Lukas Petko, Digital Art Student on Language and Travel

Hi, I am Lukas Petko, 29, and I am an architect, creative, illustrator, and musician. I was born and raised in Slovakia, but currently live in Stockholm, Sweden. It was not really my intention to move here; it rather happened out of circumstance. Right after high school I had a chance to work as a volunteer in Iceland. I truly fell in love with the country, language, culture, people, nature, and music. When I was leaving Iceland, I decided that I would come back and try to study architecture in Reykjavik. That however turned out to be impossible, as I would have had to been fluent in Icelandic (I tried my best, but it was far from being fluent). So I started my studies in Slovakia. In my fourth year, as soon as I had a chance to go for an exchange I took that chance, but unfortunately I could not choose Reykjavik. The only place on the list that was at least a bit similar to Iceland was Sweden, so I came here.

I have loved Stockholm ever since I came here for the first time. I remember that I could not accept the fact that my exchange was only for 5 months. I tried many different ways to stay longer, but, due to my thesis, it seemed impossible. Finally, a woman responsible for the exchange students told me that I could possibly change universities. However, it was only under a condition that I passed one particular exam in Swedish, as all of the classes were in Swedish. So I studied a lot, and it worked! I do not think I ever learned any other language that fast. I got to finish my Bachelor degree in Stockholm and continued with my Master studies.

After finishing my masters and working for a few years as an architect in Sweden and Japan, I decided to study at Hyper Island in a program called Interactive Art Director. My current studies are a part of my future plan to combine different disciplines when working with creative solutions for different problems and challenges. I am currently developing myself in visual communication, user experience and design strategy. I want to use the system design thinking and user and functionality design I have with me from my architectural background in areas outside pure architecture.

I have many interests outside my job. I am always curious about new things and love getting challenged. I am very into reptiles, insects, juggling, unicycling and particularly music. I play several instruments such as saxophone, piano, synths, cello, ukulele, guitar, and accordion among others. I am a part of an orchestra, some smaller ensembles, and I also play in a band.

Another hobby that occupies a lot of my time is travelling. I reckon that is connected to the fact why I have moved so often. Every year I always try to “escape” somewhere for about two months, meet new people, discover new places. For example, two years ago I went to Nepal and India. In Nepal I did the Annapurna circuit that was about 250 km long and went up to 5500 m. It was a wonderful feeling to conquer the Thorong-la pass. Last summer I took a train from Stockholm to Hong Kong. I went across the whole of Russia, Mongolia, and China. I loved seeing the differences between all those countries.

That all accumulates to my love of languages. I think it is very much related to me moving within different countries and trying to understand people. I love cracking the code of a new language, and that “aha” moment when you suddenly understand more and feel like you have done another step in understanding it. Each time I travel, I try to learn at least a few words from the language of the country where I am going to first. I think by understanding a language you uncover another layer of knowing and understanding somebody else’s culture. I think it is very interesting to see how different cultures or people use words and various expressions in the same or different context. Then you can understand how people think and get closer to them. Last but not least, when you move to a new country, I think it is a necessity to learn the country´s language. I know many people in Sweden who have not even tried to learn Swedish, as everybody here is completely fluent in English. In my opinion, you never can really integrate into a society if you do not understand the language and cannot interact with people in their mother tongue.

In a way, I practice languages every day. I was born and raised in Slovakia where people speak Slovak, but are also very much in touch with the Czech language. My parents still live there so when we Skype, it is in Slovak. Plus, I read articles both in Slovak and Czech. As I live in Sweden now, I speak Swedish daily. This year I decided to go back to school and study at Hyper Island, which is a school where everyone speaks English. I also study Japanese, either on my own or in classes, so I tend to listen to podcasts or study Japanese words and kanji almost every day.

Surprisingly, I do not think I was particularly interested in languages when I was younger. I remember that first time when I realised the power of knowing a foreign language. I was 16 and I went to Germany to work as a volunteer, building a playground. The interest grew stronger in the following years. I remember a moment when I fell in love with languages: when I moved to Iceland and suddenly discovered a completely new language I had never heard before. I became in love with the language and more and more interested in other “less usual” languages. So I started to study Icelandic, later on Swedish, Danish, and Japanese. Towards the end of my studies, I focused only on Swedish and Japanese. Danish and Swedish are very similar, even Icelandic in a way, so it became very difficult to keep studying those languages while living in Sweden and being exposed only to Swedish.

What I have realised that works best for me when learning a new language is to get out and talk to people and listen to radio or podcasts. A big part of the Swedish I learned was from the radio. I remember being at school and working on my architecture projects I would always listen to the radio or music while drawing or designing. So I ended up listening to Swedish radio for maybe 8 hours a day. At first I had no clue what they were saying, but slowly everything started to make sense until I understood most of it.

What I think is pretty funny and ironic is that I actually do not really like “learning/ studying” a new language in the typical way. I really do not like doing all of the exercises and memorising words. I love meeting people, interacting and talking to them, reading books in different languages, and listening to podcasts and radio, thus picking up grammar and words from there.

During my Master studies, I took part in a program called Vulcanus in Japan, and got a chance to live and work in Tokyo for 8 months. This instilled in me a love for the Japanese language, and it is now one of my favourites. It can be a bit difficult, but it is really interesting on many levels, and one can really play with the language. There are double meanings, different levels of politeness, words that do not even exist in English or other languages, way of writing, and kanji. I also am a fan of Slovak, even though it is my mother tongue. Slovak is a very playful language where you can sort of create new words and twist them to make the meaning of various words “smaller”. For example, we have a special word for the saying a “small table” or a “small flower” and others similar to this.

As most of my friends come from different countries and speak different languages, it is somewhat easy to pick up new words or a language for me. It gets even easier once you get a hang of different language families. For example, I speak Slovak (Slavic family), English/Swedish (Germanic family), and French (Romance). Within these families the words can be very similar. Japanese is something completely different. I had no references, so it took a while until I stopped mixing words and letters. Also, the grammar in Japanese can be very tricky and different from the grammar that most of European languages have. On the other hand, I think I am a very visual learner, with a photographic memory, so sometimes it is easier for me to remember how a particular Japanese letter or word looks like, and I know the meaning even though I might not know the pronunciation.

Currently, I am surrounded by many creative people from different fields, from architects, graphic designers, music producers and musicians, art directors to UX designers, Service Designers, visual designers, and many more. This is the environment that really inspires me, and which I enjoy very much. Learning a language is just another form of creativity really. Ever since I was a kid I used to create, draw and build paper models. I think that was the first spark that made me choose architecture. People I have met, my travels, living in Japan, my curiosity and thirst to learn more and discover, have influenced a lot of my recent creative pursuits.

For now, I would really love to get better at Japanese so I try to focus on that. Otherwise as I am really curious about how things, language, and alphabets work. I would love to know how Hindi, Chinese, or maybe some African languages work in comparison to European languages or Japanese. My next challenge is to move somewhere for my internship with Hyper Island, which will likely be in the United States. Then I can plan my next trip, which is looking to be in South America. It is easy to get comfortable in life, where you are working, have a stable income, and a kind of easy time. But I actually like failing. I personally learn best when I sometimes fail, and of course it is not comfortable, but it makes me work harder, and the result is often much better.

Check out Lukas’ website!

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