The girl who speaks 17 foreign languages: I see languages as music and colours

Eva Spekhorstova, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Eva Spekhorstova has a passion for languages. At the age of 15 she already speaks 17 languages and has an insatiable thirst to learn more as different cultures open up to her. When she visited Radio Prague’s studio we spoke about what attracts her to foreign languages, how she goes about learning them and how different languages relate to her emotions. I began by asking her at what age she first started learning foreign languages.

Eva Spekhorstova,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

“I started to learn English in primary school, but my passion for languages started when I was 13 years old –that was when I started learning Spanish and French.”

Surely you must have started sooner than that…what languages did you speak as a child? What is your native language?

“My native language is Czech and German and I would say also English. My mother is Czech and my father is from The Netherlands, so I always spoke with him in German but as of this year also in Dutch and with my mom only in Czech.”

So until the age of 13 you just spoke three languages and in two years you soaked up all the rest! Most people learn one or two foreign languages – the ones they need – and stop there. What made you keep going?

“The people kept me going. I do not learn languages in order to be able to brag about it. I want to talk to people, because when I talk to them in their native language they open up, they are so warm and welcoming and friendly and it is wonderful just to see their faces. I love to see them happy that I know some words and that I can communicate with them in their own language. So that is my ultimate goal – just to talk to people.”

So what languages do you speak?

“I speak Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, I am learning Norwegian – I started this year – and also Turkish; I have a passive knowledge of Greek, I can communicate in Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian…am I forgetting some?”

Eva Spekhorstova,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
That’s quite enough, really. What made you go for the more exotic languages? What made you learn Korean?

“It was the phonetics. I adore phonetics and Korean has such a unique system of phonetics. It doesn’t’ sound like any other. The language family is very distinct. Spanish has the same phonetics as Italian, and Italian like Portuguese and it is kind of connected, but Korean phonetics is so unique I have not heard anything like it, I wanted to try it out and it is really a wonderful language.”

How do you perceive it? Do you perceive languages as music?

“Yes, I perceive them as music. I attended music school since the age of five and both my parents are music teachers. So I perceive languages as music, but mainly as systems. I have to break the language down into pieces and before I do that I cannot go on. A lot of people learn one phrase, then they add another and so on. I have to break the phrase down into several parts, into grammar parts.”

So how do you go about it? Do you first listen to what the language sounds like? Because you are self-taught, right?

“Yes, I am. The first week I just try to absorb the language as much as I can – I listen to dramas, to music, just to hear what it sounds like. It may not seem like it but getting the accent right is extremely important.”

So you sit there, taking it in, without understanding a word – you just listen to the music of the given language?

“Yes, some of the languages are based solely on phonetics. And if you don’t understand the phonetics, you can’t move forward. So you need to absorb the language, see how the people act, how they talk, for instance Italians use a lot of hand gestures, while Koreans are kind of closed-up. You need to absorb all that so that even if you are not a native speaker you must try to seem like one.”

One Czech saying goes “Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem” which roughly translated means “the more languages you speak, the more lives you have”. Do you feel that knowing a certain language gives you more insight into the culture, the way of thinking of a certain nation, just by the way they denote things, the proverbs they have and so on? Like in Czech we say “happy as a flea” while the English say ” happy as a lark”. Do you feel that that enriches you?

“That enriches me hugely. In every language I tend to be different. So when I speak Korean I tend to be introverted like the Koreans, but when I speak Italian or Spanish I am so extroverted and I tend to answer differently too. That’s the funny part, because you always discover a new side of yourself that you did not know about. Languages are basically people’s history, people’s culture and you can take a leap into their language and discover a whole new world. When I speak in Italian with my Italian friends they see me as an Italian – they don’t see me as a foreigner and I think that’s beautiful. It is the best thing that I can achieve.”

You said you see languages as music, but you also see them as colours. Is that right?

“That’s right, I pick languages based on their colour. The Roman languages – like Spanish – are more colourful, like red, yellow, orange, whereas German is a nice blue as is Greek. Turkish is dark red, Korean I see as purple mixed with blue, Japanese is a soft pastel pink. I started to learn Indonesian because it is a rich green colour – like trees and flowers, it is so beautiful.”

So when you hear a language that you don’t understand you see a colour?

Picture by Eva Spekhorstova,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“I see a colour, yes.”

Do you paint?

“Yes, I do. I try to paint language esthetics, so I pick a language and I paint an abstract painting of that language.”

That’s amazing. Which language was the hardest to learn?

“The hardest in my opinion is Arabic. Even though I haven’t started learning it actively yet. But I looked the grammar and the writing and it just blew my mind. Korean is hard to understand. You have to understand the system because some of the words, the grammar structures cannot be translated. There are topic markers, there are subject markers there are grammar rules that cannot be translated into English –you have to understand the context. But once you understand it – you understand Korean. It is easy from there on but in the first learning phase the language is really difficult to grasp.”

Was there a language that you developed a passion for?

“Italian. I love the language, I love the people, I love the phonetics. But I cannot say that I love one language more than another. I love every language, in its own way. I love German, I love Japanese… I really cannot say which language I like the best. I can just say I have developed a great passion for Italian.”

What language do you think in?

“That differs. When I am nervous I tend to think in English. When I am angry I find myself thinking in Italian, when I am hurt I tend to think in Korean.”

Why is that?

“I have no idea. I would like to tell you, but I have no idea as to how it works.”

Do you speak enough Korean to allow you to express these emotions?

“I speak enough to communicate freely with people. I may not know the textbook Korean, but I can talk to a Korean for a week on end. And I just don’t know why I switch to Korean in my head when I feel hurt.”

You must have an extensive library. Do you read in all those languages? Because otherwise they get rusty don’t they?

“I have books in English, German and Czech and I want to buy some French books and Italian books. But social media are also a great help in this respect. You can just install an app only in one language and get out of your comfort zone. Once I was setting up something on my phone and clicked on Italian and right away everything in my phone was in Italian! But it helps you absorb the language passively -which can also be a problem. That happened to me with French. I just read books and I could understand everything, I could understand movies, people when they were talking, but I could not say a word. That’s even worse than starting from scratch. You know the words but you can’t use them; that’s really frustrating.”

So speaking is best. You must have many friends around the world.

“Yes, I do, I do.”

Do languages enter into your dreams as well?

“Yes, if I listen to German music in the evening then I have dreams in German or if I text a friend in Italy I tend to have dreams in Italian and once when I watched a Korean drama I had a dream in Korean, but that was an exception. I usually dream in Czech, German, English and Italian.”

What about your future career? Will it revolve around languages?

“I want to study archeology. Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and I want to study the Etruscan language because when I was studying their alphabet I noticed some Asian signs and symbols in it. And I thought to myself : how can Etruscan have a similar grammar structure and similar symbols as Korean? How is that possible? So I want to find out. Like, when I started learning Turkish I realized that the grammar structure is completely the same as that in Korean. Without Korean I wouldn’t be able to understand Turkish. So it amazes me how the different languages are intertwined. So I really want to study the ancient languages.”