Languages are one of my big life passions. But I don’t speak very many of them at all. My current count is a paltry two and a half (three and a half, if you count Bavarian, but that would be cheating 😉
I guess we’re all different when it comes to our language learning objectives. Some value being able to ‘get by’ in as many languages as possible. I can see the merit in this approach, especially for travelling purposes. A basic-to-intermediate knowledge of just five languages – English, German, French, Italian and Spanish – can get you all the way through Western Europe (and through a fair bit of Eastern Europe as well) without suffering too many miscommunication disasters.
Thing is, I don’t just want tourist vocabulary. Or work vocabulary (bloodless “International English” springs to mind – yeuch!!). Or drinking vocabulary (“Una cerveza por favor…”) siiiigh.
I want the full bandwidth. I want to read novels without sobbing into the dictionary, watch a soap and cringe up all my innards over a corny line, understand a 92-year-old granny’s incoherent warblings. I want to FEEL what I’m saying, give it nuance, zest and, if appropriate, a bit of humour, not just run my brain’s equivalent of Google Translate. I’d rather speak three languages competently than be able to order a pizza and side salad in twelve. It just doesn’t satisfy me. It’d be like a lifetime of eating nothing but starters, without ever getting to the main course or the best part, aka dessert.
I’m not there yet with my Spanish. Trying to read books is still positively painful, and hell, what I wouldn’t give to understand my accountant! I just shuffle him a pile of papers every three months, sign on the dotted line and pray. I expect to be amassing a formidable repertoire of prison slang when I get done for accidental tax fraud.
I read polyglots’ blogs half in wonderment, half green with envy. OK, I can completely see how somebody might end up speaking ten languages fluently, if they’ve grown up in a trilingual household, and were continually shunted from one corner of the globe to another by their diplomat parents.
I’ve also come across people who claimed to speak a second language, but then got busted. Many moons ago, while working for a financial services company in the UK, I interviewed a young woman for a position that required speaking to German customers over the phone. The girl gave me a well-rehearsed speech, like one of those a 16-year-old might regurgitate at the start of an oral exam when prompted to “talk about yourself”. But when I asked her some non-technical, work-related questions in German, she drew a complete blank. What was she thinking, applying for a job that was all about offering assistance to people who had just been robbed of their bank cards and other valuables in a foreign country? That “My name is Julie, I grew up in Shrewsbury, I have an older sister, and my favourite subject is history” would placate them?
Now, I’m by no means above launching a half-baked attempt at learning a language. I’ve dipped into Russian, Japanese and Chinese. I did Russian at school for a couple of years, and Japanese and Chinese as an adult for about six months each. Although I never went beyond beginner’s level with any of those three, it was a real eye opener to see how differently they work in comparison to Germanic/Romance languages. With the Asian ones, I just love the concept of verbs that don’t change (Spanish, take heed!), and also the nifty thing about just sticking ‘ma’ or ‘ka’ at the end of a sentence to turn it into a question, without having to fiddle with the word order.
Japanese is the one I’d quite like to pick up again at some point. What puts me off, though, is the thought of the time and gruelling effort (not to mention money and…. PAIN!) it would take to reach even intermediate speaker level – never mind cracking the writing system! Part of me is thinking, what’s the point of even trying, when I’m never going to be able to read a novel in Japanese?
Anyway, the next one on my list is Portuguese. The Brazilian kind. A friend of mine is also keen to learn it, and she wants us to kick it off together at the beginning of 2013. I’m a bit nervous about it. I feel that I’m not quite ready, and that I ought to fully apply myself instead to filling the gaping holes in my Spanish. On the other hand, Portuguese and Spanish are quite similar, and so progress should be comparatively swift.
My overall aim is to master five languages at (close to) native speaker level. I’m half way there, and, barring being run over by a bus or dying early of cake poisoning, I’ve still got about half my life in front of me. So, I reckon I stand a fair chance of accomplishing my goal. It’s definitely quality over quantity for me. Now, if only I could stick to that policy on the cake front…
You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com