Tag Archives: Learning English

Is Learning Three Romance Languages At The Same Time A Route To Insanity?

I ask myself that question every day. And whether an overdose of irregular verbs can make one go blind. I think the only reason why my grey matter hasn’t liquified yet and made a gushing exit through my left nostril is that I’m at different stages with my languages, so the learning activities I engage in are quite varied. Every time terms like “partitive carbuncles” or whatever give me the urge to go and drown myself in the toilet, I remember that, in the end, it’s all about wrangling a bunch of words into the right order, and that if a four-year-old can do it, so can I.

Spanish – Airily Advanced

The frustration-fun balance has decidedly shifted in favour of the latter. But it sure took a lot of blood sweat and tears to get there. Those of you you’ve been with me from the beginning will probably remember my whiny rants and tantrums. I’ve been living in Spain for nearly four years now, although I don’t have what you’d call “full immersion”. I work from home in English all day. Hence, my progress was a lot slower than I had initially expected.

It’s been a very different experience from the one I had with English when I moved to the UK 25 years ago. I had a job in a local company and was sharing a house with British people, and so I was forced to communicate in English all day long. It was tough in the beginning, but I made progress at lightning speed. My situation here in Spain is very different, and so I’ve had to learn to moderate my expectations without feeling like a total failure. I’ve come to accept – gnashing my teeth an’ all – that it will take a good while longer until I get to squirt the icing on the cake and achieve the level of competence I strive for.

Nevertheless, I can read proper books and watch films without struggling. I can have in-depth conversations about complex topics. I can hold my own in groups.

I still very much consider myself a learner: I look up words every day, I google expressions, I bug my long-suffering friends with questions, I ask them to correct my grammar. Besides the odd clarification, though, I no longer need “special consideration” from the people around me.

Of course, my Spanish nothing like my German or my English. I’d say I’m about 70% there. I’m even starting to “sound like myself” on occasions. Being able to communicate, even if you’re fairly proficient, is a completely different kettle of fish from sounding like your true self. I have tackled the subject in this post, for those of you who are interested:

Language Matters: Do You Sound Like Yourself?

Blue Flowers

Portuguese – Interminably Intermediate

This has been tricky. It’s virtually impossible to find any good quality intermediate-level teaching materials in European Portuguese. It’s all smooth, melodious Brazilian, when what I want is the bushy, impenetrable Peninsular version replete with shshtshshtshshhh sounds, dog-chewed vowels and pronoun arrangements that make ikebana seem like kindergarten foolery, because, when I travel abroad, it tends to be to nearby Portugal – I love it there.

So, I had to take special measures. I have a Portuguese teacher (from Lisbon) whom I see once a week for 1-2-1 lessons. I watch children’s cartoons, which is something that I’d never even considered before, but if you’re stuck for resources, you have to take what you can get. I’m also chatting to a bunch of nice Portuguese people over Skype two or three times a week (I found them on conversationexchange.com).

And yet, It’s my Portuguese, which I’m struggling with most right now. The intermediate stage can be disheartening, and it drags on forever. It’s also extremely dangerous territory: If you stop, even just for a few months,  you risk losing everything, while, at the same time, you gaze with trepidation at the vast expanse of treacherous linguistic swamp you’ve got to wade through before you get any good.

It’s not like being a beginner, when you’re swept up in the initial thrill of new discovery, or when you’re an advanced learner having fun filling in the gaps. I’ve written about this vexatious stretch of language-learning hell here:

The Messy Morass of the Intermediate Language Learner.

French – Bare Bones Beginner

I’m now in my third month of French (see here how and why that started) and still very much in the honeymoon phase where everything is new and exciting. I’m determined to stretch it out to the max. Please do not tell me about how crazy the sentence structures are going to get later on, I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW! Thanks.

Unlike hapless learners European Portuguese, budding Francophones are spoilt with a wealth of free online resources, which means that I can cover the same topics by watching six or seven different YouTube videos without getting bored.

