man in front of balloons speaking "interlingua"

@orlophe_vauchertres/TikTok

TikTok is helping an obscure language find its new voice

Could TikTok make the Interlingua a universal standard?

 

Viola Stefanello

Tech

Published Oct 5, 2021   Updated Oct 13, 2021, 1:22 pm CDT

“Esque vos imagina un mundo ubi tote le persona parla le mesme lingua?”

If you’re one of the billion people who speak a Romance language—be it Spanish or French, Italian or Portuguese, Romanian or anything else that evolved from Vulgar Latin between the third and eighth centuries—it’s extremely possible that you understood this question. Even if you may have never even seen the language it is written in.

You may think it’s one of the major ones listed above, but it isn’t. It asks “Have you ever imagined a world where everybody speaks the same language?” in a tongue that’s only spoken by a few hundred people scattered around the globe: Interlingua. 

Interlingua was developed by the linguists of the International Auxiliary Language Association between 1937 and 1951 to bridge the gap between people from different nations who don’t share a common tongue.

Today, though, you can easily find it on TikTok, as the modern app is giving it a new life. Videos under the hashtag #interlingua have been watched more than 1.3 million times. All of the posts under the hashtags point back to a single profile: that of professor Carlos Valcarcel Riveiro, aka @orlophe_vauchertres

A Galician professor and researcher at the University of Vigo in Spain, Valcarcel Riveiro first used TikTok in early 2020, as an alternative means to engage with his students during the coronavirus lockdowns. While his students were asked to make short, private videos in French to practice the language, the professor decided to go with a language he’d known for years but had never really spoken. “No one used Interlingua in TikTok, so I didn’t expect anyone to watch the videos, just my students,” he told the Daily Dot. 

A year and a half later, his Interlingua videos have gone viral several times and he’s recently reached 20,000 followers on the app. Not bad at all for someone whose entire schtick is speaking a language barely anyone knows.

“I became interested in Interlingua fifteen or sixteen years ago, when I was finishing my Ph.D studies,” Valcarcel Riveiro explained to the Daily Dot. “Until recently, my contact with Interlingua was limited to the written language on the internet: I followed profiles on some social networks, blogs, forums … I also opened a small blog where I practiced writing. And that’s how I learned. But I had never spoken it until I started making videos on TikTok.” 

Today, the topics of his videos range from giving pronunciation tips to sound like a native in French or English to sharing fun facts about Romance languages, but you will never hear him speak anything but fluent Interlingua.

Most people, at first, think he’s speaking Esperanto, by far the best-known auxiliary language—aka a language used for communication between persons that do not understand each other’s native language—among non-experts. While Esperanto’s vocabulary derives primarily from Romance languages, it also includes semantic and grammatical contributions from Germanic and Slavic languages that Interlingua doesn’t have. This makes Esperanto less immediately recognizable to Romance language speakers compared to Interlingua.

A paradise for even the most unexpected of niches, TikTok has proven extremely useful for teachers and learners of major languages to find an audience and improve their skills. 

Among polyglots like Kate Sabz, who gives tips on how to pick up a new language fast, and Alex and Tom of @atfrenchies, two locals providing cultural as well as linguistic insight into specific languages, @orlophe_vaunchertres found his nook. His very specific content appeals both to Americans—who make up 18% of his following—and to people from countries Mexico, Brazil, Spain, France, and Italy, whose main languages all derive from Vulgar Latin.

“The fact of using Interlingua is fundamental in my account’s popularity: it is a novelty that surprises many people,” he says. 

Despite him still being the only person speaking Interlingua on TikTok, the 20,000-strong community he has built interacts enthusiastically with the professor, feeling free to comment in their own native tongue. 

“Interlingua is a language that enables translingual communication as Romance speakers can understand it quite well orally and in writing without the need to have learned it before. And since I understand the main Romance languages, German and English, very interesting multilingual dialogues can be held in the commentaries,” Valcarcel Riveiro says. And indeed, @orlophe_vaunchertres’s comment sections are something to behold: far from the toxicity that can too often be found on even the blandest of content, they often feature people from all over the world whose minds are blown by the fact that they can understand everything Valcarcel Riveiro is saying. 

“In addition, if you participate in the comments, you can build significant digital relationships,” he says. “In my case, I have been networking with Italian, Catalan, and German teachers”.

His hope, he says, is that his success story will convince people to pick up Interlingua, and that other speakers of this obscure language will keep him company on the app. “Sometimes it seems like I’m the only Interlingua speaker in the world, or that I even invented this language, and that’s not the case at all”, he says. “There are many funnier people who can tell very interesting things in Interlingua to a wide transnational audience. I am trying to convince them.”

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*First Published: Oct 5, 2021, 7:00 am CDT