…or try it again.
I think most of us have dabbled in this, even if only because our school made us. But we’re all adults here, right? School’s over and done with. Or if you are a younger reader, it eventually will be. I promise. Then you can think about doing the stuff you want. How cool’s that? If the language thing still interests you, this post is for you. Part motivation, part autobiography, all about how a foreign language can add fulfilment to your life.
Let’s get this out the way first: if you are the type who says ‘You only need languages if you want to be a translator,’ now’s the time to run. I’ve just done this week’s Parkrun but I will still catch you, and then I’ll be whipping your butt with my soaking wet shower towel. Every time you take five minutes to get comfortable on a chair for the rest of the weekend, you will remember me telling you ‘I speak three languages and have never worked as a translator.’
If that opens your mind a little, we’ll get some coffee and I’ll tell you about the rest of this. If you’re one of those who didn’t need the wet towel intro and we went straight to Starbucks, so much the better.
When people get me talking about my university years studying German and Spanish, it often results in an interesting conversation. One of them comments I sometimes hear, often straight after ‘I wish I could do languages’ is ‘I never got on with them at school.’ Fair enough, some people do find learning them difficult. Other’s just can’t get interested. But if you genuinely wish you could pick up a language that interests you, consider this an encouragement.
Despite English being a ‘world language’ most of us have had that holiday where the people around us just didn’t know a word of it, but you can think bigger than a two week holiday with a phrase book here.
How cool would it be if you didn’t need the subtitles to watch that anime or martial arts film? Well, pick any film you’ve ever watched in a foreign language. I’m only thinking of Japanese first because it would be a serious challenge to get to a no-subtitles-needed level, and one that I sometimes fancy trying. And Akira is just that cool, right? I’ll admit, I find it hard to watch and fully understand films and Spanish or German completely without subtitles even after this many years, but at least even if I switch them on, I feel like I’m taking a language lesson and not just watching the film. It’s a buzz, a bit like doing any other hobby where you can say ‘I’m good at this.’
How about that attractive person who’s from abroad? I challenge anyone, even an outspoken xenophobe, to tell me they haven’t met even one totally stunning foreigner, or just someone who was a seriously cool or interesting person, and never mind what they looked like. Who cares what someone looks like or where they come from if they can do something amazing that you’re interested in?
What if you actually knew that person’s language? They might speak perfect English, but that unexpected greeting in their own language can go a long way. Then what if you could back it up with more? Trust me, people know the difference between a phrasebook speaker and a confident one. Ever seen Love Actually where Colin Firth learns to speak Portuguese and eventually uses it to propose to the woman he loves in front of her family? Ever read Gordon Ramsay’s autobiography? He learned a good deal of the chef’s trade in France from some of word’s best, going there with barely a word of French to start with.
One example there’s a fictional character portrayed by an actor. The other’s a real person on a career mission. Ask yourself this: did either of them set out to be translators?
Right now, I’m also thinking of Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones saying ‘The mind needs books like sword needs a whetstone.’ One of my favourite whetstones is reading and talking German. I’ll admit I like it more than Spanish, because I have more history with it and my vocab is better. And also, it’s harder. Or at least I find it harder. No offence intended if you’re a Spanish speaker; it’s a fact that multi-linguists often do have a favourite and it’s usually the one they find themselves more proficient with. (If that’s not the case, my money would be on it eventually becoming that way.)
I’ve studied in Spain, and written three-hour exams in Spanish, but I’d dread doing that with German. Despite four years of degree and plenty before that, I’ve just never mastered writing it. But I did cultural exchanges to Germany in my teenage, and that’s when I really got the bug for it. Staying in a house where the family spoke limited English and I only spoke limited German was a real pressure test, where a conversation is no longer a script from a classroom textbook. I felt like I had an appreciation of the importance of languages already, but my first exchange at 13 was when the possibilities really hit me. If it weren’t for that trip, I might never have gone on to do advanced level at school, and then degree level afterwards. It was one of my biggest ‘I want to be good at this’ moments. It was a life-changer.
