Philip Crowther: “You have to defend a language if you want your identity to stay strong”

Interview with the multilingual TV correspondent who became famous after one of his videos went viral

Martí Estruch Axmacher
21.02.2021 - 09:05
Actualització: 20.02.2021 - 23:09

A few weeks ago, a Luxembourg reporter working as television correspondent in Washington became world famous for a video that went viral in which he was seen reporting on the US election campaign in six different languages: German, English, Spanish, Luxembourgish, French and Portuguese. Shortly afterwards, the surprise came out: Philip Crowther also speaks a little Catalan, as can be seen here. He learned it when he lived in Barcelona for a year when he was 20. Once the viral fever is over, we interviewed the journalist by Skype in a long conversation, in English, in which he talks about languages, the brain, FC Barcelona, Catalonia, Trump and journalism, among others.

– Were you surprised when your video went viral?
– I certainly was! I have been doing this job for two years now, and I’ve uploaded similar videos in the past as well, where I show that I do live broadcasts in six languages. They never went quite as viral before. It was very interesting to follow this one’s progress. First a colleague of mine retweeted it; then someone who has a million followers did the same; and then the video embarked on its world tour, to Canada, to Australia, and then to Europe and Spain in particular. It had a big success there. I’m not unhappy about this: as journalists we don’t really want to be in the news ourselves, but if it’s over a question like this it’s OK. It has given me the chance to speak about languages, about Luxembourgish and Catalan, and about how the work I do promotes these languages. When something goes viral the feeling is of losing control, because you put it online and then off it goes. All you can do is try to follow it and see where it goes.

– Do you think the success in Catalonia and Spain was bigger than elsewhere?
– It’s very interesting to see where it was followed. There were a couple of articles in Germany and Belgium, but with none of that seemingly wild fascination that I saw in Spain. In my opinion, to be honest, it’s because Spaniards generally have a bit of trouble with a second language, and a lot more with a third. English is, with all due respect, difficult for Spaniards, so hearing someone doing six languages on air fascinated people. There’s a show on la Sexta called Zapeando, where they deal with viral videos, and in an interview, they asked me if I spoke any other languages, so I thought this is the perfect opportunity to say “Jo parlo també una mica de català” (I also speak a little Catalan) and of course they were surprised. I don’t speak fluent Catalan, just a few sentences, but I show interest in and love for the language. It’s nice to see that in Catalonia people are grateful when a foreigner like me decides that Catalan is one of the languages that I want to speak and like. So that’s how the viral thing played out in Catalonia.

– How much does being live on air add to the pressure of speaking a foreign language?
– It’s a lot of pressure that I put on myself, and the dangers and risks are pretty big of something happening that would not happen when I speak English. Of the six languages that I use on air I have a league table from “completely comfortable” to “I might get in trouble”. In English I’m 100% confident because if I forget a word, I will find another one in my brain; and English is the language with the biggest vocabulary in the world, so there are more words available even if I don’t know them all. In French I should be OK, but if I forget a crucial word it will be more difficult to find a synonym – the French word for impeachment, for example, which has been used a lot here in Washington lately. In Spanish I feel a level of confidence similar to French. In Luxembourgish, one of my almost native languages, I’m pretty confident as well of finding my way out of a difficult situation if I forget a word. And then Portuguese and German – even though it is my mother tongue – are the ones where I might struggle. The biggest fear of an on-air correspondent is that your mind goes blank, really not knowing what to say, and the risk in those languages of my resorting to a banal fallback word like “thing” or “do” is a little bit bigger.

– Do you use any strategies for your live shots?
– Generally, I’m able to divide my brain into six languages, sometimes seven if I want to speak one where I know just a few sentences. Some languages are based on others, so with Portuguese there is always the danger of mixing it up with Spanish. Another risk is using what we call false friends, a word that exists in French for example and sounds like it should also exist in Spanish, but it doesn’t. Luckily, I rarely have to do one live shot straight after the other. I usually have a little bit of time to prepare, and during that time I read the vocabulary and some texts, but I also use the trick of telling myself that I actually am of that nationality. That gives me the extra confidence inside me to speak the language with a slightly more natural accent. I say, “Why am I on German TV?” “Because I’m German!” A lot of it has to do with confidence and overcoming the initial fear.