There is also an unexpected benefit to being a beginner in French: Portuguese is no longer my worst language! I feel stupidly happy about this 🙂

So, to sum up, I don’t think that learning several languages at once is necessarily a recipe for disaster. Having said that, I did bang my head against the wall more than a few times when I first started learning Portuguese two years ago, because my Spanish was still quite wobbly back then, see here:

Project Multilingual: Two timing troubles.

Next up: The Italian challenge!

…OK, I am not that crazy…


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com



Language Learning: Darn Interference!

Teresa, my Portuguese teacher, harbours a dark fantasy. She would love to get hold of one of MemoryEraserthose Men-In-Black memory eraser sticks and expunge every trace of Spanish from her students’ brains. Then she could finally teach us proper Portuguese from scratch.

Sadly, since this fantastic gadget doesn’t exist in the real world, her little fantasy is doomed. She’ll just have to keep on rolling her eyes every time we say “pequeño” instead of “pequeno”, and sigh in quiet desperation over us pronouncing what should be a mellifluous sing-song language in the machine-gun-like staccato characteristic of Peninsular Spanish.

But it’s not just poor Teresa who suffers.

My brain is no blank canvass. Besides being littered with useless factoids, it comes with two languages fully installed that don’t always play very well together, a third one is running at 72% (and still loading), and now I’m attempting to pour another one into this turbid pond.

In general, I guess it does hold true that the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another one, but the downside is that they interfere with each other in menacing ways. For instance, the similarities between Romance languages are both a blessing and a curse. Because of their considerable lexical overlap, if you’re a laid back kind of a person and just want to “communicate”, you’ll do great by kidnapping Italian words to plug the gaps in your Spanish, but if you’re a stickler like me and you care about getting it right, it’s the road to insanity. Verbs are among my biggest headaches, as I’m still battling with the fifty or so versions that exist of each Spanish verb. With Portuguese thrown into the cauldron, the putrid, gurgling broth isn’t going to turn into a bowl of translucent consommé any time soon.

More of a messy stew...

More of a messy stew…

...than a clear broth

…than a clear broth







Some people I know have given up. One of my Spanish friends, while living in Barcelona years ago, attempted to learn (the local language) Catalan. She abandoned the attempt, because every time she tried to speak it, Italian (acquired during a year studying abroad in Rome), shot out of her mouth instead. An old college friend of mine keeps insisting that all those years studying Italian as a youngster have prevented her from communicating in coherent Portuguese to her Portuguese husband’s family.

I follow this blog http://myfiveromances.wordpress.com, owned by “Bernardo”, a very witty Australian guy, whose personal challenge lies in tackling Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian simultaneously. I believe he spent last summer in Romania to get to grips with the latter. His grammar posts from back then made my head spin. I’ve no idea how he maintains his sanity, I really don’t.

It’s not just closely-related languages that cause an interference problem. During the early-to-intermediate stages of language learning, it’s a very common phenomenon that our brains, while labouring hard to retrieve the required vocabulary, dredge up the corroded remnants of languages we haven’t used in years. When I first started learning Spanish, what kept popping into my head was my long-forgotten Russian from half a life-time ago.

Green thicket

Interference can manifest in many ways. For instance, I seriously struggle with gender agreement in Spanish and Portuguese. It’s not too difficult to match nouns with adjectives that directly follow them, but if the adjective or a pronoun refers to a noun, which occurred in a previous sentence or even further back, I tend to get it wrong. And it’s not my fault. It’s my German that’s doing it.

Grammatical genders are, for the most part, entirely arbitrary, and so German and Spanish genders don’t usually coincide. Since German is my native language, its genders are indelibly etched into my brain stem. I never realised this would lead to so much trouble.

Naively, I thought I had an advantage, because I was, at least, familiar with the concept of genders. Unlike native speakers of English, Japanese, Chinese, etc, I didn’t have to go through the futile questioning stage: “How can a table be male/female – it makes no sense!”

