Here I go!
I can still remember the first time I became fully aware that not all humans communicate in the same language. I was 7, and it was a sunny summer’s afternoon. My teacher handed a pile of tatty yellow hardback books round the classroom. I got mine with interest and opened it up. I can still remember the double page spread of black-and-white garden line drawings, and my sense of wonder and excitement when I realised that a French person would refer to their garden as mon jardin, and to a wheelbarrow as une brouette (which is still one of my favourite French words; whimsical and owlish, but a bugger to pronounce properly.)
From that moment, I was hooked. Completely besotted. I started learning German at middle school, and I remember (in pre-interweb days) asking my mother, who knew ein bischen Deutsch, to help me with some additional words so I could show off in my homework. I bought a Russian beginners’ book aged 12 with some birthday money, and I can still remember the first phrase I ever managed to read and understand in Cyrillic: Where’s the post office? где почта? I started to collect phrasebooks and dictionaries and sought them out in charity shops and library sales: Turkish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Mongolian, Serbo-Croat (that dates me).
My parents ran a bed and breakfast throughout my teenage years and I used to hope that the next guests to arrive would be French or German, so I could practice on them. It made me very selfish. The handbrake failed on one French couple’s car; it rolled down the hill outside my parents’ house and lodged itself in a hedge, but all I was concerned about was whether or not haie has an aspirate ‘h’. Dutch came and took me unawares one summer when the lovely Charlotte and her very attractive 15-yr-old son came to stay. They had cycled all the way from Holland with enormous panniers, and at the time they were the most exotic people I’d ever met. I was desperate for him to teach me some of his language (in particular, I remember badgering him to tell me the words for kiss me), but he was determined to speak English. They came back again the following year. But he never succumbed. Looking at photos of myself aged 13, I’m not surprised.
I studied French and German at university as part of a degree in Computational Linguistics. During my course, I spent a very happy 10 months working at CERN. In Switzerland, I started my collection of both foreign-language childrens’ books and non-British boyfriends – an almost-Italian cross country skier, a Catalan IT expert and a Norwegian Viking – all of whom also contributed, inadvertently, to my collection of language-junkie phrases: dai, tesoro; t’estimo; min lille løvinne.
During a family crisis I took a break from my career and became qualified in CELTA as an English teacher. Thanks to my favourite student I added a Korean dictionary to my list of acquisitions, along with a deep respect for the beautiful syllabic writing system in use in Korea since 1446, which you can read about here.
In the years since then, I’ve grown my collection of books and friends around the world, and my addiction to languages has progressed steadily. Last year I learned some Polish so that I could communicate better with my boyfriend’s cleaners. I had the first chance to practice my Polish in the cafeteria at the Rolls-Royce factory in Goodwood, and proudly told the cafe cashier that Nie rozumiem po Polsku, which she found, rightly, hilarious. ‘You can’t ask to practice your Polish on me and then say that!’, she protested indignantly. We laughed so much I left my coat in the restaurant; when I went back to pick it up she pretended not to see me.
My current in-car CD passion is Mandarin. I’m doing 20 minutes or so each time I jump in the MINI, and I’m loving it. I’m finally getting past the feeling of panic that a string of completely alien sounds expelled at speed can create in an unpractised ear, and starting to feel as though I actually know some of this stuff. It’s very, very exciting. Addictive, even. I’m going to practice in a Chinese restaurant somewhere near me soon.
I’ll let you know how it goes.