It is easy to talk to anyone when you know 18 languages

This is the man who is 54 years old and can speak 18 languages
Good morning, Guten Tag, meaning hello in our language, is heard from a slightly open doorway. The photographer and I realise we have come to the right place. On the threshold is a man around two metres tall with blue eyes, his name is Yuri Zhelezko. This is the man who is 54 years old and can speak 18 languages.

 When asked why he chose exactly 18 languages to learn, he instantly replies, “The main thing is to find that fine line between quality and quantity.”

The atmosphere in the house of this polyglot matches his reputation: there are books in the wall unit, books on the shelves and books on the table. There are books in English, French, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian and Chinese, almost as if you are in the library of a linguistic university. Yuri Borisovich begins the conversation with literature; “I worked in the Academy of Sciences for a long time, now I am busy with translations. For example I translated "Karlsson-on-the-Roof" from Swedish to the Belarusian language,” and he reaches for the book in its blue jacket. “I’m currently translating Norwegian fairy tales into our native language.”

At the same time, he is completing his mastery of the Irish language and the textbooks lie on the table. “It is the 18th language in my list,” he smiles. “There are about one and a half million people who speak it around the world. Of course it’s unlikely I’ll use it or Esperanto, which I’ve also learned, but they both sound beautiful when spoken. It’s like a little bit of luxury for my soul.”

When asked why he chose exactly 18 languages to learn, he instantly replies, “The main thing is to find that fine line between quality and quantity. My magic number for this is 18.” he continues, “I began modestly, simply wanting to learn English, German, French and Polish.” His unassuming nature makes one smile, as if mastery of four foreign languages has been no great effort. Zhelezko explains, “I started learning languages after the ninth form at school, my previous hobby had been swimming but I did not want to continue with it at university, so I started learning English. I didn’t see daylight for almost three months, I was so immersed in studying. Consequently, when I was in the tenth form, a miracle occurred, for the first time in all my years at school I could understand the English teacher in the lesson.”

Following this, Zhelezko studied languages at university, beginning with French and German, by the start of his second year he had mastered Swedish and Italian, the latter inspired by accidentally tuning to Vatican radio. The atmosphere in the room is intellectual and academic. Zhelezko seldom smiles and is a reserved speaker. “At university, I competed with a student who knew more languages than me. However, whilst I concentrated on the European languages, he studied Slavic languages. Eventually I had to accept defeat.”

I’m intrigued how one measures language success as it can’t be measured in distance like a sprint race. He replies, “The person who speaks it more accurately and understands more knows the language better. I think if someone can understand at least 70 percent of all that they read and hear, it means he knows the language,” he said.

Yuri’s enormous knowledge should ideally place him for a range of job opportunities, but this may not necessarily be true. The linguist remembers his past “I was first placed in a college to work as a teacher. I had to teach English, French and Spanish, which I had to learn in two weeks. European languages are not difficult for me”. Having mastered the basics, a new language only takes three or four weeks. He does admit however, that some languages present a challenge. “Of course not all languages come easy. Five years ago, for example, I started learning Chinese, and I needed a year and a half to learn it. But I still cannot write anything although I read and understand it fairly well.”

I ask him whether there is a secret trick to his learning but he dismisses the idea and tells me it’s down to sheer hard work. He explains, “I developed the following system for myself: at first I read 5-7 textbooks, then I move on to listening. Following that I read fiction. I read books, I write new words, I learn and re-read once again, but this time without a dictionary.” Zhelezko unexpectedly gets up from the table and opens a case of the wall unit where he displays the proof of his hard work, exercise books covered with writing in different languages. He says that there are about twenty of these large notebooks. I wonder how he retains the languages once learnt. He describes how he repeats them in pairs every two to three weeks; he has no concerns about forgetting the vocabulary with his amazing memory.

During our conversation, Yuri Borisovich switches from Russian into Belarusian, “I think in Belarusian,” he explains. “All the same, it does not matter how many foreign languages I know, I think in my native language. Though dreams, I admit, I see basically in Danish. And in my dreams I speak Andersen’s language better than I do in life.”

By Yekaterina Panteleeva
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