The Journey Towards Understanding & Connection: Practical Lessons Of A Traveling Polyglot
At 6’4” (1.94m), with blond hair and blue eyes, Per Besson has been the type of visitor who sticks out in most countries. He can run but he cannot hide and instead he has chosen to engage, preferably in the language of the land.
With that has come fluency in many of the languages most useful for a world traveler. This in addition to a willingness to to pick up a few choice words in every language he encounters, has created an extra dimension in his travel experience across all 193 countries.
“Advice is autobiography” as the saying goes. People tend to give advice based on their own personal experience, their own personal story. Per will however not try to convince anyone to spend hundreds or even thousands of hours trying to master various languages as he has done. He recognizes that it perhaps takes a bit masochism and/or obsessive compulsive tendencies to master a language.
In this wide ranging, thought provoking talk he will give fresh insight on the deeper UNDERSTANDING and CONNECTION that speaking other people’s languages have given him. If you are wavering a bit and tempted to engage a bit more with foreign languages to enrich your travel experience, maybe this talk will give you just that little extra motivation.
On the theme of deeper UNDERSTANDING he will answer such questions such as:
Why perfectionism is the enemy of communication when speaking languages? (i.e. why is it that oftentimes the B students outperform the A students in the real world?)
Why Google Translate is an excellent tool, but can only take you so far?
What is the “hidden valley” that language learning can take you to?
How can learning very specific words/expressions help one dig deeper in understanding the essence/key values of a certain culture?
Brazil – Saudades
Italy – Fare la bella figura (and it’s evil twin – brutta figura)
China – 吃苦 (Chi Ku) – tasting bitterness，吃苦耐劳 (Chi Ku Nai Lao), 辛苦 (Xin Ku), 苦力（Ku Li ）
Arab World – Insha’allah, Alhamdulillah, Walahi and that ever useful “wahda wahda”
There are those rare, precious moments when one travels where there can be absolutely no common language but through a simple glance we feel real connection, shared emotion and empathy. Unsurprisingly, when one speaks the local language these magic moments of CONNECTION happen more.
A few thoughts on the theme of CONNECTION:
Why say hello in the local language when “hello” is by now an almost international expression?
What can you do if you feel you have nothing in common with someone?
How does is feel to be an ambassador who represents not one but 192 countries??
How is connection through language the gift that keeps on giving?
What does it look like when someone goes from being invisible to feeling seen?
Is it possible to get “Stockholm Syndrome” from learning the language and/or staying a long time in a country?
Given available time he will also share a few thoughts on language learning:
Comprehensible input method: How would Goldilocks choose to learn a language?
Shadowing: Not just something for undercover agents?
“I have no extra time”: A good excuse to not learn a language?
Mental workout: If you haven’t broken a sweat at the gym, have you really gone to the gym?
Mental accounting: $10 on a tasty cocktail. How much will you pay to learn a language?
Per Besson is the American with the Scandinavian first name. He was born in Germany of a Danish mother and American father. At the age of four the family moved to his father’s birthplace (Oregon) where he remembers telling his mother “Stop talking to me in Danish in front of the other kids, It’s weird!!!”. From those shy, inauspiciously conformist beginnings, he has since been shamelessly learning one language after another with language acquisition being a key part of his travel journey.
He holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations with a concentration on Soviet Union/Eastern Europe, completed shortly after the end of Cold War. Communism was then out of fashion and he moved on to study capitalism – in the form of a MBA focused on International Marketing – which then pushed him further along a life of business across borders. A colorful spectrum of different jobs have included; Prozac brand manager for Brazil, organizing tours to Libya in the times of Gadaffi, internet gaming company in Beijing, National Bank of Kuwait in Paris, General Motors in Buenos Aires and Lisbon, marketing of American license plates as souvenirs to European incentive travel industry etc.
In his earlier days much of his travel was of the “slow and low” variety. No airplanes, just public transportation (by land and sea) covering long distances e.g. Hong Kong-Lisbon via the Transiberian Railway, Beijing-Bangalore via Xinjiang and the Karakoram Highway, Bali-Tokyo via SE Asia, China and South Korea, Milano-Milano via Sicily, North Africa, Middle East, Turkey and the Balkans. Recently however there has been a lot more travel by plane and fewer backbreaking fifteen hour bus rides.
He has thus far lived in ten countries (7 years in China, 6 years in Brazil, 5 years in Germany, 4 years in Italy…), and fluently speaks Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Danish and Chinese, with his Russian lagging a bit behind. At one time he learned the basics of reading and writing in Arabic, where “reading” actually means being able to somewhat pronounce the individual letters of a written word and much less occasionally knowing what the word actually means. He has made a point to learn (and often quickly forgotten) at least a few words from the language of every single country he visited until 2019 when he reached country #193 – Colombia. He currently resides in London.