Here’s the thing though, I’m telling you about that early experience to dispel a popular myth: that in order to be good at languages you need to start them when you’re young. Bzzzzt, wrong!
It’s true that if you grow up in a bilingual family, you can learn two languages or even more intuitively and without the need for it being taught in a classroom-like way (just so we’re clear, I didn’t – I had my first lesson at 10 and wished I’d started sooner), but if you haven’t had that, or even had any enthusiasm for languages before you got to your adulthood, there’s no need to listen to that part of your brain that tells you ‘I can’t do this.’ Because even with that early enthusiasm I got, I still get that feeling plenty. If you ever meet anyone who’s taught me languages, just ask them how frustrated I sometimes got.
If you take a class, or even just try going abroad and trying to learn while there, what your brain is often telling you is ‘This is difficult’ or ‘I’ve forgotten everything already,’ or ‘This is embarrassing and I feel stupid,’ but the knock on effect is often ‘I can’t do this and I don’t want to do this.’ That feeling can be beaten. It’s a challenge, right? Not so different from the ‘I can’t do this’ that we’ve all had when trying any pastime that requires some degree of skill and dedication.
Even I still get those feeling sometimes when I just jam up for words, or when I get that look from a native speaker that says ‘Oh for god’s sake, here’s another one failing at it.’ You do get that from some foreigners, it’s true, but you can beat them at the language-snob game by just continuing to try. Languages are for everyone, and no matter how perfect someone thinks they are at the one they grew up with, trust a writer to tell you: they so often aren’t.
Write a story or an article and then get someone experienced to ransack it for grammar or style. The red ink will humble you. I guarantee it. Whatever someone’s native language is, they’d likely be no different. And here’s another point: learning a foreign language can actually make you better at you own. At university, and recently after going on holiday to Berlin, I became aware of an unmistakable link between how much I’ve practiced a foreign language and how productive and proficient I’ve felt with English when writing fiction.
When I lived in Spain, I actually felt like writing was an exercise in finding imaginary friends to speak English with, because virtually nobody around me in real life did. I wrote loads that year! Sure, it was all fanfiction to amuse a few online friends on a video games message board, but you know what they say: even writing garbage can teach you how to write, as long as you’re writing something, and you’ve got your sensible head on.
It was a slightly bonkers life, when I look back on it: reading people like Garcia Marquez and Lorca and Borges by day, and going to lectures and writing essays in Spanish, then going home and escaping from it by sending Sonic the Hedgehog to an interplanetary warzone on paper while I drank sangria and then chased it with scotch. And sometimes remembering to look after my health, I want for midnight runs down the beech. Yeah, I actually wrote that story, in this dingy little student flat with no aircon in the burning hot summer, and part of what made me do it was just to have some fun because a head full of Spanish and homesickness was driving me nuts. I felt like I was teaching myself two big skills at once by using that connection between two different languages.
I graduated with a 2:1 from Sussex University in 2006. I’ll say it again: I’ve never worked as a translator. But what I have done, and still do, is work that relationship between keeping a foreign language sharp and writing fiction. Was that the biggest thing university taught me how to do? I think it’s up there.
Here’s the big reveal of this post: I challenge you to try learning a language or honing one you already know and then seeing how it impacts into your other hobbies, whether they’re creative or not. Like cooking? Get those fancy recipes that impress your friends in French. Historian? Try the German History Museum in Berlin without looking at the English boards (I went three weeks ago and I seriously recommend that one.) Anime artist? You’re probably dabbling in Japanese already. Kung-fu people, been to China yet? Whatever you’re into, I’ll bet there’s a language that would enrich it somehow.
Get yourself a book, enrol in that class, befriend a native speaker, get on a flight somewhere…just try anything and good luck.