Having English as your mother tongue is a great boon. You can go virtually anywhere in the world and someone will be able to understand you. More than that, people practically fall over themselves to chat, because they want to try out their English. It’s the international language of entertainment, trade, government, science etc etc etc.
It’s also a massive pain in the arse when you’re trying to learn other languages. Open your mouth, trot out your few faltering phrases of your newly acquired lingo, and the chances are the other party will smile at you and answer in English.
We Brits have a reputation of somehow being congenitally unable to learn other tongues. This is nonsense, obviously, we’ve got the same basic equipment as a Frenchmen or a German, but it is true that Brits struggle with foreign speech. We’re generally monolingual, the majority of people in the world are bilingual I read somewhere.
For a start, we don’t learn until too late (although this is changing in British schools), so we don’t develop the mental habits needed to acquire foreign languages. More than once in classes, I’ve seen British people attempt X language with a French accent, because that’s “foreign” to us. More importantly, we are not exposed on a daily basis to foreign languages, unlike pretty much everyone else who get to hear English day in, day out. Thirdly, we don’t have to try, for the reasons stated at the head of this piece. We are too shy, terrified of making mistakes, and it’s too easy not to try. Shamefully, this was my attitude too. I was an all round lazy shit in school, to be fair. In French and German lessons I’d think “What’s the point? I’m English.” I’d love to wallop my younger self, I really would.
Because of these factors, English has developed a reputation as “easy”, which is not objectively true. All languages are complex in their own way, and indeed the day-to-day “Lingua Anglica” is different to the form spoken by true English native speakers – speaking a language is very different to mastering it. There’s a blog post in that somewhere.
It wasn’t until later in life that I discovered my interest in languages. I did a Dutch course when I was at University for six months in Amsterdam. I got a high mark, then promptly never used it. The Dutch were incredibly critical, spoke English at me, and then complained, six months later, that I couldn’t speak Dutch. Really, I should have been braver and ignored the sniggers. It wasn’t just me, not one student out of the thirty on the course ever used their Dutch.
Now when I’m really serious about learning foreign lingo and I’m abroad, I pretend I can’t speak English.
A couple of years later, pursuing a doomed love affair, I found myself living with a Polish family in Szczecin who spoke no English, this being not long after the fall of Communism, so I did learn to speak Polish. A few years ago, I learned Swedish (because I’m married to a half-Swede, remember?)
Trouble is, I’ve begun to forget; it’s that lack of exposure again. I’ve been a bit alarmed that my attempts to speak with the Polish immigrants I’ve met have been stilted, so I’ve started refreshing my languages. I’m reading my old Polish textbooks that I taught myself from way back when, and trying to read a couple of newspaper articles a week from Gazeta Wyborcza. My Polish wasn’t fluent, but I could speak fluidly and got to a high enough level for it to ingrain itself. I’ve retained a good grasp of the grammar, so my refresh is going more easily than I feared. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this − I went for some lessons a few years ago, but they were of limited use. I hope this is more effective, early indications are good. Reading the words at my own pace, the meanings are coming back without too much encouragement.
I’m doing similar for my Swedish. I get at least get to listen to this occasionally, as the Mrs and I watch Swedish telly imports every so often, and she sometimes speaks Swedish (usually when she’s being bitching about someone, talking to the dog, or swearing). Swedish is the easiest language for English speakers I’ve attempted to learn (again, linguistic easiness is entirely relative to the speaker and the circumstances, not an inherent characteristic to the language itself). It’s close enough to English in basic grammar and root vocabulary, and the Scandinavian mindset isn’t a million miles away from ours, so speaking Swedish doesn’t require a massive cognitive step-change. Furthermore, the Swedes, bless ’em, respond in Swedish when addressed in their own language which really, really helps. In this case, I’m more continuing to learn, rather than trying to remember or relearn. Svenska Dagbladet is my online paper of choice here.
I don’t want to give the impression of being some kind of wizardy polyglot, (unlike my frighteningly intelligent friend and White Dwarf staffer Matt Keefe, who genuinely is). My Swedish is probably GCSE grade, my Polish all over the scale. But in both languages I can manage a conversation. I can get by in French and German, survive in Spanish. And I can still read Dutch a little. I think it’s important to be able to speak other languages. It protects your brain against ageing, for one thing, never mind the obvious benefits of being able to communicate with more people, and I love that moment when people’s faces light up when they realise you’re giving their language a go. Being forced to think in a different way by a language is a refreshing exercise for the old brain. But that English problem hangs over my head. Natural language acquisition is driven by exposure. As I said before, non-English speakers are exposed to English a lot − that is why English is “easy”. If I want similar exposure, I have to work at it.
And then pretend I can’t speak English.