The importance of a foreign language. In my opinion it’s key. I am old enough to remember my schooldays and my struggles with Latin, “Gaul as a whole is divided into three parts”. I opted for German when I turned into a teenager: “Good day Hans, why are you here? I’m here for the trade fair”. For some reason, not explained at the time, we learnt German through a book designed for a business course; not really relevant to 13-year-olds. Although, I suppose that when I’m invited again to join a Department for International Trade overseas mission I’ll be adequately prepared. And then there was French: “Where is the pen of my aunt? The pen of my aunt is on the desk”. Which seemed, at the time, to sort out the popular and persistent problem of the missing writing instrument. I also recall my lessons in English grammar at the age of 11. That involved doing precis, looking for metre in poetry, parsing sentences into subject, verb, object, adjective, and searching for gerunds (sometimes). This all stood me in good stead when, years later, I studied for a certificate to teach English as a foreign language. It is, these days I discovered, taught to non-English speakers without any reference to grammatic structure. That, in my opinion, is a mistake. A number of my language students were eager to know about declensions and conjugations. Thankfully, I could help them on these points. What’s all this got to do with the price of fish, you ask? After all, I grew up to be a mathematician and a qualified economist. Well, later in my life I became a journalist, broadcaster, and eventually gained a masters and PhD in history – railway history actually, which I suppose makes me a doctor of trainspotting (Brazilian section, see book cover). The imposition of languages in my early teenage years was not of my choosing, but it built a strong foundation for the rest of my life and career. That, and the love my parents had for French culture.
We’d holiday each year at Le Croisic in Brittany in what was almost a picture-perfect recreation of M Hulot’s Holiday (we were the English family; I was indulged by the chef of the small seaside hotel who fed me with tomato salad and sole meunière. Delicious).
My dad returned home to England and became a Citroen DS owner (right-hand drive) and spent long evenings tinkering with it in the garage of an Italian friend who was also a Citroën afficionado. I remember really liking the way the hydraulics lifted the entire car up when the engine was switched on. The Jetsons were never this cool.
In my grown years I developed a fascination with railway history in Brazil. I taught myself Portuguese. Why do I mention that? Well, I’m convinced that learning in mid-life was made all the easier because of my early exposure to foreign languages and cultures. I quickly latched on to all the Portuguese words that looked and sounded like their English versions. In fact, it was inevitable because they were words like satisfaction, redemption, and importance – all things that had their roots in Latin. My language skills helped in the making of a documentary about steam railways in Brazil:
Then there were the Portuguese words that British railway engineers had introduced in the 1800s:
Trem, estaçâo, vagão, trollei (rail handcart), and the literal translations: “dormentes” for sleepers, and “via permanente” for permanent way.
Incidentally, some of those engineers – including one Charles Miller – also took a football with them, managing to squeeze it into his suitcase when he set out to work on the railways in São Paulo, giving Brazilian Portuguese words such as:
Gol, goleiro, pênalti, chute, passar a bola, and, of course, futebol.
Each of which needs no translation back into English. Although we’d like some of our skills back please – including how to “driblar” (yes, that’s a word). Meanwhile, my tentative expertise in Portuguese had a practical application when I was on a work visit to BBC Radio Cleveland (as it was then called) around 1999. The speculation was that Juninho – who had recently returned on loan to Middlesbrough from Atlético Madrid – might be off again to another club abroad somewhere. In the event, he went on loan to Vasco da Gama in Brazil. Rumours were rife, and I volunteered to ‘phone his dad – who was his manager – who was living just outside Middlesbrough, to find out what was happening. Juninho was one of the most popular Brazilians playing in Britain at the time. If I’d not been there with my language skills, we’d never have gotten the story (which, paradoxically is a poorly written bit of English).
Back to my mother tongue, and as a journalist I work with language every day. Any garbled English sentences like the one above are, of course, all my fault. In particular, as a radio journalist, I try to adapt my writing for the microphone to mimic the speech patterns of everyday life: short sentences, simply put.
However, radio has always struggled with languages – foreign voices in particular cause problems of their own. On the telly you can leave the natural sound (natsof, in the TV industry jargon) and stick subtitles at the bottom of the screen. On radio the habit is to fade the speaker out and bring up the voice of someone reading an English translation, ending with a final foreign word at the end of the clip. That annoys me: I want to somehow hear the original to check they’ve translated it properly, even though I know I can’t.
I think my concern stems from reading books such as Umberto Eco’s Mouse Or Rat? Translation as Negotiation. His point is that “topo” can be either rat or mouse, so the English Shakespearean insult, “You’re a rat [Polonius]!” is tricky to render in Italian. But then if Hamlet had called him a mouse perhaps an unnecessary death could have been avoided. I also recall another old English teacher warning that “club” could be either an instrument with which to play golf, something to join with other people of a like mind (think chess, art, or sports), or a weapon to hit people with. We need to be careful. He went on to ask the class which one we wanted to be beaten with. On the one hand you may consider that such cruelty in the classroom would not work well in these modern times. But think carefully about his question, and about how “beaten” could have taken more than one meaning. For this I remember him as an excellent teacher.
As a journalism trainer, academic, and university lecturer I was keen to promote the extra language courses on offer for my students each year. I’d stress how important a second language was, elicit support from my foreign students who’d come from Norway, Lithuania, Hungary, Italy (this was the mid-2000s, before Britain’s departure from Europe changed so much). Each one would give their testimony about how knowing other languages helped their learning and careers. Even so, there were hardly any of my mono-lingual English-born students who took up the offer of Wednesday afternoon language lessons. Pity. They were missing out on so much.
Peter Trudgill, writing recently in The New European newspaper, also lamented on the lack of knowledge of foreign languages. He gave the examples of some massive howlers: “Do you know anyone who can speak African?”, unfair jokes about the Welsh language, and misguided notions of what a continent’s real language is. For example, Navajo has been spoken in North America for many thousands of years; and Pitjantjatjara people have been speaking their own dialects in Australia for millennia. English only arrived in both those places a couple of hundred years ago. So, like Peter Trudgill I intend to celebrate UNESCO Mother Language Day. February 21st is the date. I might get my dad’s original French copy of George Simenon’s Maigret off the shelf and give it a go.
Meanwhile, I am thinking about returning to that gerund I was mentioning earlier…