Saturday 14 April 2012


I have a friend whose partner is Dutch. It is her fond hope that her daughter (not yet two) will grow up bi-lingual speaking both English and Dutch.

Language is a great gift - some people find it easy to pick up languages others not so much. One of my bosses for example fluent in Russian, French - smatterings of Italian and Arabic (and that's the ones I know about!).
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I learnt French. Frequently and sustainedly. My mother had an ambition that I be a fairly fluent French speaker (she herself speaks beautiful French, even though she is English). The result of this is that from the age of four I started learning French. At that age it wasn't so much learning but reading stories (I particularly remember one about an owl and a lost tea-spoon), counting and letters; the same sort of thing that you do in Kindergarten really!

The upshot of this was that I was disgustingly precocious and when at some child development study (aged around 4 or 5) and asked to count to ten I did so in French (horrible show off).

I was lucky enough from the age of 8 to 11 to go to a private school. Here we were taught French. So I got my second solid grounding in the language. This meant that by the time I got to secondary school and started (for the third time) from the beginning I found it all rather dull. I didn't pay attention in class and soon found myself in the next to bottom set.
This didn't put me off though; and I continued to study French for A-level. Sadly lack of practice means that (after a while) I can understand spoken French and I can read French, but I can't really speak or write it.
French wasn't my only foray into the learning of languages. For two years at secondary school I was obliged to learn Latin. A mixture of a lack of application and a teacher who was far too nice for the hooligans he was teaching meant that my Latin never got much beyond declining nouns (altogether now "Puella, Puella, Puellam Pueallae, Pueallae, Puella..."). I wish I'd paid better attention, Latin is actually very interesting in discovering the roots of our own language and understanding the rules of grammar.

I also took German for GCSE - which, to my horror, shared many of the peculiarities of Latin grammar (including the neutral gender). Thanks to a native German speaking teacher I managed to pass my exam; but the only things I remember now are "IIch habe meinen Paß verloren" and "Wenn das Wetter schoen ist, gehe ich spazieren". Very useful.

I have on further occasions tried and failed to learn other languages. Mostly because they gave away a free course with a newspaper (Spanish) or I heard them spoken on TV and liked how they sounded (Japanese and Arabic). I didn't get very far in any of these endeavours; my Japanese is limited to 'thank you' and 'good-bye' and my Arabic is limited to the traditional greeting (as-salaam 'alaykum).

At least I never had to 'learn' English the way that I learnt other languages. Grammar and spelling are much easier when you have a solid base to start from. I was lucky. My primary school (the one that taught me French) also insisted pupils learn spelling and grammar. Extremely unusual, as the line from 'My Fair Lady' goes "...whereas others are instructed in their native language, English people are-n't." This means that not only do I know parts of speech, I know what to do with them!

I know, for example, that you cannot end an email "If you have any queries please contact myself" as 'myself' is a reflective pronoun (hence "Me, myself, and I"). It is my current bug-bear so I thought I'd slip it in (you hear some quite intelligent educated people doing it).

It isn't just what you say though. It's how you say it. As Henry Higgins sang in 'My Fair Lady'; "An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him. The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.". I think as true today as it ever was. I was born and brought up for seven years in Hampstead. I didn't learn to speak with 'received pronunciation' (BBC English) but not far from it. When we moved to Kent I was teased for sounding like Margaret Thatcher (I'm not sure how to describe the Kentish accent, but there's maybe a bit of Estuary in it?).

I still have (when I need it) beautiful spoken English (rolled out for my telephone voice and similar); although I think my everyday accent has softened. I think that the South of England has a very neutral accent and mine has certainly been influenced by living and working with people from places with stronger accents (particularly Scotland and Ireland). I think ex-Pats find the same sort of thing.

I spent years when I first started work desk-mates with an Irish girl; and I will still sometimes refer to 'that chap over there' as 'your man'. I have now worked for eight years at a Scottish accent, and often if asked for assent I will answer 'aye'.

Incidentally. I may have been taught spelling and spent many sad hours at weekends learning my spelling - that doesn't mean that I can spell. The spell-checker is always busy for me!