In the early phase, the gender issue creates some minor problems for Germans learning English. We may refer to inanimate objects as “he” or “she”, but this usually doesn’t persist for very long. Everything is “it”, and even for animals sporting discernible genitals, you still get to resort to the convenient choice of “it” – now if that ain’t an easy rule, I don’t know what is!

I never thought I would keep jumbling my Spanish genders about in such a dilettantic fashion after all this time, but, as it turns out, overriding one’s primal programming is harder than herding cats with firecrackers up their butts through a dog pound.

As always, I’m curious to hear from my readers – how does language interference play out for you? Which “cross-contamination issues” are you struggling with? Were some of these unexpected?

No Pain, No Gain: My Spanish After Two Years In Spain

This morning, it came to my attention (thank you, expatsincebirth), that today is the European Day of Languages – the perfect opportunity for posting an update on my linguistic toil.

So, I’ve been living in Spain now for two full years. The official anniversary was September 14th. My main reason for moving to Spain was to learn to speak Spanish properly, which had been a dream of mine since my teenage years.

Where am I in this process? Well, in short, not where I’d like to be.

After two years, my command of the language is at a point I thought I’d have reached after year one.

There’s one overarching reason for this: lack of exposure. This may sound ironic, considering that I’m living slap bang in the centre of Spanish-speaking country. But the reality is that I work at home on my own pretty much all day, reading and writing in English. Most of the people I see socially want to practice either their English or their German, for at least some of the time, which is only fair (and fun!), seeing as a shared interest in language learning brought us together in the first place.

I do feel frustrated much of the time about my slow progress, but, as I have to keep reminding myself in order not to lose heart, I am making progress.

My latest milestone: I’m reading grown-up books!

About six months ago, I started reading novels, which is something I wasn’t brave enough to tackle up until then. Having to look up every other word is just not an enjoyable experience, and I think it’s better to wait until you can comprehend at least 70-80% of standard written material unaided.

On that note, I still remember reading my first book in English, I must have been about 17. It was Charlotte’s Web (by E.B. White). It’s an iconic classic children’s novel, and I struggled like hell. I understood just about enough for it to make me cry, though I think I was already crying out of frustration before I got to the sad bit. I didn’t touch another book in English for several years after that.


In my humble opinion, e-readers are the greatest invention of all time ever. And it will stay this way until they start making Nutella in squeezy bottles.

Now, I don’t want zillions of comments about the sanctity of paper books, so save it, people. I love ‘real’ books just as much as you do. But for language learning, the e-reader is a gift of the heavens. It lets me download books in different languages, there’s no waiting around for deliveries (which always come when I’m soaping myself down in the shower, and then I’ve got to waste hours in Toledo’s post office, where one lone middle-aged sour puss dawdles away the days until her retirement behind the counter, while one pointless uniformed oaf just stands in front of it, with pretty much the same objective. Why is Spain in the middle of an economic crisis? Spend one afternoon in that post office, and all becomes clear. Periodically, they run out of stamps – and this is the main PO of Castilla La-Mancha’s capital city!!!).

OK, end of pet rant, and back to e-reader fangirling. A swift download is only the start. The true miracle lies in the power of the integrated dictionaries. (Move over, talking burning bush in the desert.)

I bought my Spendle (actually, it’s Amazon’s Kindle, but Spendle is so much more apt, sigh…), and the gadget came pre-loaded with dictionaries in five languages. These are monolingual ones, though, and so aren’t of much use in languages where proficiency is still lacking. Luckily, bilingual dictionaries in the world’s major languages are cheap, so a Spanish-English one for five bucks was my first purchase.

Now all I have to do when I  collide with an unknown word is to point at it accusingly (frowning is optional), and the translation pops up. Oh my, what a marvel compared to thumbing through a paper dictionary – a practice abandoned sometime during the late Cretaceous period, I realise! – but I remember those days only too well.