– From your language league table, I assume that you think in English then.
– That’s a good one. The answer sounds somewhere between pretentious and unrealistic, but I swear it’s true: I don’t think in any language. I think of images, feelings and emotions. Why should I use language in my thoughts if I can simply visualise what I’m thinking about? Language is a vehicle for explaining something, but you don’t need it before you actually do the speaking. So, if you ask me “When you go to the baker to buy a loaf of bread, do you just visualise a loaf of bread?”, the answer is yes. I don’t need the words. I don’t know if that makes sense – to me it does, but a lot of people look at me and say it can’t be true.

– I can’t avoid the classic question on the language of dreams.
– No one ever speaks in my dreams. I don’t, and other people don’t either. My dreams are speeded up by the fact that emotions and thoughts are conveyed from a person to me without the use of words. I know what they want, I know what they think, I know their emotions, so I don’t need language. It’s very strange, but I can’t remember a single word in my dreams, nor can I remember ever using language to tell myself something in my thoughts. I obviously use language when I prepare for a live shot and I imagine the sentences that I will use. It’s a bit abstract, but I think that is what enables me to speak six languages with confidence: it’s because I don’t have to translate them in my head. They are just their own languages that describe objects and events without using another language as a go-between.

– It sounds really fascinating. Was it always like this?
– I was sort of bilingual from the beginning. My father always spoke to my sister and me in English, and my mother would always speak in German. When we were together, they would talk to each other in their respective languages, my father in English and my mother in German, so that we never heard them use the other language, though they spoke English when they were on their own together. Those were the two languages that I grew up with, and then Luxembourgish came along very early, at the age of 2 or 3. I first learned it in the street in the village where I grew up and then in kindergarten and primary school. Luxembourg is a francophone country, so you learn French very early on, when you are 6 or 7, you also learn German (in fact it’s the primary language of reading and writing), and English is added at the age of 12, when you reach secondary school. So, if you live in Luxembourg, you grow up with four languages. In the end you should be able to speak the four languages quite fluently – perhaps not with a perfect accent, but certainly well enough to communicate. In my secondary school, I also got the opportunity at 14 to choose between Spanish and Italian, and because I wanted to understand Spanish football I opted for Spanish.

– Five languages at the age of 14, no wonder you’ve ended up a language hero!
– I must say there was a moment as a child when it got too much, and I am a little bit afraid of that happening to my daughter now. She is almost one, we speak to her in English and her au-pair is Spanish speaking, so that is a bilingual upbringing. But I am afraid that at some point it might become too much for her. For example, I hated French in school because compared to Spanish it has a lot of exceptions that make little to no grammatical sense. I actually abandoned one language: at one point in my childhood I dropped English. I started responding to my father in German for a few months, and I started having a German accent in English. It was very embarrassing when I spoke to my family in England, so I thought you have to get through this somehow. It was a battle of willpower. Growing up with a bunch of languages is a very fortunate situation but it is not always easy.

– A neurologist might be interested in looking into your brain…
– I wouldn’t mind. Perhaps I need to go into one of those brain scanners and see what they find.

– Of course I am interested in your Catalan experience. When, why, how?
– It was a typical gap year abroad for someone who doesn’t really know what to do with his life or career after high school. Barcelona is sort of a cliché city for a year abroad for any European. Go to Barcelona, learn some Spanish and have a good time. I had been to Barcelona with my dad and that’s when I went to my first Spanish soccer match. The city always fascinated me. So, the decision was to go to a language school and learn Spanish. I very quickly noticed that there were many things written in something that was clearly not Spanish, and my thought still today is that it makes no sense for a foreigner to go to Barcelona to learn Spanish, because you are going to be exposed to Catalan as well. If you want to learn Catalan, great, otherwise go to Madrid or Andalusia.

