I follow and support recent efforts to promote language study in the UK with much interest and enthusiasm, and not without motive. Here’s how language study has changed my life.
As an 11-year-old starting out at a UK comprehensive school in the late seventies, I wasn’t particularly interested the compulsory French classes – text-book comic strips about what Jean-Claude was doing on his bicycle in the garden; the class robotically, monotonously droning words and phrases on the cue of “ecoutez et repetez”; self-consciously performing uncomfortable contortionism of the jaw muscles to form those alien sounds.
Language-learning, as far as I could tell, had never been a feature among previous generations in our family – my father had obviously picked up a handful of German words during his two years’ National Service in the late 1950s, and would occasionally arrive home from work with an enthusiastic “hello kinder” to my sister and I, but that was about it. In fact my enduring memory of dad’s language prowess was during a family road-trip through France when I was 15. He was confident he could “get by” in the language, and strode cheerily off to a fast-food truck with our orders for burgers and chips, only to sheepishly return 20 minutes later with four cups of coffee - oh, the hearty belly laughter that followed!
It was only two years later that I would find myself, after a fashion, following in father’s footsteps. Having long been a childhood fan of all things military and camouflage-related, I joined the Army Air Corps and found myself in the then West Germany just shy of my 18th birthday. In the mid-eighties, the Cold War had perhaps lost some of its intensity compared to Cuban-missile-crisis days, but political jostling, veiled threats and brinkmanship were aplenty, and we spend much of our time deploying to battle-plan locations and engaging in field exercises.
There was also downtime, and for a young soldier with money in his pocket and time on his hands, prospects were good - and this is where my interest in language learning was really sparked. I wanted German friends, wanted to get out of barracks and in with the locals, wanted to communicate. So I started self-teaching a few phrases, wandering around town, listening to people buying in shops and ordering in bars, restaurants and cafés, eavesdropping on conversations and soaking it all up like a sponge, before imitating what I’d heard, trying to get the pronunciation right – what a feeling of elation when I not only successfully made my first purchase without uttering a word of my mother tongue, but received a smile and a compliment on my linguistic efforts from my interlocutor!
As time passed, I acquired more language, particularly from the delightful German girl I began seeing, and the circle of friends that came with the package. I stress the term “acquired” here, because I had only too recently sprinted, for the last time I thought, from the school gates, whooping with glee and swearing never to sit in a classroom again. My methodology was, therefore, quite literally reading, watching TV, listening to others and repeating - in the same way that an infant acquires his or her native language. By no means did I become fluent or proficient, but I can categorically say that my four-year experience in the country was greatly enhanced by having the ability to hold a conversation. The language seed had been sown.
My contact with other languages was reduced as I changed careers and became a police officer back in Sussex, although Brighton was and is a popular location for overseas students to visit on exchange and study programmes – on more than one occasion I was required to employ the services of an interpreter to obtain a victim or witness statement, or to interview a suspect, and through this contact I developed an admiration for professional linguists - and their cerebral agility - which stays with me to this day.
It was 10 years into this career that I awoke one morning and decided I wanted to do something different – as I recall, it was a very quick decision-making process – The BBC was, at that time, screening “Andes to Amazon”, and police officers had the option to take non-remunerated career breaks, with a guaranteed return to work. So the decision was made – a year backpacking around South America.
Drawing on my German experience, I decided that this time it might be nice to embark on my solo adventure with at least a language base to work from – I would spend 10 months or more in the Spanish-speaking part of the continent, so I enrolled on the Open University Basic Spanish course, then moved on to the longer, intermediate study programme – this suited my needs perfectly as I spent the months preparing – excellent quality text and exercise books, audio and video sent by post, home study using all the resources to cover reading, writing, speaking and listening - along with grammar study - and one Saturday a month attending a local consolidation class facilitated by a native Spanish speaking teacher. The materials - fascinating in content and unequalled in quality - not only taught the language, but also approximated me to a number of Spanish-speaking cultures – I absolutely loved the whole experience, the requirement for self discipline to study at home and anticipation of the Saturday class where we’d all get to use what we’d learnt in conversations and simulated situations.