What have I read?

El Esclavo de la Al-Hamrá, by Blas Malo Poyatos: An historical novel set in Spain and North Africa in the fourteenth century. I made it to 38%, then aborted the mission. It wasn’t so much that I found the language too challenging, but I just didn’t care about any of the characters. And I can’t get through a 464-pager just for the sake of accumulating vocabulary about the smells of the souk and bloody medieval clobberings between Moors, Jews and Christians.

Suicidio Perfecto, by Petros Márakis: Who-dunnit set in Athens. I’m not an aficionado of crime novels (which is unheard of for a German – they are famously obsessed with their “Krimis”), but this book was on my book club reading list, so I bit the bullet. The plot wasn’t too convoluted, and I found it engaging enough to keep dragging my weary fingertips across every fifth word until I got to the last page. Hurraaah! Success!!!

Maldita, by Mercedes Pinto Maldonado: May the Lord Of The Rings strike me down, this is the kind of tosh that I detest with every fibre of my being. We’re talking damsel-in-distress romantic effluent. BUT for language learning purposes, it was surprisingly useful. Straightforward plot, simplistic characters, you knew exactly what was going to happen next, and to whom. We both made it to the end – me with the utmost relief, and the damsel duly rescued, married and with a bun in the oven. Phew!

La Tumba Perdida, by Ares Nacho: Discovery-thrillery-egyptological lore. Replete with grave robbers, mummies and royal incest. Set in the 1920’s and 1300 BC. I started this last week, am really into it right now, and confident I’ll last the distance.

For language assimilation purposes, as I’m working my way through those books at glacial speed, looking up absolutely everything and highlighting the new vocab and certain sentence constructions, which strike me as useful. The e-reader lets you do that, oh yes! Once I’m done with a book, I’ll go back over the highlighted matter and transfer it into my notebook. A bit labour intensive, but totally worth it.

Apologies for the length of this post! Anyone care to share their foreign language reading exploits, hits and misses? Would love to hear about it 🙂

The Three Types Of English (According To Me)

There are a myriad of ways of classifying all sorts of different ‘Englishes’. Since leaving the UK and moving to Spain, I think about this a lot more than ever before, and it strikes me that I’m dealing with three different kinds of English on almost a daily basis:

1. Native-Speaker Level English
2. International English
3. The kind of English only understood by non-native English speakers who share the same same native tongue.

Let’s start with number 1. Needless to say, not all native English speakers understand each other, and even if they do, they like to squabble over whose version is the ‘correct’ one. I quite relish these little disputes, and, as a non-native English speaker myself, I enjoy the privilege of picking and choosing what takes my fancy without being sneered at as a ‘traitor’ to my linguistic roots. For example, I’ve adopted “gotten” as the past tense of “get”. A Brit would rather take a swig of sulphuric acid than let that one pass his lips. For the most part, though, I stick to British English, ’cause that’s what I know.

As for International English, it is arguably THE tool of global communication. But oh, it’s insipid, bloodless, without zest, stripped of all cultural context and regional idiosyncrasies, which make communication rich, satisfying, stimulating and amusing. International English is like a corpse that you revive to perform a particular task, and while its heart is beating and its lungs are pumping, it has no soul.

Twins :)

Twins 🙂

The third category is one that all adult learners of English (or any other second language!) inevitably pass through. They start using English by bending it to the pattern of their own native language, and while a Spanish-speaking person’s beginner’s level ‘English’ will easily be understood by a fellow Spanish speaker, an American or a Korean will sometimes be at a loss.  Two English learners of the same nationality conversing can be a bit like infant twins babbling to one another in their own secret language – they ‘get’ each other, but their jabberings are largely unintelligible to outsiders.