– Hey, we will lose visitors!
– I’m not saying people should not travel to Barcelona, but it makes no real sense if your goal is to learn Spanish. Luckily, I made some friends from Andalusia who spoke Spanish and Catalan naturally, and I understood that they had adapted. By the way, that was also my first radio experience in life. They were from Badalona and had a tiny station in an area called Pomar, Ràdio Pomar, and that was my first contact with broadcasting and journalism. In any case, I could see that Catalan was the logical way to communicate and also to show interest in my adoptive city for a year.

– When was that?
– It must have been in 2001, or rather 2001-2002: I think in football seasons [laughs].

– Was it a good season?
– Mmmm, it was getting better. My first game with my father was the bad Dutch era, with Van Gaal, when they bought any old Dutchman – Bogarde, Reijziger and company. Then it slowly got better.

– So, you decided to learn Catalan to adapt?
– I lived in Gràcia and I had an encounter with my very Catalan neighbour in the lift. I tried to speak in my simple Spanish and he would answer something that was not Spanish. It was Catalan, of course. His message was that if you live here, you should learn it. That was the way to do it and I respected that. Some Spaniards and foreigners will disagree and think that it is disrespectful, but I think it’s fine, it’s one way to defend your language and show your national pride. So yes, I decided to adapt. I didn’t learn Catalan formally, but with the help of French and Spanish I got to speak a few sentences.

– You were already aware that Catalan language was an important issue in Catalonia?
– Remember that I come from Luxembourg, with a language of its own that might be regarded as under threat – because of the encroachment of other languages, because of the huge number of foreign workers coming to the country every day from Belgium, France and Germany, because most of the documents are only in French and sometimes in German, where even street and shop signs are mostly in French, unlike in Barcelona. Even if we now have a grammar and orthography, we don’t normally have the confidence to write things in Luxembourgish. We are behind Catalan in that respect, but we are in front in the sense that we have a state, and this gives you many tools to promote the language. The situation is different, but it gave me the awareness to understand that Catalans are not just trying to be difficult in a conversation in a lift. It’s a matter of national survival: you have to defend a language if you want your identity to stay strong, and I will always respect that. I like all languages, I like the sound of Catalan, and I think the situation of Catalan is particularly interesting. I can say that Catalan is one of my favourite languages that I don’t speak.

– Have you been able to follow the political events that have taken place in Catalonia over recent years?
– The push for independence has always been there and I’ve always been interested, yes. The last time I was in Barcelona was just before the referendum, and I was surprised it came to a referendum, because when I lived there, I never thought that independence was a truly realistic proposal. As a journalist I can’t give you my personal opinion, but I got the impression that the push for a referendum vote was more a push to have a vote rather than a push for independence. Then the Spanish state made the voting difficult, as we all know, with violence and police control over some of the polling stations, and I think it turned into something bigger than it was supposed to be. My feeling as a foreigner is that Catalans wanted to show that they have the independence to have a vote on independence. But I don’t think a majority of Catalans truly would have wanted full independence from Spain.

– Do you think the Catalan case reached Washington?
– Well, I was in a press conference with Trump and Rajoy and the question came up, of course. It was before the vote and a Spanish colleague of mine asked them where they stood. You won’t be surprised to hear that Trump replied without having any prior knowledge of the subject matter, as was the case most of the time with foreign policy. He kind of equated it with the Brexit vote, and he seemed to have an affinity for any kind of independence movement. You clearly had the feeling that Rajoy and the Spanish delegation had told him before, hey please don’t go in that direction, don’t stand next to me and say that you want independence for the Catalan people. He didn’t, but he clearly showed an interest. Catalonia was a subject that came up in Washington every now and then, especially after the referendum. There was a lot of outreach on the part of the Spanish embassy to talk to foreign journalists as much as possible, to explain their point of view on what had happened, and on what happened afterwards with the prison sentences. The Spanish government was making a big push to explain their side of the story even to correspondents based in Washington, so you can imagine how high a priority it was for Spanish diplomacy.

