Curiouser and curiouser… Or: an autobiography in languages

As yet another editorial on the importance of learning foreign languages does the rounds, I’ve been wondering how it was that I got interested in languages. I’ve got no family connections to German or Germany – which is pretty much the first thing anyone asks when I say that’s what I teach – but even at age 10, before I started learning languages at school, and without ever having been abroad, I wanted to be a languages teacher (though back then it was French that I was most interested in).

I can’t quite explain why. I just did. Maybe it was the fact of moving from one end of the country to another at a young age – Glaswegian is not (quite!) another language, but it’s different enough from the English spoken in Kent/SE London to make you aware of language differences at least. That seems a bit overblown and romantic though – maybe if I were a character in a novel, that would be the underlying cause, but it sounds a bit too autobiographical a reading for real life.

I don’t have many memories from Glasgow, but one of the very few things I do remember about my (brief) schooling there is that we were taught to sing Alouette, gentille alouette. It seems a bit strange for 5 year olds (not to mention the fact that the subject matter is actually a bit gruesome! that poor little lark…) but I don’t think I’m making that up – both my parents can rattle it off as well. Maybe that sparked me off? or was it my half-French neighbour and playmate in Glasgow, of whom I can only remember my dad’s nickname for her (Chocolate-y Claire [say it out loud]; I’m cringing even typing it)?

At any rate, something must have started my curiosity about languages. That’s the bottom line, isn’t it: you’ve got to be curious – you’ve got to want to know what lies behind all those new words (and even new scripts, though I haven’t yet ventured beyond the Latin alphabet). And somehow you need to be exposed to those things that might arouse curiosity, whether it’s nursery rhymes at infant school, foreign music on the radio (trending today: #verplichtnederlands), subtitled (not dubbed) interviews on the news, reviews of foreign (not just translated) literature in the press… if you don’t even know it’s out there, it’s very hard to develop a curiosity for it.

Curiosity, and a certain linguistic geekiness, have led me at various points to memorise a Namibian hymn, the Portuguese lyrics on Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints (and I had a good attempt at the lyrics to ‘Homeless’ on Graceland too), how to say Happy Birthday in Urdu, I love you in Welsh, and Can I send a fax please in Russian. None of this is useful knowledge (with apologies to Tania, Ceri and Sian respectively), or at least, not to me at this moment in time. And I make no claims for any of these efforts ever being comprehensible to native speakers (certainly not the Russian phrase, which never seemed to have the desired effect). The point always was: there’s a whole big world out there, and I want to know what’s in it. How else am I going to get at it without learning other languages? (through translation perhaps, but that’s for another time…)


3 thoughts on “Curiouser and curiouser… Or: an autobiography in languages

  1. Tip on alphabets: learning them will reveal to you consonant patterns etymologically from non-Germanic languages that appear in English and thus will hint at the origin of the word without knowing its original meaning, allowing you to seek the original word in the dictionary of the source language. Phth, dg, al, &c. (For the record: Greek, Russian, Arabic). I suggest beginning with the Hellenic alphabet/script because it most closely resembles Latin, and you can adjust the Hellenic ones to look like the Latin ones (try morphing, via handwriting, a lambda into an L, or sigma into an S). Thence, see the Cyrillic used in Russian and notice the similarities with the three systems. Arabic/Urdu can come next, they use separate but similar systems. Afterwards, get adventurous and see the Bengali script, which has similar features to the Arabic/Urdu ones but is even more complex. I assume by now you know that Japanese/Chinese/Korean are tied together but hard for me to relate to the others because of my lack of knowledge of their origins and reasoning behind the shapes. If you pick up a linguistics textbook by the way and search the index for Egyptian hieroglyphics you’ll find what images transformed into letters (such as a man turning into a lowercase T-shape, from hieroglyphic, to hieratic, and ending with the demotic).

  2. —to which I would like to add a paean of praise to my first French teacher, Ms Ellis, at Longcroft Secondary School in Beverley. Unlike the versatile and well-travelled author of this blog, I spent my entire childhood and teenage years in one place, the rural tranquility of East Yorkshire. The mere idea of foreign languages did not even enter my consciousness until secondary school began – but then Ms Ellis picked me up, whirled me round and showed me a whole new world of words that don’t look like they sound (‘la glaaaaace!’) and which you could perhaps translate into English, but whose meaning nevertheless remained subtly different – ‘fromage’ will never just be cheese, and looking out of a ‘fenêtre’, one expects to see much more exciting things than through a mere window. I have also ended up a Germanist, partly thanks to another enormously talented language teacher at the same school, Ms Wlodarczyk. (Almost) without moving from a relatively uninspiring classroom, I had the course of my life changed by these two dynamic ladies and their colleagues. Let’s hear it for language teachers!

    1. Couldn’t agree more – hurrah for inspiring teachers in all subjects! in my case Mrs Duggleby (for French) and Mr Wylie (for History) in particular. Ending up a Germanist on the other hand was in a large part the result of spending a year in Berlin (not unrelated to history of course).

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