There are two obvious reasons why this happens: First of all, there is the issue of accent. Spanish, for example, only has five vowel sounds, while English has more than twenty. For a Spanish speaker, it is extremely difficult to hear these subtle differences, never mind reproduce them accurately. So, they will pronounce the words “sheet” & “shit” and “low” & “law” exactly the same. Most often than not, the meaning will  be clear from the context, but often it won’t be, especially if you’re not used to listening to a particular accent, or if there is not enough accompanying context.

The second hurdle to outsider intelligibility results from the translation process. Especially in the early stages of language learning, people directly translate what they want to say, often word for word, from their native into the target language. It’s the raw “Google Translate” mode, which yields famously unpredictable results. Just a few days ago, I had this email response from a potential new language exchange candidate:

“Ok, but I go few to Toledo. If I go, I tell you. At any rate, if you don’t come bad and you want, we can talk by the computer”

If I don’t come bad?! If you happen to speak Spanish, you’ll understand exactly where he’s coming from. The Spanish expression “Si te viene bien”, which, if you translate it directly into English, results in a non-sensical “if it comes you good”. But it actually means “if it suits you”. He’s used it in the negative here (that wouldn’t work in English anyway), which is akin to an informal version of “if it’s not too inconvenient for you”.

I know that a lot of the people who read this blog are either EFL teachers, or avid foreign language learners, or both. I’m hoping for some amusing anecdotes in the comments 🙂


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com


Prepositions – So Much Depends Of Them

Nine out of ten times, when a sentence just doesn’t make any flippin’ sense, even though you know all the words, it’s because of the evil workings of a preposition.

Compared to the masses of verbs, nouns and adjectives that exist in a language, the number of prepositions is miniscule.  European languages have, on average, what, maybe thirty…? And yet, using those pesky little words correctly takes longer to learn than anything else. It’s also the first thing that goes when you lose regular contact with a language.

English phrasal verbs (which are, essentially, verbs married to prepositions) are infamous for making students despair. Take the verb “to look” as a random example: Look at, look for, look out for, look about, look over, look after… the preposition completely changes the meaning every time. English has thousands of phrasal verbs, including colloquial and regional variations that don’t appear in any dictionary.

To make matters worse, many have several, often completely different meanings depending on context. “To make out” is a prime example. Adding the preposition “on” to the phrasal verb “to go down”, gives it a completely new dimension… 😉

Other languages also have phrasal verbs, and plenty of them, Spanish being no exception. It took me ages to figure out, for example, that “dar con”, which literally translates as “to give with”, actually means “to find/encounter”. Makes no intuitive sense whatsoever!

SunsetWhen people are taught German as a foreign language, they are told that specific prepositions often correspond to specific cases, e.g. “mit” (with) always takes the dative. So, if you don’t know the correct preposition to start with, chances are you’ll get all the noun and adjective endings wrong as well, resulting in an irreparably screwed up sentence.

Even in fairly closely related languages like English and German, prepositions do not correspond. In German, you give “after”, not “in” and you depend “of” someone or something. Not all prepositions exist in every language, making translations cumbersome and learners tear their hair out.

It is generally drilled into students to learn prepositions in conjunction with a set of common verbs, e.g. “to concentrate on” and “to insist on” are a couple of classic examples, where only one preposition is viable, but in most cases, are just too many different possibilities for all of them to be learnt by rote.

In short, the only way to get your prepositions down to a pat is by knowing what sounds ‘right’ and what doesn’t. And this, as some of you will have found out, takes aeons of exposure. In fact, I’d say, that it’s impossible to achieve unless you’ve actually been living for years and years and years in a country where the language is spoken.

My Last Portuguese Class – A Debrief

Today I had my last Portuguese class. There were only two of us left, which meant that my first excursion into the territory of one the most melodious of Latin-based languages folded due to lack of numbers.

I already fessed up in a previous post that language classes are not exactly my forte. And this time, I had the (for me) novel experience of being taught almost exclusively in the target language from the very beginning, rather than via another language I’ve got at least a reasonable command of.

