Diary of a Linguaphile

 

Katja Primožič is in her 2nd year at Kings College studying European Studies and German. She speaks Dutch, French, English, German, Spanish and Turkish and would like to learn Swedish next.

“Brauchen Sie vielleicht Hilfe?” On a street corner of Istanbul, Turkey, a German couple with three blond little boys are looking for the way to Galata tower. With the little bit of German that reaches the front of my brain and the intuitive attempt to grammar, I manage to direct them and convince mother not to take the narrow alley on her map. “Es ist aber ein bisschen dunkel…”. I’ve been staying in this neighbourhood for over a month so I’m confident about the pointed way. Then, when they leave, it feels absurd when I realise I just directed people in a strange city in a language which is not my own.

“En fait, je suis bilingue”

To this day, I’m grateful to my parents for sending me to the little primary school in Wallonia, in francophone Belgium. Unlike many of the Dutch locals do today, they didn’t drive me across the border to Maastricht, 8 kilometres away, but believed I should go to the local nursery and school. I hadn’t reached 6 months or I heard French around me everyday. My first word was French – encore, when I was still hungry – and the switch between Dutch at home and French o the street was made every day. It was normal, until I started speaking Dutch to a school friend that came over and got a strange look in return. It took my mother a while to explain to me that not everyone speaks Dutch at home. And from that moment I was the one that spoke two languages. At least, that’s how it felt: the walking Dutch-French dictionary at primary school, the French-Dutch dictionary at secondary school. The switch to a Dutch secondary school was quickly made: once you know the terms for nouns, subjects and adjectives it turns out all grammar is the same! And then the fun begins.

“Jong geleerd is oud gedaan”

There are whole library sections about bilingualism and the brain. Speaking two languages at a young age, easily adds a third and maybe fourth one, and although this experience was true in my case, my brother struggled much more with grasping the different grammar rules and spelling irregularities. Mathematics was more his thing, where 1+1 is 2 and 100+100 is still 200. Whereas for people like my brother, learning a language is a nightmare, for others it can be a refreshing way to use the brain. Join a language course and you will find someone who does it ‘for fun’ rather than a foreign spouse, job requirements or grocery shopping in a future country of residence.
For the first time I’m one of those people that do it for fun, and in my Turkish course in Istanbul, I met a woman who spoke and taught many languages. She was 60 and refreshing the Turkish she learnt and forgot 40 years ago. She also started early after moving to Spain at the age of 12, where she now teaches English.
Moving from your home country at such a young age can affect the knowledge of the tongue. I saw friends with similar language backgrounds move to France, and every visit, the Dutch had become less and the French accent stronger.
I remember the painful first time I couldn’t remember a word (voisin, 2nd year secondary school) and the worst day, when an old school friend said my Dutch accent had penetrated my French. I went home and watched ‘Amélie’ over and over. Nowadays my French really isn’t what it used to be and it hurts. Nothing feels worse than losing your mother tongue, and it is understandable why many foreigners keep speaking it when living abroad. It might be part of your culture, but it is also part of you. And if you don’t practice it, you lose it.

“Bu bir kitap mı? Evet, bu bir kitap.”

