Q&A with a Languages Student

PEOPLE OFTEN ASK me about my studying languages. A lot of them say they admire it or envy it, and somebody even snubbed it in front of me, but either way I seem to get asked the same sort of questions. So in future, I will not say a word in return but give them a piece of paper with a link to this page and they can read away. As can you:

Which languages do you speak?

Other than English, I speak German, French and some Spanish.

Wow, so are you German/French/Spanish?

Nope, British.

How long have you been learning them?

I started teaching myself the most basic of basic French words when I was six or seven – numbers, colours, things on a menu – but that fell by the wayside. I started learning them all properly in school: German when I was 11, French when I was 14 and Spanish when I was 16.

Do you want become an interpreter or a translator or something?

Believe it or not, there are jobs that involve languages other than teaching and interpreting/translating! That said, I’d love to be able to tell you of my plans of becoming an octolingual diplomat sent from country to country on behalf of the Queen (or King), but I can’t. Although translation/interpretation is always a possibility, I don’t know what I want to do exactly. What I do know is that I’m fortunate in that multilingualism opens a whole corridor of doors for me. I like the idea of travelling, of course, and I can’t imagine not having a job where I wouldn’t be able to write, so in an ideal world, something combining the two would suit me nicely.

Aren’t they really hard?

Yes.

That’s the short answer. The long one: they are challenging, yes, but there’s a point you reach when you know the language well enough, a bit like a really good friend, that you can second-guess it. You just know when something sounds right or wrong, or you’ve got an idea of how this verb is going to look in that tense, or what that word might mean. Then, it becomes a little easier, but even with English, language learning never stops.

Are you fluent in them?

I don’t quite know if it’s my modesty or my uncertainty that makes me respond with ‘no’, but probably the latter. Fluency is an especially high level of language, and I’m not there yet. I can certainly hold a conversation and understand at least 80% of things I read and hear, but I haven’t had those elusive dreams in foreign languages yet, which apparently mean you’re ‘on another level’ of language…

Don’t you get mixed up between the languages?

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked this question… You’d think so, but very rarely. When I’m speaking/reading/writing German, for example, I ‘turn off’ the other foreign languages (I can’t switch off English), and enter ‘German mode’. Then, it’s quite difficult for Spanish or French to interfere, partly because German doesn’t resemble these languages much at all.

When I’m in ‘Spanish mode’, however, it’s a little harder to not let French interfere, particularly since they’re both quite similar and I start applying my more familiar French grammar knowledge to Spanish, which sometimes doesn’t work.  Every now and then however, especially after some intense studying session of German or French syntax, I can hear myself thinking English thoughts with foreign word order, which both frightens and confuses me. But on a less sinister note, very short, very common words such as the German und and English ‘and’, as well as y (which means ‘and’ in Spanish and ‘there’ in French), occasionally get muddled together, and that irritates me. Greatly.

Which one do you prefer? And which one are you best at?

English is my favourite, but that doesn’t count. So now you’re asking. I risk sounding like a parent when they’ve been asked which child is their favourite, but honestly – it’s difficult to say because I like them all for different reasons (cliché). I love how French sounds and the way it looks on the page with àll its variôus çharactérs, but I love the logical cleverness of German that seems to be lacking in English: For example, we see it as a ‘wardrobe’, Germans see it as a Kleiderschrank (‘clothes cupboard’), and a glove is a Handschuh (‘hand shoe’). And Fussfaust (‘foot fist’) which makes no sense literally, but otherwise means the toe-curling you do when you’re cringing at someone else. It’s brilliant. Spanish, I find, uniquely has a raw simplicity to it, but at the same time sophistication, which I really like.

As for which one I’m best at, I’d probably edge for French. It just seems to come a bit more naturally to me than the other two. But for the sake of a simple answer to both questions, English.

How many do you want to learn?

As many as time, my circumstances and my mental capacity will let me! I’ve discovered that languages are hard things to learn, though, and need a lot time and dedication if you want to get anywhere with them. Italian or Portuguese is next on the list, then perhaps something like Polish or Turkish. The burgeoning languages of the second world, however  – Russian, Hindi, Mandarin etc. – all make use of completely different alphabets and are notoriously difficult to learn. Sigh. If I ever find a miracle way to learn all these languages, I’ll sell it to you.

Why do you want to learn them?

Well, for a number of reasons:

  1. Because I like learning them. They’re interesting, useful, satisfying, challenging and sometimes quite fun.
  2. They were what I was best at when I was at school!
  3. They’re just such a good skill to have. Languages have endless advantages; too many to mention, in fact. But let’s say that my job prospects are improved (well, so our tutors tell us), my understanding of English has improved, my cultural understanding of the countries continue to improve and, perhaps most importantly, I know how to order a beer in a handful of languages.
  4. I’m a complete control freak; being in a situation where I can’t understand what’s going on around me is terrifying. OK, while I’m not going to be able to understand every motorway billboard in every part of the world, I can at least do so in a few places.
  5. I’ve started, so I’ll at least try to finish.

I think you should try one. New Year’s resolution?

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One thought on “Q&A with a Languages Student

  1. I completely understand what you mean about turning off the other languages. I get asked those questions a lot. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are all so completely different that once you even get the sound down, you really can’t mix them up. I’d love to learn German and Russian, though I can’t seem seem to grasp Spanish yet. Still working on that 🙂

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