A couple of months ago, I read an article on the BBC website about a campaign called The 1000 Word Campaign, which was created to encourage British people to learn at least 1000 words of another language.
The campaign was born out of concerns that we, as a nation, have extremely poor language skills and as a result we are losing out on international business opportunities and jobs as a result.
I have to say that I whole-heartedly agree with this, not necessarily the fear that we are struggling to win business abroad but because, generally, your average Brit can barely string together a sentence in a foreign language.
We have become lazy. We are spoiled because we can converse with Americans and Australians easily enough and a lot of European countries speak at least a smattering of English, certainly enough to be able to have a simple conversation with an English speaker.
You can pop to Holland and have a fantastic conversation in English with many people. The thing is, I would like to be able to chat to a Dutch person in their own language rather than English or at least flip between the two.
In my last post about school, I lamented my choices not to pursue French to fluency. The next part of that particular post will also mention German, a language I studied for three years but again forgot as soon as I had the chance to give it up.
I am better than a large percentage of my fellow countrymen. My French is passable and I have survived numerous trips to Zurich where German is the spoken tongue, being able to ask for my hotel key, order coffee, read a menu and even order food.
However I am far from fluent and had to carry a dictionary with me all of the time so that I could cope with unexpected needs. I certainly couldn’t chat with people in German other than to impress them with odd words stolen from the lyrics of Rammstein songs, such as zerstören (which means to destroy - typical of a Rammstein song). In fact Rammstein songs have helped my vocabulary, albeit with words that I probably would struggle to use in a conversation given my limited German.
My French vocabulary is more impressive than my German but I still struggle to hold a conversation with a French person, simply because it is difficult to understand their accent and words that are delivered at approximately 1000mph towards my ear.
I have managed to make myself understood but as soon as the person has replied, my brain has failed to understand the words I heard, spoken at such a velocity that I could barely decipher them, let alone trawl my addled mind for their meaning.
This is the one flaw with the 1000 word campaign; being able to understand a native speaker.
I have spoken to some foreigners in English and they have had to ask me to speak more slowly so that they can understand the words I am saying. And I always thought I spoke pretty slowly anyway.
Obviously I don’t.
I am taking slow steps to improve and have started to take steps.
For the past year or so I have been stumbling along trying to teach myself a brand new language: Spanish.
And slowly but surely I am picking it up.
Well, when I say “picking it up”, I mean forgetting fewer words and allowing more of them to stick in my addled memory.
The secret to learning a new language is to stick with it and practice as often as you can. And for the past few months I have tried to step up a gear and at least try to pick up the basic elements of the language every single day – even if it for just ten or fifteen minutes.
What I have discovered is that words slip out your mind but return when you look them up again – and eventually they stick.
I am using a free online tool for the past couple of months to help me and it does seem to be working slowly. I have managed to retain a whole bunch of new words although I have forgotten a few I learned last year. The tool keeps a running total of the words you learn and throws phrases and sentences at you over and over again until some of them stick.
According to the tool I have learned over 600 Spanish words. In reality, I imagine the total is a lot less than that simply because I sometimes fail to get questions right when I test myself.
But it’s a start.
The tool also includes other languages, including German and French and my aim is to reacquaint myself with those languages too – but as a background activity.
The internet does help. There is a plethora of material out there as well as a huge proportion of Spanish television, articles, blogs etc. for me to delve into if and when I feel confident enough to do so.
The one problem I have is that I do not know any native Spanish speakers who can help me to understand everyday speech and make myself understood when I try to ask for a meal in terrible Spanish with a pseudo Mancunian-Black Country accent.
I will cross that bridge when I come to it.
Learning a language is difficult, I can’t deny that, but the rewards are magnificent. Whenever I travel I try to master a couple of phrases in the local language just to let people know that I have made an effort.
I can order beer, say “Please”, “Thank you”, “Hello” and “Goodbye” in Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Dutch and even Japanese.
And even though my vocabulary is limited to one or two phrases, the local people really seem to appreciate the effort.
And yes – I can say the same words in American and Australian too. I might even try to write my next blog post in one of those two languages.
How about you, dear reader?
Can you speak a foreign language?
If so which and how fluently?