– Did you take part in any of these meetings?
– I had a conversation with the Spanish ambassador, but the content was off the record, of course.

– Let’s move forward. How do you think the Trump era will be remembered?
– I’ll tell you how I will remember it as a journalist: it was fascinating. It was obviously unprecedented, but it was also four years in which we had a lot of contact with the president. I am a White House correspondent, and our main aim is to have as much access to the president as possible, and we definitely got that. I was able to ask him many questions. I never or hardly ever got a well-informed answer, to be honest, but at least there was an exchange. In that sense, as a journalist, I’m sure we will miss the access and maybe also the sheer amount of news. Right now, things have become a little bit more normal and less intense, in the sense that we don’t get woken up by a tweet at 6am and we don’t go to sleep with Trump’s thoughts in our head at midnight.

– And more broadly speaking?
– It will be remembered as an American experiment, something they had never done before, which was something slightly authoritarian, sometimes with racist overtones and very divisive. But an enormous number of Americans decided they wanted to try this, and the elections in 2020 showed that 73 million Americans agreed with what Trump had done. So, it’s not an aberration, it’s not a blip, it’s not a four-year parenthesis, as the Biden administration tries to make it look like. Biden is undoing a lot of the stuff that Trump did, but this was something that the American people had signed up for: they voted for it in 2016 to try it out, and in 2020 even more people voted for Trump, we shouldn’t forget that. An enormous part of the country liked what he did and might want something similar back again. I think Trumpism, as we now call it, is here to stay. It’s been a wild, crazy and intense four years, and it’s not easy to adapt to the new era. Someone wrote that the Biden presidency is a 9 to 5 presidency, and that’s what a lot of people voted for as well, what Trump called “sleepy Joe”. It’s amazing also how Trump has disappeared: he’s not tweeting – he can’t tweet – he’s not present, he’s not calling in to Fox News, although he could, he can do whatever he wants. It will take some time to readapt to what seems exactly the same as we had with Obama some years ago.

– Let’s go back to your job. You are a freelance working for many clients?
– Actually, I’m an international affiliate reporter with Associated Press. My job is with AP and I work for the broadcast affiliates that AP has. I work when there is breaking news. I’m available as a correspondent for channels that don’t have one for a breaking news story. Maybe they don’t have enough money to send someone, or they were not quick enough, and other channels just decided to use me as their main correspondent. So that’s quite a lot of channels now, about fifteen, and for each specific story I might do live broadcasts for up to ten different channels. Within those channels some have different language services, like Euronews for example, which is almost my ideal partner, because they broadcast in five of the six languages that I speak, and some others of course. I also work for Voice of America in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese, for the national Belgian TV, two or three French news stations.

– Any “exotic” clients?
– I work for a Nigerian channel interested in the African American community, a Chinese TV station broadcasting in English, and a Catholic channel in the United States which is particularly interesting: their priority is abortion. I always represent AP and remain factual, but each channel has its set of priorities. They also have their own style: some want me to talk for 1 minute and 15 seconds and are not happy at all if I exceed that, and others could have me speaking ad infinitum. My aim when I cover a story is to do the six languages. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

– Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time? Do you fear some kind of burnout?
– I’ll have to see how my brain copes with it, but for the moment it doesn’t seem that difficult. It’s a great challenge and it’s the first and perhaps only time in my career that my passions and my skills are coming together perfectly: journalism, specifically TV journalism, and languages. It’s a perfect combination for me, so I don’t see me doing something wildly different from what I do now. I know it’s very rare to hear someone saying, oh, I’m perfectly happy with what I’m doing. The point is that the only subject that I really know what I’m talking about is football! I do a lot of broadcasting about politics and I know my way around it, but maybe one day I’ll go back to being a sports journalist. The thing is that once you are a football journalist it’s very difficult to get out of it; you get pigeon-holed when you do sports, that’s always the risk.

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