I can’t say I liked it. Not being able to understand the teacher’s explanations is surely the most frustrating experience on Earth, right after trying to suck water from a bowl of wet sand. I would have gotten way more out of this experience, had the teacher switched more readily to Spanish to drive home the salient points. Instead, she was bent on reiterating the same unintelligible monologues over and over again. She may as well have been harping on at me in Tagalog. Not what I call a satisfying classroom experience.

I realise that a lot of people learn English that way, because TEFL teachers, by and large, rarely speak the languages of the countries where they do their teaching. I’ve often wondered how this works exactly, especially with students who are starting from base camp. Do they all just point at each other and make animal noises? And why isn’t the TEFL teacher murder rate on a par with that of nurses in psychiatric hospitals…? So many questions…

I’ve had Spanish classes in 98% Spanish before, but I was already at intermediate level, so it wasn’t such a struggle. I don’t think that monolingual language classes are an ill-fated concept full-stop, but for total rookie, it’s pants. How do other language learners feel about this? Or, for that matter, TEFL teachers? If any of you with experience at either end of the beast would care put forward an opinion, I’d sure love to hear it.

Despite wanting to bang my head repeatedly against the razor-wired end of the Wailing Wall, it was still worth it. I knew no Portuguese at all when I turned up for my first class at the beginning of March, and now I know *something*. That’s the nice thing about starting from zero, I suppose, you can only stand to gain.

This is by no means the end of Project Portuguese. I’m going to continue studying on my own accord, there’s plenty of material on the interwebs. Any suggestions about good learning materials are very welcome, please drop me a comment.

We've all survived the experience... that calls for a round of cakes!

We’ve all survived the experience… that calls for a round of cakes!

Why Do We Start Learning Languages And Then Abandon Them?

I’m not telling anyone anything new when I say that it takes a momentous effort to learn a foreign language. Most people are forced into taking one up at school, only to ditch it as soon as the curriculum permits. And who can blame them? Poring over grammar exercises and vocabulary lists can be deathly boring, repetitive and time consuming. The much hoped for pay-off, i.e. being able to hold a conversation or read an enjoyable book in that language without having to resort to the dictionary for every fifth word, seems about as close as a functioning Middle East peace agreement.

Much easier just to bake a cake for some instant gratification. Or get a certificate in advanced origami skills to hang up on your bedroom wall to feel proud of for the rest of your life without straining your fingers (never mind your brain cells!) any further in that direction ever again.

The do-it-and-forget-about-it approach doesn’t quite work with languages. I may well be shot down for saying this, but formal qualifications are pretty meaningless where languages are concerned. We’ve all come across people with A-levels and university degrees in a foreign language who, a handful of years later, weren’t able to string an intelligible sentence together, and as for participating in a colloquial native-speaker conversation, forget it.

I remember interviewing someone for a job once in German, and all they were able to do, despite convincing paper qualifications, was to recite a pre-learned speech. When it came to responding to any of my questions…well, let’s just say it was an epic fail.

Anyway, getting back to my original point, even if we’re not obliged by the educational system to knuckle down, and we choose to embark on a language learning project of our own volition, more often than not, we give up before our hard labours have borne any really juicy fruit.

I’m no exception here – I’ve left three languages, in which I’d invested quite heavily, by the wayside.

Why did this happen?

I studied Russian for two years, aged 14-16. It was not part of my school’s curriculum, but offered by a neighbouring school in desperate need to boost numbers to keep the class going. A classmate of mine had suddenly developed a burning interest in Russian (her mother, at that time, was dating someone who spoke Russian, and she was competing for attention), so I went along with her. I enjoyed it and I always did my homework, but one lesson a week didn’t get me very far in terms of competency. I barely reached A2 proficiency by the end of it.

Remember, this was before the internet, at the height of the cold war with 99% of native Russian speakers held captive in their country, so there wasn’t much of a chance to practice outside of the classroom.

