My A-Z of Reading: L is for Languages

December 2, 2016

Readers will know I love languages and that I’m horrified at the disappearance of the study of languages from our schools and universities; we suffer from the tyranny of English (well, American English) as a ‘world language’ and so see little need to bother trying to communicate with others in their languages. And the monoglot English should realise that they are actually in a minority here: in most ares of the world it’s the norm to be fluent in more than one language, and to use those languages regularly…

Rather than ranting pointlessly, I thought I’d write about my own experience of the languages I have some familiarity with: let’s start, briefly, with English, my mother tongue. I think I know it pretty well, and have quite a wide vocabulary, mainly through my reading of literature across the centuries. I know the history of the language reasonably well and have a decent command of etymology, too. I don’t know Old English – joint honours students at my university didn’t have to study it.

Latin came next, because I was raised a Catholic, and in the days before mass in English I was trained as an altar-boy, and so had to learn by heart all the responses in Latin. This caused problems when I moved to grammar school, which didn’t approve of my Church Latin pronunciation, and I had to learn ‘public school’ Latin pronunciation. (BTW, who knows how they actually pronounced it?) Then when I moved to a Catholic school again I gradually had to un-learn it… but I loved this structured and disciplined language and as I learnt its grammar, all sorts of secrets about how language worked were revealed to me; as I learnt its vocabulary all sorts of things about English and French also became much clearer. I can still do the mass responses, various classical choral music is easy to understand, and I can decipher old inscriptions in churches and other places.

French has been my big success, thanks largely to an inspirational teacher who was years ahead of his time. I had an epiphany on my first trip to stay with a French family when I realised I could communicate with them, reasonably fluently and without having to frame my thoughts in English first and then attempt to translate them… I never looked back, went off to read French at university, spent a year as an assistant at a French school and came home able to speak fluently and at times be taken for a French person. What has that given me? A lifelong interest in France and things French that I have explored for many years through countless enjoyable holidays: that I can operate in France in pretty much the same way as I do at home has been marvellous. And I have to confess, as I have aged, I have become rustier, but I can still manage…

German has been a hit and miss affair: never learned at school, but picked up piecemeal via holidays, acquaintances with Germans, evening classes all over the place, and many holidays. My vocabulary is wide, my grammar pretty ropy, I suspect, as I never had the discipline of learning and being taught systematically; not having learnt genders and conjugations correctly, I make mistakes all over the place, but can be understood. I feel confident enough to make the effort to speak when I’m there and again, have had a good number of enjoyable trips; once of my oldest friends is a German I taught English to on a holiday language course nearly forty years ago.

Italian I spent two years on at evening class about thirty years ago; I enjoyed it and I managed on a trip to Italy. I have the intention of going back to it one day. Having spent ages listening to Dutch pirate radio stations in the 1970s, I can understand a lot of Dutch and Flemish, particularly if it’s in writing; my knowledge of German and the closeness of Dutch to English mean that I can make a decent stab at saying things if I need to. But the Dutch are well-known for their linguistic abilities and usually get in with English first.

I’m currently learning Spanish. It’s fun, interesting and I have a really good teacher. Although it was easy at the outset, it’s getting harder, but definitely keeping my brain active. I’m planning a road trip to Spain in a year or so, and this is partly by way of preparation. Although to be able to read a newspaper or a book in Spanish would be good, too.

Two failures to confess, now: classical Greek was hard, I wasn’t committed enough, and eventually my teacher sent me packing. Fair enough. And oddly, not too high on my list of regrets. Polish, on the other hand, is my big failure. My father was Polish, but had decent English (self-taught) along with Russian and the ability to understand Serbo-Croat) and married an Englishwoman so English was our home language. Polish school on Saturday (tried briefly) as a child was a failure, as were several attempts at different evening classes in Leeds and London. I wanted to learn but didn’t really manage. I can understand a lot, my pronunciation is fine (that’s the easy bit!) and I can get by in a basic conversation if I really have to, but my confidence isn’t good. Why? Polish is a horrendously difficult language grammatically and conceptually – it can easily give classical Greek a run for its money, and I have yet to come across a good teacher in this country, someone who can both tackle the teaching of it to non-natives, and who can clarify the grammatical complexities. I will probably try and have another go before I fall off my perch.

Languages have given me a lifetime of challenge and enjoyment; they have been the key to pleasurable travel, adventures and acquaintances; they have taught me that communication is what being human is all about.

And don’t get me started on the languages I’d like to have the time to learn…

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