A now-rare public post from the Young 72stroopwafels (I ramble on about allotments on here now and as I’m enjoying better health overall, I find I’ve just got less to talk about generally. Except when it comes to geeky language posts, as we will see).
A few months ago, while killing some time in Newcastle before my Irish lesson started, I stumbled on the Kittiwake Trust Multilingual Library. I’d been trying to retreat to a quiet bit of Eldon Square shopping centre, and suddenly, there it was in front of me. I had a quick look round and discovered their excellent range of books in the more expected languages (German, Spanish, French) and the less expected ones (Irish, Welsh, Afrikaans and Geordie). I’m still yet to actually borrow a book because I’m not in Newcastle all that often and also find that I’m struggling to carve out enough time these days for reading, something I’m trying to tackle by simply reducing the amount of time I sleep. There is probably a better way of tackling this problem.
Then last month, the library emailed me to say that actual real-life David Crystal was coming to the library and would I like to meet him. OF COURSE I WOULD. I had not felt this excited since I went to a talk by Noam Chomsky in Cardiff about ten years ago. Chomsky, Crystal and Trudgill were the linguists I was reading as a younger person, while all other self-respecting students were socialising and drinking. I’ve been self-employed for over a year now and considered attending this talk an opportunity for which self-employment was made. I took the afternoon ‘off’ (taking time off isn’t necessarily one of my talents and I ended up working that evening, but I tried) and headed off to hear him speak.
It’s hard to summarise Crystal’s talk, especially when I don’t have to because the entire thing can be found here. It’s a link I might show people whenever I hear “But don’t Dutch people all speak perfect English anyway?” or “You want to be learning Chinese instead, they’ll run the world in 10 years’ time” or “Oh, you’re learning Irish…I didn’t know that was a language”. It was nice to chat to people who understood the idea of learning languages because it’s really fun to learn languages. I queued up to speak to the great man after the talk (met a fellow friendly and star-struck enthusiast @Nattalingo while waiting!).
I am still in a bit of a giddy state almost a week later. It got me thinking about language learning and different attitudes people have towards it. I’ve always seen language learning as a bit like signing up for tennis lessons. You don’t expect to become a professional tennis player, but you hope to learn a certain amount, and most importantly perhaps, to have fun along the way. That’s how I feel about learning languages, and indeed, it could be argued that they’ve kind of replaced sports in my quite lazy life. I’ve got a history of taking up new languages, but I’m only fluent in two in addition to my native language of English. I was reading recently about Johannes Haushofer, who put together a CV detailing his professional setbacks. I don’t view my not achieving fluency in a language as a setback, but I thought I’d detail every language I’ve ever seriously attempted to learn here in chronological order anyway, just to show that perfect fluency doesn't have to be the end goal. Or because I worked on a Bank Holiday yesterday and thus find myself with a bit of free time today.
Welsh: I used to have a long commute to my secondary school in Herefordshire, and aged 11, used the time to try and teach myself Welsh. This did not win me many friends on the bus but helped me briefly overcome travel sickness, and I can still remember how to count to ten and the chorus and first verse of the Welsh national anthem. I want to revisit Welsh again one day and have proper lessons.
French: Compulsory for the first three years of my secondary school education and dropped by me in favour of German when I was 14. I hadn’t embraced my status as a language geek at that point so didn’t think much of not doing the GCSE. I slightly regret that now, but I did Geography instead, so I know how to survive an earthquake.
German: The first one that ‘stuck’, as this is now one of my working languages. I started learning it when I was 13 and now I’m 28, and if I dwell on that fact for too long, I start feeling very insecure about my level of German. I didn’t feel ‘fluent’ until I went to live in Germany aged 19 and only spoke German for a few months, however.
Japanese: I took Japanese lessons during lunchtime while I was at secondary school but never got too far. Maybe because I had to skip the eating part of lunch and was too hungry to concentrate. I only remember how to count to ten and am not convinced I remembered that correctly.
