Thursday, 4 April 2013

talking foreign and knowing the world

pic: Multilingua
it's no secret that I have always liked learning languages. However, I have rarely in my life been fluent in anything other than English. When I was nineteen I spent several months in western France as au pair, and came back fluent in French - but it didn't last, because after that I only ever spoke French on holidays, and then only in shops and restaurants. I studied Russian at university, and spent three months studying in the USSR when I was twenty - I came back fluent in Russian, which again did not last, although I subsequently worked as a translator from Russian, because there was no-one to speak it with. Later, in my late twenties, I was sent to Japan by my employers to learn the language, which I did. It took me two years, more or less full time, and - yes - I came back fluent in Japanese. The Japanese language is actually quite easy for an anglophone to learn to speak (unlike French), though it is the first circle of hell to learn to read and write. That was a bit better: I worked on and off as a freelance interpreter, and was able to talk to Japanese people, for several years afterwards, but that too fell away.  Later still, in my thirties, I was sent to Korea by the BBC to learn the language. I learned to read it, slowly (the Korean alphabet is a wonderful thing) but in the three months I had there I never became a fluent speaker. Korean is fairly hard to speak, although it is quite closely related to Japanese, because it contains sounds which do not exist in most European languages. Also, I was a bit older, and that slows the learning process somewhat. (Though remember that babies take a good two years to learn to speak their native language fluently, and they don't have much of anything else to do, so age is not the only factor in speed of learning). Even later, in the first years of this century, sig other and I did a lot of travelling around Europe as we pursued our plan to visit every one of its capitals.  I found that an approximation of bad Russian got me understood throughout the Balkans and south-east Europe, and that I could understand signs and menus and simple things people said to me. Now, I live in France, and it took me at least two years to acquire real fluency. I'm still taking classes, and still have a strong English accent, which I despise.

So I got to thinking, what are the world's main languages? What gets you the world? I did a bit of research, and I believe the languages are these: English, as lingua franca in many places and the main language in north America and Australasia, helpful in India and Pakistan and parts of Africa. Mandarin Chinese, as the language spoken by the most people in the world. Hindi, which gets you the subcontinent (Urdu is just like it only with Arabic words added, and yes I know that is controversial). Arabic, which gets you the Middle East and some bits of Africa. French, which gets you several countries in Europe and a whole chunk of west Africa as well as part of the Caribbean and the south Pacific, and is still important in north Africa too. Russian, which not only gets you Russia, but gives you a way in to the Slavic languages of east and south-east Europe and is still the language of business and the lingua franca in the whole of the former USSR, including the non-Slavic parts such as the Baltics. Spanish, which gets you Spain and south America. Portuguese, which gets you not only Portugal but Brazil and several important countries in Africa. And Turkish, which gets you not only Turkey but just about the whole of central Asia, whose languages are mostly Turkic. What does that leave? Well, south-east Asia - but English is very much a lingua franca there. To these I added German, as the language in Europe spoken by the most people, Latvian (a Germanic language) because I have lived in Latvia and intend to again, Polish, because Poland is a cool and happening place I want to visit more often, Alsatian, because it is spoken around where I live - I doubt I will ever speak it but I like to understand what people are saying around me - Greek, because I go often to Cyprus and hope to live there one day, and Japanese and Korean just to build on previous foundations. I found Eurotalk, a range of interactive language learning applications, absolutely excellent. And no, they're not paying me to say this. (But they're welcome to if they read this). I do one of their modules every day, or nearly, in a different language each day. It takes about ten minutes. This morning, on the tram, it was Polish. It's fun to do - I use the iPhone app - and gives you the confidence to start talking. I also found the other day when I heard the Pope on television speaking Spanish that I could understand him, without having tried to - then when he switched to Italian, which I have never tried to learn, I couldn't understand a word.

Well, it's a little hobby of mine, and it does no harm, hein? I started as a complete beginner in most of the above. The hardest to get into? Arabic, without a doubt. The easiest? Hard choice between Polish and Spanish.

Anyone think I should add any more? I wondered about Farsi.

Update: Swahili has been suggested. Spoken by 140 million people. It's going on the list.

Further update: I have been challenged to go for Finnish. aaargh. Never could resist a challenge.


jodymerelle said...

Great post Jane...but don't leave out the mother of all grammatical nightmares. Finnish. You know you want to.

Jane Griffiths said...

hah I think once I dived into Finnish I'd never get out

Anonymous said...

You forgot Esperanto!
More seriously, how about Pidgin?

Anonymous said...

Does anyone learn Esperanto now?

If you are into religion, then Latin and Hebrew would help to read texts,

Jane Griffiths said...

Esperanto is not a language of interest to me. Pidgin I would learn if I were in a place (Papua New Guinea?) where it is useful, otherwise not, as it is not a language of world importance. Some of the others I mention are not either, but I have a personal interest. Latin - I have some from schooldays and would boost it if necessary to read texts, Hebrew too - also I would like to have a go at Modern Hebrew some day as I am a fan of Israel.