Posts Tagged ‘foreign language learning’

My travels: L for languages

January 23, 2017

Not a place, I know, but an integral part of my travelling. I’m prompted to write this post after a real shock today. I’m part of a French conversation group which meets fortnightly to chat in French, as a way of keeping up our fluency with the language as well as to share stories and knowledge of that country’s culture. And from a visitor, we learned that a local secondary school with a very good reputation and the largest associated sixth form in the country – some 1200 students – has just three dozen, across two years, studying a modern foreign language. Five of these are boys, apparently. I was horrified.

I’ve written before about my encounters with different languages from my earliest days, and my fascination with them, of my good fortune in having an excellent French teacher at school and the moment of epiphany when I realised I could communicate in that language, with it native speakers.

One of the reasons my travels are relatively limited, compared with those of many other people I meet, I have realised, that it’s important to me to be able to communicate while I travel, rather than remain in a tourist bubble, hoping someone will be able to speak English. I know that’s not a very helpful approach in that it cuts a lot of the world out; I don’t rule out going to countries whose language I don’t speak, and I also know that people in other countries are often very keen to practise their English. And yet it seems natural, or useful to be able to ask for directions or other information of a passer-by, or in a tourist office, to be able to join up with a guided tour at a place I happen to be visiting, to chat at the till in a shop or supermarket. And when out walking, casual or chance encounters can develop into an hour to two’s companionship…

I’ve also realised that as a Brit who has the steering wheel on the wrong side of his car, and has to drive on the wrong side of the road while in Europe, that the ability to understand the roadside furniture is one of the things that helps with the slight strangeness of driving there: I’m in France so I do French and that includes driving French-style, if you see what I mean.

Clearly I can manage in France, and that means Belgium, too (once a Flemish-speaker realises you are a foreigner rather than a francophone Belgian being rude, you are OK, though I can just about get by in Flemish), and parts of Luxembourg and Switzerland. French also helped me in Morocco many years ago. I’m okay, if a little rusty and ungrammatical, in German, and that does for the rest of Luxembourg, Austria and some other bits of Switzerland. I used to be able to get by in Italian. I have a project for a tour of Spain, and am very much enjoying the challenge of learning Spanish at the moment. I’m seriously lacking confidence in that terribly complicated language which is Polish, and have relied on people there speaking English or translating for me. I don’t like this; I can understand quite a lot of the language, but constructing sentences of my own is very hard indeed.

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When a teacher offering career advice to students, I would always point out the advantages to be gained by pursuing study of a language to degree level, and the spectacular opportunities that could offer themselves to those who had two foreign languages and English as their mother-tongue; some students took my advice and I don’t know of any who regretted it. Sadly, of course, the goalposts have recently been moved, and on reflection I now think that if I were able to rewind the clock, I would move abroad…

It is hard to put into words – even for a former English teacher – the fun and the pleasure that my engagement with languages has given me over the years, and how much it has enhanced my enjoyment of my travels: a dish or a drink recommended here, a place to go and visit suggested there, extra help or advice from a tourist office or a guide, a friendly conversation that rounds off a pleasant day. It’s hard living on an island.


On the English language…

January 31, 2015

You would expect me to say I love the English language, but I have been thinking about what it is that I particularly love; teaching the language and its literature gave me a career I loved, too. And yet my knowledge of the language in terms of its history, structure and linguistics is basically self-taught and rather patchy.

I love the quirks and oddities of the language: the ‘th’ sound that foreigners have such difficulty getting their minds around the two different pronunciations of, and its utterly bonkers spelling rules, that I fervently hope no-one ever succeeds in ‘reforming’.

One of the things I have come to realise and appreciate over the years is how vast it is, as a language, with far more words than any other language; the OED has twenty huge printed volumes and several volumes of supplements, and, as far as I’m aware, no other language comes anywhere near this. What this means is that there is a great wealth of synonyms – look at the size of Roget’s Thesaurus (a volume I’ve always possessed and never used!); synonyms mean an ability to express more shades of meaning, and meaning with great precision and subtlety. And then, the sheer wealth of words mean that, for instance, there are far more rhyming words available to poets if they want them.

English does seem to have developed into the closest thing there is to a world language; obviously this is a good thing in some ways, although I think it is also capable of getting in the way of communication, but it has also led to the English becoming very lazy indeed about learning other languages, and this is both sad, culturally, as well as a serious mistake in terms of our relations with the rest of the world.

I am fascinated by the ways that our language has changed over time, from an inflected Germanic language via Norman French to the relative simplicity of today’s English. I say simplicity advisedly, because that perceived simplicity is one of the reasons for the falling off of foreign language learning in this country. But we have a grammar without the genders that French, German, Spanish, Polish and many other languages have, we have a grammar without the use of cases such as German and Polish have, and we have a very flexible word order to our sentences. Equally fascinating to discover has been the wealth of word experimentation and creation by our great writers such as Shakespeare and Milton. I have loved what my learning of foreign languages has taught me about my own language, in terms of connections in vocabulary and word origins, as well as differences in the ways languages develop and change.

I find certain things about English to be annoying, or to be disadvantages, particularly some of the effects of sharing the language with the United States. Somehow, generic ‘mid-Atlantic English’ is rather soulless.

As a teacher, I felt I was something of a stickler for speaking correctly, as well as writing grammatically and spelling accurately. I always encouraged students to learn a new word every day. These are not the most important things in the world, but are surely worth doing properly. There is money to be made for the person who can find an effective way of teaching and drilling correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, from the start to the end of compulsory schooling. And I feel strongly about such things because I think the English language is such a wonderful thing…

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