Spanish: I decided to take Spanish GCSE while doing my A-levels, so when I was 17, around the time I realised I was becoming a bit addicted to languages. I found it interesting, but as with French, I didn’t love it quite enough to continue studying it, and I don’t remember much of it at all now.
Dutch: Dutch started fascinating me when I was about 16 and worrying about my university options. A good way of narrowing these options down was to look at universities offering Dutch in the UK. The University of Sheffield has a thriving Dutch department and was an excellent way of nurturing my interest. I loved the fact that as a speaker of German, I could understand some, but not all of it already – kind of like watching only the first half of a really good film, so obviously, I had to learn Dutch, and after changing my degree to incorporate even more Dutch, it’s now my second working language. I find it far easier to read than German, but much harder to speak.
Russian: I took an evening class in Russian during my second year of university, aged 19ish. I didn’t do very well. I think it didn’t help that I was obviously spending most of my time on German and Dutch anyway, so it was difficult to take on a language like Russian as a ‘bit on the side’. I remember almost nothing.
Luxembourgish: This isn’t a language I’d ever go too far to learn, but my university did a module in Luxembourgish in my final year, and I was nurturing a fascination with West Germanic languages and dialects. I got very confused trying to learn three similar languages at once. I clearly remember accidentally speaking Dutch in my oral exam. I don’t remember much except for the fact that ‘that is’ translates as ‘dat ass’, which never fails to amuse me.
Norwegian: My reasoning for learning Norwegian was that I’d read somewhere that it was the best one to learn out of the three if you wanted to be able to easily understand Swedish and Danish too. My studies mostly involved reading the dialogues of Sue and Arne and their doomed love affair (Arne really likes Sue but she’s mostly interested in him just because he’s Norwegian).
Plattdeutsch: Also known as Niederdeutsch or Low German or ‘What happens when you mix German, Dutch and INSANITY’. I was and still am a bit in love with Plattdeutsch and took lessons when I lived in Oldenburg. I became conversationally fluent after a term (not because I’m super-wise or anything, just because anyone with my language background would) and did well in my exams, but unsurprisingly, when I moved back to the UK, there weren’t many people to speak it with. Not that there were many in Oldenburg below the age of 70 either.
Swedish: This sort of explains why I stopped learning Norwegian, moved as I was by the fate of Sue and Arne. I have adorable friends in Sweden and after I’d visited them for possibly the sixth time, I realised it would make sense to learn at least a bit of Swedish. This may be the only time in my life, incidentally, that I’ve tried to learn a language because it’s useful. I took lessons when I lived near London but there weren’t any available when I moved north three years ago, so it’s a bit rusty. I could read a newspaper article and summarise the gist of it, but I’m terrified of speaking it.
Irish: I ramble about Irish a lot more here so this is a summary really, but it was always on the ‘to learn’ list along with Welsh and Finnish, and I was happily surprised to find reasonably-priced lessons not all that far from me at the Tyneside Irish Centre. It’s been around eight months and I can’t say a lot yet, mainly because of the amount of grammar you’ve got to power through even in the early stages, but I think I’m in love. I’m off to Donegal in the summer to go on a week-long course and maybe chuck myself in at the deep end, a prospect I’m both scared and excited by. I aim to reach conversational fluency and have set a realistic timescale of 10 years, which is only partly a joke.
So the point of this wasn’t ‘O wow look at all these languages I speak wow I’m so clever’ like a hyperpolyglot, it’s more ‘Look how many I’ve tried out and put to one side for a while’. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. Some people are single-minded enough to stick to learning one language and achieve fluency in a short space of time (especially when you consider factors like the necessity of learning the language in question, if they’ve moved abroad for example), but there are people like me who flit wantonly from one to the next, and this is a practice I’d defend, because it’s been so much fun.
And one day I want to learn Finnish, but that’s far into the future.