At school in the Netherlands, we learn French, German and English, the latter being compulsory for everyone throughout the whole path. The Netherlands is a small country, with an economy relying on international trade, so foreign languages have always been important. Next to education, the media play a big role in our grasp of other tongues. Rather than dubbing, subtitles are used, which brings us the English humour, but also the sounds and pronunciation. I also believe my brother knows better English than I spoke at his age, after the many hours of online gaming, which thus are good for something. Still, the popular perception that “every Dutch person speaks perfect English” will be proven wrong when asking someone the way outside of the big cities, although this might be the case on the English countryside as well.
The experience of learning a language changes over time. To me, the experience of Turkish was very different from English or German, which just ‘happened’, or are still happening. I also attempted Spanish, but couldn’t get a hold on it because I started somewhere in the middle and had no knowledge but the Romanic similarities. When arriving to Turkey my knowledge of the language was zero and I couldn’t understand anything that was going on the streets except kuaför and asansör – recognise the French influence? For the first time I couldn’t guess, and this frustration might have been my biggest motivation. I had better not go to Japan.
With me, people in class found Turkish a fun language to study because of it’s simplicity and complexity at the same time. What you hear is what you write, but it takes a while before you are able to say something. There are rules that affect everything, and it is this process of understanding those rules that changed for me. While they say the younger you learn, the better, I feel I more easily understand grammatical motives now, than halfway secondary school. Cases never made sense to me in Latin and I dropped it before we reached the ablative. The student time, where you learn to analyse and compare concepts, models and theories, make you see that the basic bits of a language can be quite logical after all. In my experience, after you passed the point where it all goes automatically, it takes a while before you can understand the system of a language from scratch. But don’t wait too long, because even in the early twenties memorising vocabulary is not what it used to be. Now is the time to learn.
My Turkish course is over now. The certificate is in my pocket and the self-study book in my suitcase. Next to the German books I have to read for university. Surprisingly, I don’t like reading. During my language holiday I preferred rewriting exercises than reading another chapter of a novel. I’m back home and the visit to the Turkish süpermarket today was the first time I heard the sounds of the language again. I miss it and don’t want to forget.

If you studied a language a while ago, it takes a while for your brain to recall it. If you read an article or a list of words before sleeping, you will already remember much more the next day.The Turkish consonant harmony doesn’t affect French words. The French language is so irregular language that it even forms the irregularity in another language.

If you studied a language a while ago, it takes a while for your brain to recall it. If you read an article or a list of words before sleeping, you will already remember much more the next day.

The Turkish consonant harmony doesn’t affect French words. The French language is so irregular language that it even forms the irregularity in another language.

The best place to learn a language is in the country it’s spoken. There’s no better reward than when the pieces of the puzzle start to fall together and things around you suddenly make sense.

And Learning a Language When You are an Adult and English is Your First and Only
Frankie Wilson
(Interviewed by Catherine Smyth)

I was born in the USA to a Canadian father and Swiss mother and since then have lived in 12 different countries attending 15 different schools. Until the age of 22, English was my first and only language. Then I met future wife visiting my parents in Russia. Despite living there for two and a half years in my early teens, I could not speak Russian. Dasha could speak a fairly good English in comparison to my standards. We had met as children in Manila where our fathers had worked. We became friends, communicating via smiles and pokémon cards, we made a bowling alley with plastic skittles and an orange football and had backflip competitions on her trampoleen. her native Georgia. I recognised her instantly and the rest is history. Dasha can speak Russian, Georgain, English and Hebrew fluently although it took her some time living and working with me in London to gain proper fluency in English. Her Latvian and French are pretty remarkable too. Dasha is remarkable and her linguistic abilities made me feel ashamed. The fact that I could spend my life in such international circumstances and never be able to achieve more than the basics in any language is a testament to just how homogenous English really is. The notion that a 2nd language is unnecessary is widespread and ingrained. If you can speak it fluently, then you can have an affluent and successful international career and never really be overly disadvantaged by your lack of a 2nd language. I always took my abilities to speak English for granted, going through the British and American education system meant that I was never forced to study any other language. I took Spanish at GCSE whilst living in Chile and managed to earn a B, although today my Spanish skills are virtually non existent. The GCSE helped me to memorise big chunks of text by heart and to answer questions parrot fashion, but not really to converse and understand.
I started my undergraduate degree at London Metropolitan University aged 23 and the realisation that I was the only unilingual student on the course shocked me into action. I started to learn Russian and two years on, I am a competent speaker. I have even started lessons in Hebrew and Georgian, so I can catch up with my lovely, soon to be wife and communicate with all of her family and friends as she can with mine.
If I have one piece of advice, it is quite Russian in character and it’s to get drunk. Confidence is the biggest inhibiter in practicing, and once these inhibitions are waterlogged with rum and vodka, you’re no longer worried about making an arse of yourself. Being in the native country where the language is spoken is also essential, watch TV with subtitles on, your eyes will be naturally attracted to the subtitles and even if you’re not paying full attention you will subliminally be ingrained. Listen to songs and play the radio in the background even if you’re not listening properly, it all seeps in somehow. And read ! Read a lot, reading is the first thing to come, followed by understanding an ability to speak may come later on, but again, it’s all in the confidence.

