Around the world in 80 languages.
I have been interested in foreign languages for a long time.
It goes back to my school days in New Zealand, a distinctively Anglo-Saxon country with all the mono-lingualism that follows a culture driven by its status as a former British empirical outpost.
Two new class members arrived and they had come from Cambodia. Of course, not understanding that it was the bloody Khmer Rouge which had left them fleeing for their lives, they arrived from the killing fields to a place which is altogether more peaceful, where there are in fact green fields, and plenty of them.
Of course, aged seven or so I had no understanding of this, nor did I of the language that they were speaking to each other, but my curiosity was piqued. What were they saying to each other? They were sisters, but it sounded like they were speaking in code. It was only as an adult, more than three decades later, when I went to Cambodia, and heard for three weeks the guttural rumblings of Khmer before I concluded that it was one of the less melodious tongues I had heard.
None of that mattered back then of course. My experience with languages did not resume though until I was 12, nearly 13 and was in secondary school. Upon completion of my entrance exams, the school recommended I do Latin and French. The thinking was that these highfalutin subjects were worthy of the intelligentsia of the school. Those who did less well in those tests were told to do geography, or business studies. Of course, French and Latin should be accessible to everyone, there is nothing particularly intellectual about them but that is the way that languages and those who speak them, are sometimes viewed.
My first French class saw my teacher, who was rather new to the profession, explain the difference between a masculine and a feminine noun. Was this possible? What was so feminine about a table, apart from its smooth, well-rounded legs? What was so masculine about a pencil, apart from its firm cylindrical shape and pointed end? OK, so maybe those are bad examples but I dismissed this French lark as something that surely would not be possible.
My school was a Catholic boarding school that harbored considerable delusions of grandeur. Made of brick and covered in ivy, its Latin motto was my first introduction to a foreign phrase that I could memorize. “Sectare Fidem”, or “hold to the faith”, would be invoked by the priests and assorted religious who would use the clumsy metaphor of that ivy clinging to the walls outside as a suitable analogue of what we Catholic pupils should aspire to with our God. As teenagers, we were simply clinging on for dear life, but that motto stuck with me, not as decent advice, but more as a jokey shibboleth which in future I would be able to refer to among my fellow school comrades when as alumni, we had the wisdom to jest about such earnest assertions.
Latin did open a whole new world for me. Until that point, I had no idea what a part of speech was, I knew nothing of verbs, nouns, pronouns, gerunds, and there would some even more complicated stuff to be aware of. The subjunctive mood, the vocative case, how could these things exist? There was something curiously mathematical and incredibly satisfying about unlocking the key to all these aspects of a language. “It’s a dead language, why would you want to learn that?” was the refrain I heard many times and in fact I did bow to peer pressure and quit Latin for Physics in sixth form, as if Physics was any more useful or any less theoretical than a dead language. A huge regret to not continue Latin but I still had my French and I could see the similarities, the links and how its tentacles spread, like that ivy, throughout European languages, permeating culture, language and history, all the way down to the tongue that was the vernacular of a people in the South Pacific, thousands of kilometres, and years, from its origin.
For my next taste of another language, I had to wait until university. I took Spanish, although it was only available for one year at the university that I went to. Most of the time I sat in the back of the class, chatting with my sister, who was adept at languages, more so than me, and would end up speaking half a dozen. A degree in French followed, but by a quirk of the Kiwi university system, it was a very formal knowledge and the first time I ventured onto the streets of France as a 25-year-old, I could not understand a single word of what was being said. I retreated to my first continental restaurant, which by dint of being a poor backpacker, was a McDonalds. At least I knew how to say Le Big Mac.
Over the years, I spent time in France, time in Spain, and then eventually in Russia, all the while gaining confidence in speaking other languages. I have worked as a freelance, very much part-time translator in French, Spanish and Russian which I have at times alternated with my other job as a journalist. I know many professional translators and interpreters and I know how hard they work, how much training they have to undergo and what they have to do. As a challenge I am interested in finding out about as many languages as I can.
Now there are more than 6,000 languages in the world and a fair number of them are in considerable decline. How many can a single person learn? I have met polyglots, even hyper polyglots, but I would like to get a feeling for just how varied language and languages can be. I would like to find out what are the simplest ones for a native English speaker to be and also what are the most difficult ones.
This is the idea of this blog and its title suggests rather grandiose ambitions. Around the world in 80 languages is a simple, catch-all title, but actually its ambitions are altogether more mundane.
I am interested in the process of language learning, the theories of linguists, and how it shapes the way people think. To be exposed to other languages in London, where I live, is a lot easier than 19,000km away in New Zealand, Just today, in less than a mile from my door, I spoke to a native Punjabi speaker, walked passed a Romanian shop, heard Polish spoken in the street and bought beer from a Portuguese cafe on the corner.
So Portuguese is where I will start, the simple reason being, that Portugal is where I am going next on my holidays. Tickets have been booked for a trip to the Azores, an Atlantic Portuguese territory. I have been doing very informal lessons online and so have mastered saying a few basic things. I have been reading the great Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, admittedly in English, you have to walk before you can run. Let’s see how far I can go. I would like to touch on literature, writing, linguistics and although I may not master 80 languages, I might just get close.