USAF 621 CRW polyglot: certified in five different languages

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Scott Warner
  • 621st Contingency Response Wing

By definition, a polyglot is a person who has the knowledge and ability to speak multiple (three or more) different languages.

To be language-certified within the 621st Air Mobility Advisory Group, an Airman must be able to have a conversation in that language, and one 621st Contingency Response Wing Airman at Travis Air Force Base, California, has the ability to proficiently speak five languages: English, Spanish, German, French and Portuguese.

“I am of Ecuadorian heritage, so I first learned to speak Spanish,” said Maj. Jonathan Bonilla, the 621st CRW deputy director of staff. “However, I was kind of forced into learning new languages when my family moved from Ecuador to Canada.”

For some, learning a secondary language is difficult, and Bonilla stated that the older you become, the harder another language is to learn.

“When I moved to Canada, I was already 16 years old in and faced an English-exclusive environment, so I had to put in a lot of effort into learning English right away in order to be successful.”

That effort helped Bonilla get to where he is today. Additionally, speaking about his past sparked a memory that he had long since moved on from, but ultimately remembered that it was his singular motivating factor into furthering his linguistic aspirations.  

“Throughout my childhood in Ecuador, I was close friends with people of German descent, and I remember absolutely hating not being able to understand anything that they were saying when talking to their family members,” said Bonilla. “When I started learning German through my friends, my parents immediately took the opportunity and enrolled me into a German School in Ecuador. Ever since, I have been fascinated with other languages and cultures.”

Bonilla emphasized that someone can only truly experience other cultures through speaking their language. He explained that locals will give more of their time and have more respect for anyone who cares enough to put in the extra effort to properly communicate with them.

“I think unbeknownst to most people, a lot of languages of dissimilar roots have some similarities,” said Bonilla. “For instance, when learning English, I noticed my understanding of German sentence structure grew almost hand-in-hand. Roman-rooted languages are easier to learn if you already know one.”

In a 2016 Pew Research Center report, The State of American Jobs, informed that only 36 percent of Americans stated that knowing a foreign language was an extremely or very important trait for workers to be successful in today’s economy.

“In my case, being able to speak English changed my life,” said Bonilla. “English opened the Air Force door for me and allowed me to be where I am today. I know with certainty that I would be nowhere near where I am had I not dedicated myself to expand my language skills.”

Furthermore, he stated that learning other languages opened a myriad of opportunities on and off duty; opportunities that he would not have had otherwise.

“Learning German was probably the most fun for me because it is the one language people wouldn’t expect for me to be proficient in,” said Bonilla. “Ever since my childhood, I have been captivated by the German culture and try to travel there often.”

Bonilla detailed how experiencing Germany’s Oktoberfest with friends who didn’t know how well he spoke German was one of his favorite memories with another language. He distinctly remembered how being able to switch from English to German mid-sentence with a native-German speaker caused a level of confusion, surprise and delight in his friends’ eyes that he will never be forgotten. 

“My friends thought they were honestly hallucinating for minute when they heard me speaking German,” said Bonilla. “Their excitement was contagious afterwards, like somehow I have unlocked the secret to enjoying the German culture to its fullest, and I vividly remember that first night in Germany with them and how much better our night became after that moment.”  

Besides English, to maintain his USAF quadrilingual proficiency and certification, Bonilla practices each foreign language he has learned in conversation at least once a week.

“I don’t think there will come a time that I will not be interested in learning other languages,” said Bonilla. “My ultimate goal with this is to become a hyperpolyglot, which is someone who can speak six or more different languages.” 

For reference, according to The International Association of Hyperpolyglots, less than one percent of the world’s population are polyglots and approximately 1,000 people in the world are hyperpolyglots.