Catherine Smyth
Do you remember what it was like learning to ride a bike? Your first distance traveled solo on two wheels?
That old “learning to ride a bike” metaphor can be applied to a lot of things, but I couldn’t think of anything less cliché for my experience of learning a 2nd language. The language in question was Dutch, (making the bike metaphor cliché all the more appropriate) and the learning process was, painful. There were so many falls and injuries along the way, bruises to the ego and bloody stone peppered gashes to my confidence. Trying to take part in a riding lesson and being told to dismount and get lost half way through because my slowness in deciphering commands was a liability or staggering out of a casual bar job interview after over estimating my abilities and almost being thrown out of a restaurant after the waitress thought I asked for LSD instead of Engelse Thee (English Tea). What’s more, the added insult to injury of most Dutch people being able to speak perfect English anyway ensured that no-one took my attempts to learn seriously. However, as with learning to ride a bike, the secret to learning an other language as an adult, is simply perseverance and patience and practice if you want to add an other P. Likewise, support is nearly always essential, someone to coax you through, never laugh, never get frustrated and to clean up your wounds and help you back on when you fall. Every time it gets boring, or strenuous or just too downright humiliating, you need to breath, suck it up and get back in the saddle.
The best thing about learning to ride a bike and speak a language is the “ I’m doing it” ! moment. Maybe your parents were standing there with the video camera cheering you on as you proudly belted down the path balancing on two wheels. I had my “I’m doing it” ! moment whilst reading a novel in bed one miserable day. It was a Dutch classic (bar Anne Frank’s diary there are next to no literary classics in the Netherlands) “Komt een Vrouw Bij de Dokter”. I lay sprawled on my bed, reading away, turning page after page, eating the fried eggs and love hearts out of a bag of Haribo Starmix somewhere under my knees, when the crash of enlightenment hit… I was doing it… reading fluently, not peering at every word and analyzing, converting it into English and then back again before stringing the sentence into order. It just make sense, the combination of letters, the makeup of the sentence, the tense, the dialogue, everything registered in my brain, easily and naturally. I was going it, going alone, solo, just gliding through, no wobbles, no stabilizers, just riding my bike like I was born to do it.
I kept my eyes on the page, reading away and groped for my phone to call my Dutch boyfriend and declare the good news. Boyfriend, who to this day for some strange reason, I am unable to talk to in Dutch listened patiently while I demanded he guess what I was doing. ‘I’m reading ! In Dutch ! Smoothly, like a real Dutch person ! I’m doing it ! I’m doing it !” I hollered in English. I don’t think I have ever experienced a sensation of sheer concentrated pride and achievement like it. I had never been a sports day winner at school. Never really competed at anything through childhood or adolescence, never had a podium moment other when my dog won a prize at a pet show at the Carnoustie Town Gala day, and even then, it was Daisy that did all the work. But suddenly, I had achieved minority status amongst British people with English speaking parents.
After being confronted constantly with my language disability after leaving home to live in Amsterdam, and then London. I had always wondered what it would be like to have a brain that could switch back and forth. Once a language barrier is broken, you open yourself up to millions of different people you would not otherwise have been able to properly communicate with. You open yourself up to songs, books, films, TV shows, a new type of humor, a way of life, an elevated understanding of a culture. By far the greatest reward of learning to speak Dutch was the feeling of being given a new status, not a tourist, not an expat, not a drippy hippy come to Amsterdam to spend the summer smoking weed, but “one of us”. It was like being welcomed into a secret club, being given a members key. I could understand society in a different way. Once you have conquered the language, you can really start to think of a place as home, and feel welcome.
Learning a langauge does differ from bike riding by way of the fact as you sure as hell can forget, and need to keeo practicing. Easier said than done.

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