Once I left school at 16, I had no access to further teaching, and even though I had found the experience interesting and rewarding, I hadn’t sufficiently fallen in love with the language or the culture to take it up again.

I can still read and write Cyrillic script, which is useful at times. As a teenager, I wrote my diaries in Cyrillic script (see above), safe in the knowledge that nobody in my immediate family would be able to decipher them

My interest in Chinese was first sparked over a decade ago, through a university friend who was learning it at the time. He later went to live in Beijing for a few years. I visited him there in the summer of 2008, and after that visit, I seriously considered moving out there for a bit, and that prompted me to start learning Chinese.

I primarily used a podcast-based course called Chinesepod, which was very entertaining. However, after about six months of working at it, I started to ask myself the question of whether I could REALLY see myself living in China. The honest answer was no, I couldn’t. The pollution, such a profoundly different culture, political repression and inconvenient internet firewalls… my initial excitement over the prospect had waned, little by little, and so I stopped learning Chinese.

Japanese culture and language first started to intrigue me in my early twenties, when I was working for a large travel company in the UK. One of my co-workers was Japanese, and there was also a lovely Japanese-speaking American colleague I made friends with, who had lived in Japan for many years.

Nearly a decade later, in 2003, I had a Japanese flatmate in London, and I actually started dabbling a bit with the language. In 2005, I made a more concerted effort for about six months with books, podcasts and other teaching materials. Plus, I found a Japanese woman to meet up with once a week for language exchange lessons, which I enjoyed greatly. But after she returned to Japan, the whole thing fell flat. I’d have loved to have gone to Japan at that point to do an intensive course for a few months, but it just wasn’t financially feasible.

I do feel sad now when I look at my notebooks and my pages and pages of writing practice from years ago, when I studied Japanese

I do feel a pang of sadness every time I look at my notebooks and my pages and pages of writing practice from years ago, when I studied Japanese

After giving up on a language, I always experience a profound sense of regret, which never seems to fully dissipate. They are achievements never fully realised, like sprouted seeds withering in barren soil. They were once windows to other cultures, people and friendships, but the shutters came crashing down, and there’s barely a ray of light coming through.

Of those three I’ve abandoned, it’s the Japanese I lament the most. I’m determined to get back to it at some point. Right now, though, I’ve got enough on my plate with Spanish and Portuguese.

What about you? Are there any languages you were once into that have since bitten the dust? What attracted you to them in the first place and why did you veer off course? Are you intending to take them back up again…?

[If you’re missed my post on how I almost remained a monoglot, click here.]

Inauspicious Beginnings of a Wanna-Be Polyglot

I’ll be forever envious of people lucky enough to have grown up in environments that fostered multilingualism. I was dealt a rather poor hand on that front. Nobody in my family had had any significant exposure to foreign languages, nor had anyone continued their schooling past the age of 14. Sure, they supported the concept of learning enough to get a ‘good’ job that would earn you a steady living, but education was not seen as an end in itself, and the kinds of  professional jobs requiring higher education were not for ‘people like us’.

Shunted onto the wrong track aged ten
Things started going pearshaped for the dormant linguist in me when I completed primary school. At that stage, your scholastic performance thus far determined whether you had above average academic ability or not. If so, you then had the choice of attending a certain kind of school which would eventually lead you to university, and in line with this aim, it also offered high quality foreign language teaching. I had the right grades, but unfortunately, none of my friends did, and when I asked my parents what to do, I was told that it was up to me. Well, when you’re ten, you just want to be with your friends, and I was no different. Back then, the German education system was rigid as hell, and there would be no coming back from that ill-fated decision.

Like all German pupils at that time, I started learning English as a second language aged 11. And I liked it! But we only had English lessons a couple of hours a week, with teachers who, despite being well qualified as teachers, would probably have struggled to hold a decent conversation in English in a real life setting. Some were downright incompetent. I remember one particularly hopeless individual whose ‘lessons’ consisted of making us copy grammar chapters from the text book into our exercise books. Years later, I learned that she had killed herself. Twenty years too late, I remember thinking when I read about it in the paper.