By the time I took the final exams, I was raring to get out there and impress my Spanish upon anyone who would listen, and my month “defrosting” and “relaxing” in Costa Rica, before I really started on South America, began with my perfectly-enunciated request of a man on the street for directions to the local long-distance bus station, followed by a machine-gun tirade of a very helpful and detailed answer which left me wondering if I really had studied any Spanish or whether I’d dreamt it all. And thus I learned my first real big lesson – you might formulate a flawless question, but at the beginning you won’t necessarily be prepared for the answer - it takes time to attune the ear.
And so it did, for the next ten months as I moved through Colombia, volunteered for two months with indigenous kids in Ecuador (yet another learning experience as I picked up some phrases in Quichua), and travelled a further eight countries, each with its own variant of Spanish – different speeds, pronunciation, vocabulary, slang and degrees of formality. For much of the time I actively avoided other “gringos” on the trail and sought out locals as far as possible, eager to hone and refine and become increasingly fluent, reading local newspapers, listening to radio, watching TV, going to the cinema, so that by the time I crossed the border into Portuguese-speaking Brazil, I was, if I say so myself, a red-hot Spanish speaker. It had not been easy – on many occasions I had sat round tables while groups of locals quick-fired jokes, stories and amusing anecdotes into the mix, and on many occasions my brain had just switched off, or a headache had arrived to remind me just how intensively cerebral any activity using other languages is.
Now admiring the breathtaking waterfalls of Foz do Iguaçu in southern Brazil, my brain would have more to deal with as I realised that, for me, the similarity between Spanish and Portuguese was restricted to the written word – on more than one occasion in those first days I bought a newspaper to comfort myself – it was so similar to the Spanish that I could understand most of the content and guess the majority of words I didn’t know from the context. I needed to comfort myself because after listening to Brazilians talking, I thought for a moment that I’d been abducted by aliens and been set down on another planet! The sounds were so different from Spanish!
Only after a time, they weren’t really – again, it was just a case of adjusting the ear, which happened quite quickly, bearing out the received wisdom that the process of learning one language will stand you in good stead to learn others.
I spent six weeks in Brazil, fell in love with Brazil and later ended up moving to Brazil and having a son here (a bilingual sponge of a boy). In order to make myself employable I did the Cambridge University CELTA course – a process that contributed to my linguistic ability as much as any other study I’ve undertaken, as it made me stop and think about my own language and how it works - in the five years I spent teaching English to Brazilians, I learned so much!
I honed my Portuguese through practical, situational learning, with all its inherent brain-aches, difficulties, and frustrations – with a bit of grammar, structure and usage study - but I got to a reasonable level of proficiency through persistence and having a thirst for more – and identified my own learning style, because different people prefer to learn languages in different ways – some want all the grammar and structure, some just want to talk, others rely on repetition. There’s no right or wrong, it just depends on a person’s personal intelligences, and a good language teacher will recognise this and cater for all.
On a number of occasions, I was asked to do written translations from Portuguese into English – people would typically seek out an English school to find someone to do this cheaply – and I started doing an abstract here, a menu there. At that stage, around 2005 – 2006, such was my fascination with all things linguistic that I began to read up on translation and seek to do more. And more, and…
I can safely say I’ve found my passion. I now run a small translation and interpretation business in Brazil, and count simple restaurants, local academics and renowned multinationals among regular clients. To give myself a professional edge I prepared for, sat and passed the very demanding Diploma in Translation examination offered by the UK Chartered Institute of Linguists, and I have been all over Brazil and beyond to interpret at conferences, meetings and courses, even spending six months as interpreter and, inevitably, “fixer” for a group of English-speaking Chinese engineers selling machinery to Brazilian industry.
Chinese! Remember this - as a native or near-native English speaker, you already have an advantage – it is the Lingua Franca of the modern world, and as I continue to take full advantage of that fact, with some very exciting linguistic projects both under way and lined up for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil, I would suggest that learning another language is, at the least, an interesting, worthwhile challenge which will broaden your horizons and provide a great workout for the brain. At the other end of the scale, it really can and does open doors – doors which can literally lead to places beyond your wildest dreams.
In this time of full digital accessibility and increasing cross-cultural communication, I can safely say that if you want to successfully ride the global wave, you’d do well to get into that language classroom, whether virtual, physical, or experiential.
I’m hooked – I continue to study and learn languages, and about languages - including my own. I absolutely love it - the joy of being able to communicate, and to help others to do so! Regrets? Just one – not welcoming Jean-Claude and his bicycle into my world much, much sooner!