A moment before the interview started, Muhamed Mesic was having an oversea conversation with a work colleague in Spanish. “We have some legal issues with the government of Guatemala; they run their affairs there like in Iraq or Syria”, he switches to a perfectly formulated Hebrew and then apologizes: “Sorry for my bad language. I haven’t spoken Hebrew since 2009”. The truth? One cannot notice. Apparently this is how it feels like when you speak more than 60 languages, not including a holding few academic degrees in Law, Judaism, International Relations and Japanology. And all these before even turning 28.
Muhamed was born in Tuzla, an industrial city in the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia and Herzegovina of today) to a family of Jewish, Christian and Muslim heritage. His mother tongue is Serbo-Croatian, that after the falling apart of the communistic state was separated into Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. “Bosnian children speak three languages already from birth”, he says.
His phenomenal talent for languages was discovered by chance at the age of 5, while being with his family on vacation in Greece. “This was the first time I met people whose language I couldn’t recognize”, he remembers, “I could listen to our neighbors talking and then figure out the meaning from the situation. At the end of the vacation, I was able to help my father to communicate with a local mechanic who repaired our car. My parents were shocked.”
The doctors who examined Muhamed concluded that it is the Asperger’s Syndrome (a light form of Autism) that made him simply comprehend languages, even unintentionally. “At the age of 9, I learned Swedish from the Swedish soldiers who were situated in my city during the Bosnian Civil War. In my first trip after the war to Hungary, my Grandmother demanded from me not to learn Hungarian, she said I didn’t need it. When I came back, I was afraid to tell her the truth.”
ITT: Which language do you use for thinking?
MM: Mostly in Slovak and Portuguese. Hebrew is also a very good language to think in. Once you translate a problem into Hebrew, it becomes more visual and understandable. I like the logic in Hebrew and the fact that you can be polite without really being polite. Also curses are a complete normal expression of a language, and I think that grammar isn’t that important for life – these are just arbitrary that developed with time. A language could be beautiful also without it. People tend to categorize simple languages as ‘primitive’, but au contraire.
How did you come to speak Hebrew?
When I was 12, I listened to a show on the radio with the president of the Jewish community in Bosnia. I was put me on-line and asked him how I can learn the three languages of Judaism - Ladino, Yiddish and Hebrew. He laughed and asked: ‘all at once?”, and then recommended to start with Hebrew. At that time I also had a good friend who kept the VCRs of all the Eurovision Song Contests throughout the years. So this is how I started to learn Hebrew: by reciting Israel’s songs to the competition. I can recall all of them to that very day.
So the Eurovision is a multi Language Course for you?
Yes, but today it’s different. When I was young, each country sang in its own language, and I thought: ‘great – I can practice all of them’. Today everybody sing in English, and also not in the best quality.
Could you reveal you secret: how do you do it?
At first you need a cause to learn the language, and then to recognize how you can grasp it efficiently. Every person does it differently: some with the help of books, others with language courses, movies or music. Except for Hebrew and the Signs Language, I never took a language course. For instance, once I needed money. So a friend of mine asked me to learn fluent Latvian in 2 weeks and then to join him on a business trip in Riga. With the help of YouTube, two books and 43 cartoons I managed to get to a conversational level.
How come that the fellows from the Linguistics Academy did not kidnap you by now?
I didn’t go there because I believe that it will take away all the magic.
The Battle over the Language
Muhamed left Bosnia 10 years ago in order to study International Law at the University of Vienna, with the faith that he can help his country better from abroad. During his studies he decided to focus on Genocides, a topic that concerns him since he was a child in Bosnia between 1992-1995. His role model is Jewish-American jurist Raphael Lemkin who coined the term “Genocide” in 1944. Similar to Muhamed, Lemkin spoke by himself 15 languages.
“Before the war in Bosnia, people used to say: ‘we live with each other, no next to each other’. There was no relevance whether you were Bosnian, Croatian or Serbian”, Muhamed says. “And after the war I came to the conclusion that people simply do want to understand each other. So as being said ‘Never Again’ about the Holocaust, I have my private ‘Never Again’ in relation to Genocides.” And indeed, since he finished his studies, Muhamed has become a wanted speaker and activist in this field, and cooperated with the Professors Israel Charny and Eliyahu Richter from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The same as in battles over territory, Muhamed believes, there is also a war happening between big and small languages. According to recent estimates, the number of the languages spoken today is 6,700. More than half of them are doomed to disappear until the end of the century. Muhamed believes that by learning languages, he can rescue them and the minority’s culture they represent from extinction. “A bad example today is North America. Many minorities could have maintained their language and culture, and still integrate themselves with the mainstream”, he claims. “I have a friend; she’s an offspring to the Lakota Tribe, whose people have lost completely the ability to speak their tribe’s language. The only way they try to save it, is by holding a meeting once a week and learning there new vocabulary every time.
Look, allegedly there are languages that you don’t need for life.
I don’t focus on the plain profit from a language. I speak Icelandic for example, but I don’t think that I must do anything with it beyond speaking with friends and colleagues. Language is knowledge, and knowledge is happiness, and that’s what is important in life. A language dies when the people who speak it no longer relate to it as wealth, but as something redundant. And when it dies, the knowledge it carries in it dies with it. Take for instance ‘Tovan’, which is a Turk language being spoken in south Siberia. Children in this region learn this language as if it was already dead or extinct. Then they lose interest in it, and distance themselves from their own culture. This leads eventually to poverty in the region, violence and depression. You see the same with the Eskimos in a civilized country like Canada. I think that as the state has the duty to protect the freedom of religion for each person; it musts also protect his language.
And where do you think the schools should step in?
Sometimes I thank G-d for not going to school for two years during the war. This made me open my eyes and focus on what really interests me. The problem is that schools made language learning all about getting good grades, and in order not to be able to speak with other people.
After he finished Law School in Vienna, Muhamed decided not to become a lawyer. “I don’t like confrontations”, he says, “I prefer to settle disputes and not the win them. In fact, I get a headache every time someone is lying to me.”
In these days he works as the head of the legal department of an international construction firm and for the “outbalance”, he is a part of several projects with the aim of creating sustainable and barrier free access for information. Over the last few years he has been active on Wikipedia (in many languages, in fact) and was busy with developing a platform for languages and translations named dict.cc.
How do people at home see your success?
Every time I drop by for a visit, people ask me where I have been and what I have done. The media used to invite me as the ‘kid who speaks many languages’ so they can test me live on TV like in a circus. It was nice while I was 17, but now I’m approaching 30 and stopped counting how many languages I can speak. The company I work for builds into the depth – specializing on the parts of the building you cannot see from the outside. I can relate to that because I also don’t like the spotlights and prefer to be alone with my books.
Where are you ranked between the people who speak the most languages in world?
There is no such ranking. And besides: how can you define ‘speaking languages’? I know, for instance, a guy who can greet, thank and say goodbye in 500 languages. There are people who can speak 8 languages as their mother tongue, including scientific and technical expressions. And me? I don’t learn languages to brag, for me it is enough that people can understand me.
Written by Itamar Treves-Tchelet