French foiled, Russian GO!
When I was 14, the school gave each of us the choice to study either French or IT.  My father convinced me to opt for computing, as he thought this was going to be more useful in the future. I could see his point, but it turned out to be a complete waste of time. My heart wasn’t really in it,  and we had to share one computer between three people. I didn’t learn squat, and promptly gave it up in the coming year. By then, I had missed the French train 😦

Something else did come up, however: Russian. Ironically, it was offered by the neighbouring school that I could have been attending, had I not made that crappy decision a few years back. My Dad, supportive of my linguistic exploits as ever, refused to give me the money for the book I needed. It was 14 bucks 80, the price label will be forever etched into my brain. My aunt bought it for me, and I spent a couple of glorious years learning a few scraps of Russian on Friday afternoons.


Miraculously, my parents did fork out so I could go on a school trip to Moscow in the spring of 1988 with my Russian class

English boost
In the meantime, it had dawned on me that I wasn’t going anywhere with my English. Classes at school consisted of drumming in grammar and vocabulary by rote. There was no opportunity to practice either speaking or listening. Bizarrely, the school had an expensive ‘language lab’ into which we were ushered once a year, to stare in reverence at the booths equipped with headphones and mics. Nobody did anything in there the rest of the time.

How the hell was I ever going to learn to talk and understand spoken English?!? Something had to be done. Luckily, I had managed to get myself a job babysitting for some neighbours. The mother of my two charges was a lovely, educated woman from South Carolina, who could clearly see all of my life’s frustrations. A deal was struck. I would help her son with his German homework in exchange for English conversation lessons. We remain good friends to this day.

Around the same time, I developed an interest in learning Spanish and Portuguese, but there were only evening classes available in a town just a few miles away. I could have gotten myself there on the bus, but not back home again – there was no public transport after 7pm in the Bavarian outback. I asked my father if he would collect me, but making a 20 minute round-trip once a week was just too much of an imposition.

Scuppered one last time
At 16, my full-time schooling (geared towards producing paper-shuffling office monkeys) came to an end. It was decision time once again.

What I really wanted to do at this point was to get into a specialist language school so I could train as a translator. One small problem… there was only one state-funded school within geographic reach, and it had an entrance exam. I was competing with people who had gone to the ‘right’ school, studied English for three years longer than I with far superior teaching. I sat the exam, but it was futile… I failed.

There was also a private school I could have attended, charging a fee of 800 bucks per annum, which was well within my family’s financial means. (I calculated once that my father spent three times that much on cigarettes each year). But of course, he refused to spend a dime on something he deemed to be a complete waste of time. (I.e. any kind of further/higher education for girls.)

Being a minor with no accessible funds of my own, I had little choice but to take on a mindnumbing but ‘secure’ office job. This entailed attending school once a week for the three longest years of my life – a hallmark of Germany’s famed dual-track education system – where I was bombarded with more boring tosh, like how to file alphabetically and enter numbers into an accounts ledger. This being Germany, there was an exam to pass at the end. Two days after taking that blasted exam, on 15 July 1991, I was on a plane to the UK to start a job kindly arranged by the kind people I’d been babysitting for and who had taught me the basics of English conversation. Oh yes, we had been busy plotting my escape.

It was another decade before I actually saw the inside of a university, but I had flown the coop, in direction of an English-speaking country! That was good enough for now.

(As an aside, I am a smidgen consoled by the fact that I did grow up ‘somewhat’ bilingual. My native language, if you will, is Bavarian, a dialect of German that is virtually unintelligible to people from outside the region. I even met somebody from my neck of the woods in Toledo where I live now, the owner of a small bar, and every time I walk in, he insists on speaking Bavarian, because there’s nobody else in town who can indulge him.)


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com