Language barriers

Posted: April 30, 2014 in Random wifflings

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.


  1. Matt Keefe says:

    Funnily enough, the other blog on my to-read list was this one, which might interest you:

    I hate getting to the end of blogposts I was going to comment on then finding out I’m mentioned.

  2. Bill Chapman says:

    Have you ever taken an interest in Esperanto? Or is that next?

  3. I too tried speaking Dutch and again, they wouldn’t let me.

    • guyhaley says:

      I’ve known four native English speakers who speak Dutch fluently, but they were there for years. It’s very closely related to English and not particularly difficult for us to learn, so in this case being English really is a barrier.

      I read a book once, a humorous look at Dutch natural characteristics by a Dutchman. One of the things skewered within was their harsh criticism of other people trying to learn their language, then their subsequent annoyance, when, six months later, the foreigner hadn’t picked it up. So at least they’re aware of it!

  4. Matt Keefe says:

    I’m going to have to be picky and suggest there’s a bit of a non sequitur in your otherwise well-rounded post, Guy. Does it really follow from the spread of English that people regard it as easy? Those seem quite separate to me. I’m also not sure people really do think of English as particularly easy. I’m sure at least as often we hear people exaggerating the complexity of English (like the famous poem demonstrating all the different spellings). Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of the time people seem to revel in the idea of English as very odd, and therefore possibly very difficult. In reality, most languages are odd in one way or another, and English is very regular in some regards. Our verbal nouns are 100% regular – every verbal noun in the language is producing by suffixing -ing to the basic stem. No exceptions. Adverbs are almost as regular; we can form adverbs simply by suffixing -ly. English has an exceptionally large number of irregular verbs, but plurals are almost invariably regular (we simply suffix -s or, with some minor variations for nouns ending in vowels, sibilants and semivowels). Nor do English verbs have very many forms (most have four). English spelling is unusual, but the spellings do tend to fall into a relatively small number of predictable groups, and we’re not the only ones. French has, I believe, something like twenty-eight different ways of writing ‘o’ at the end of a word. While I’m sure there are people who instinctively regard English as particularly easy, I think a lot of English speakers get off on suggesting it’s particularly peculiar.

    • guyhaley says:

      I’ll admit most of it comes from inference. Mainly people describing their own languages as hard, with an unspoken implication being that English is easy. Although I have had people say outright to me “English is easy, whereas my language is too difficult for you to learn.” When my I taught English my admittedly young and naive students used to say it was easy. So I pointed out how many expressions of time we have in our verb system. That shut them up.

      English speakers do get off on suggesting it is somehow uniquely weird, but that’s very much a reaction to how widespread it has become, I feel.

      Perhaps you are correct, this is more an impression I have rather than a hard fact.

      • Matt Keefe says:

        I don’t doubt there are lots of people who think of English as easy, just as there are many who think it’s especially quirky; I was more just questioning whether that’s really an effect of English being widely-spoken.

        You talk about beating up your younger self far too much.

      • guyhaley says:

        Maybe, maybe not. Undoubtedly I’ve only been exposed to the attitude because of the number of speakers.

        And do I? I wasted a lot of years, and compromised my prospects. Of course, one could rightly argue I’m only who I am now because of who I was then, but my younger self still annoys me.

  5. I like languages. To be honest, I’d be ashamed to go somewhere and not try a bit of the local language. The hardest one I’ve tried to learn was a bit of Burmese, because it’s so utterly different to English – as in, even the consonants sound slightly different, and then there are very few familiar words to work from. It does get easier, though.

    (Is your son bilingual?)

    Pete still laughs at the time were were on holiday and someone asked in German if we were Dutch, and I replied with, “Ne, Engels!” but I just got all confused with German and Dutch and fell back on what I’d say in Dutch rather than German…

    • guyhaley says:

      So you are a wizardy polyglot! Hats off.

      Unfortunately, Benny is totally monolingual. He knows about eight words of Swedish. I did try to convince Emma to speak only Swedish to him, but she’d had a friend at school in Sweden who confused the two languages and couldn’t speak either. In her post-pregnancy state, she got worried about it.

      A shame, as I suspect that kid was either highly unusual or its parents spoke in a mixture at home (as some bi-national couples do). I read about an experiment where they taught children five languages from birth, and they never mixed them up. We’re programmed to get it right. Still, never mind.

      This led to amusing comments from Benny last time we went to Sweden (three years ago now) such as “They aren’t talking to me” and “He can’t speak properly”.

      • Mim says:

        I wish! I’ve got German to (poor) A-level and probably Spanish to the same standard; everything else I can just get drunk in and manage not to offend people. I like the way languages work, the differences are utterly fascinating. (Russian has no words for ‘a’ or ‘the’ and no verb ‘to be’ in the present tense, for example.)

        I bet Benny’s picking up more than you realise – he could surprise you yet!

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