MONTREAL — Georges Awaad answers the phone with a polite “Hello,” but he could just as easily answer in Arabic, French, Japanese, or any of the other 15 languages he speaks.
At the age of 20, the Montreal linguistics student can already speak 19 different languages, most of which he taught himself through a combination of internet videos, music and conversation with friends.
“I’m a very auditory person, so I try to expose myself as much as possible to the language, by listening to music, videos, films if I find them, and by listening to conversations and having them with friends,” he said in a phone interview.
He also speaks Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Russian, Hebrew, Romanian, Swedish, Georgian, Armenian, Cantonese, Korean, Esperanto, and Dutch.
Awaad, whose first language is French, said he learned early in life that he liked the sound of different languages, but his interest really began around age 10, when he asked his Arabic-speaking grandparents to help him improve his skills.
“I told my parents I really loved learning with my grandparents and they told me, ‘You know, there are places online if you want to learn more languages,’” Awaad said.
His parents pointed him to Google Translate, and he was instantly hooked, he said.
Awaad may just speak more languages than any other student in Canada, according to online language learning platform Babbel.
Babbel, along with the Student Life Network, launched a search earlier this year to find Canada’s most polyglottic, or multilingual, student. Awaad emerged the clear winner, impressing the judges with two rounds of video submissions displaying his linguistic prowess, which were judged by native speakers of each language.
“As a team of hundreds of linguists from all around the world, we are extremely impressed by Georges’ command of languages, especially for someone so young,” Ted Mentele, Babbel’s Editor in Didactics, said in a statement.
Despite his achievement, Awaad doesn’t believe he has any exceptional skills when it comes to learning languages. His secret, he says, is that he finds it fun.
“I think it’s more that I’m passionate about it,” he said. “It’s easier for me to put in the effort to learn them because I really love them… It doesn’t feel like work.”
Awaad finds it hard to pinpoint exactly what he loves the most about languages. At first, he says, he just loved the different sounds and inflections they made. But as he got older, he came to appreciate how they allowed him to make new connections and explore new cultures in a fuller way.
As an example, he says he was able to serve as his family’s translator during a trip to Japan. He’s also made plenty of new friends in his quest to find people to converse with.
“It started to show me just how much learning a new language can open your mind and heart to so many other people around the world and new cultures,” he said.
“You can understand the world so much better and on a much deeper level.”
Awaad says some of his favourite languages to learn have been Mandarin and Georgian, partly because their structures are so different from English and French.
His plans for the future include completing a linguistics degree at McGill University before eventually getting a Masters and PhD.
He’s also hoping to pick up more languages along the way.
Currently, he’s working on a project to document a Mayan language spoken in the north of Guatemala and southern Mexico, and says he’s already starting to pick up the words and phrases as he goes.
“I think this one is next on my list,” he said.