Sunday 10 November 2013

A Thousand Words

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?


Elephant's Child said...

I wish I could. I have a smattering of bad schoolgirl French, but can read it a great deal more easily than I can speak or understand it.
I am particularly ashamed that I neither speak nor understand any of the indigenous Aboriginals language - other than a very few words.

River said...

I speak Australian, which is essentially English, but not the "King's English" spoken by those who went to posher schools than me as a kid. They learned such things as enunciation and how to speak so the people at the back of the room can hear you.
I'd love to learn the languages that sound so interesting when I hear them, Italian and Spanish, but I don't have the ear for it that is so necessary, also there is the added problem of words being delivered at 1000 mph, as you said. :(
My daughter speaks very fast too and tells people they need to learn to listen faster. :)

Drb said...

I lived with 2 French teachers (French living in oz to teach French) for 2 years and I couldn't pick up a word! I tried to learn 1 new word a day but it was impossible.
My mandarin and Cantonese are better than my English, speak 3 other chinese dialects fluently and speak enough Malay to travel in Malaysia,

There is a theory that if you hear a language before you are 3 yo, it will be easier for you to learn it later.

So there is no hope i will ever pick up french or spanish or italian as i was never exposed to these languages before 3 yo.

jeremy north said...

First of all PM I admire your attitude to the concept of at least making the effort to communicate with non english speakers in their own language be it here or abroad.
Far too many people can't be bothered even to try, or even care about it.

While it is an easy criticism to make of native english speakers, that we are lazy when it comes to learning another language, it is not entirely fair.

Here's something to ponder. What language should we learn? In many ways, I wish I was a non english speaker, because the choice of a second language would be obvious. As it is, one could spend years mastering another language and hardly ever get to use it.
Like you I think it is a good idea to be able to learn some basic phrases in many different languages.

My wife is french so I can speak french fluently and we brought our kids up to be bilingual. They are both now learning spanish.

Here's a point though. I consider those particularly from southern europe to be the lazy ones. Very few of them can speak english, when it is obviously the language to learn, and practice. They watch tv and films dubbed into their own languages rather than watching them in VO (version originale). I think that is pathetic.
Something else which annoys me, this time about the english is that they assume that wherever they go, people can speak english but pretend not to just to pee us off. I mean how stupid would that be? They say this particularly of the french. Pure nationalism. They also say that when they go to the heart of Wales, and they hear people speaking welsh, that these are just being rude, as if they all speak english until an englander turns up. Ridiculous.
I've been to towns in wales where kids learn english at school as a second language. I love that.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi EC,

I feel the same shame when I try talking to most Europeans who undoubtedly switch to pretty good English.

How many Aboriginal languages are there? Do you know - I think I might look that up.




Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi River,

I certain;y do not speak the Queen's English. If you had listened to my accent when I was in Walsall you would have questioned whether I was actually speaking English or not. You might understand me now though.

People should listen faster - I love that!




Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi drb,

Learning one word a day is a good idea but you need to keep them in your head - and that is not easy.

I can speak more Mandarin than Cantonese - about six words as opposed to one. :-)

I would never be able to decipher the alphabet though. On trips to China I have marvelled at the complexity of them - they are like tiny works of art - each one of them.

I think there might be hope for you in learning French or Spanish - I am hoping there is hope for me.




Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Jeremy,

I kind of agree with you. I reckon Spanish would be a good second language as it is widely spoken in the world - although by that argument we should learn Mandarin!

Mrs PM speaks incredibly good French too, and I love the fact your kids are bilingual. That's fantastic.

I have seen many English (and American) tourists make arses of themselves when abroad expecting foreigners to converse in perfect English - and that annoys me. As for the French, I've found that if you make the effort then the French will at least make an effort too - apart from Paris where they seem to love being rude (even the rest of France thinks so too).

And I am perfectly happy for Welsh people to enjoy their language. Having said that - it looks like a really difficult language to learn.




jeremy north said...

I read a very interesting article about this very subject. The conclusion was that for us, French is the most useful second language, as it is the language of cuisine, culture and diplomacy. ( to put it in s nutshell)
There are many who suggest chinese but unless you're doing business there it is a massive waste of time, considering the years it would take to get anywhere, besides, if they are serious they will learn english.

Spanish is spoken by billions but only in spain and south america (apart from brazil), so may be useful for those who want to go on holiday.

Maybe learning latin would be a good base after all even though it is dead.

I'd love to speak German and Italian on top of what I can speak. Unlike you I like opera. I also like Rammstein haha

Dale Brown said...

I know the odd foreign word here and there but anything more complicated than ordering a beer or saying hello and I'm screwed.
Although I do know how to say "I will not forgive you" in Japanese.

Mind Of Mine said...

I am pretty uncultured and have never found myself needing to use another language. That really needs to change.

Jackie K said...

Oh MATE, you're speaking my language with this post! I love languages and I'm pretty good at learning them, but I can only hold one in my brain at a time.
Hence I learned French to fair fluency in high school and then did 3 years of Spanish at uni, and I got pretty fluent for awhile, though not as fluent as I am now in Greek. When I was learning Greek I kept throwing out Spanish words by mistake, and now I can't speak either French or Spanish at all. Though I can still understand them in writing.
Our kids are nearly 8 and are learning Greek, they've been going to the dreaded "Greek school" one evening a week for a couple of years. They are only just starting to pick it up now really although we have always used some Greek words with them. For some odd reason Yanni never spoke to them in his native Greek while they were babies and toddlers, which he should have.
But interestingly I have read recently that the standard wisdom that you can bring up kids bilingual is not as simple as we think. Kids brought up with 2 languages tend to lose the second one once they start school, unless they have 2 native speaking parents and speak the second language full time at home.

But I do agree knowing another language, while really hard to learn, is a fantastic asset, and it aids your understanding and empathy of other people too.

Interesting campaign - we should do the same thing in Australia, people generally only know another language here if they're from a particular ethnic group that speaks it.

By the way, when I was working at a pub in Twickenham in my youth, I struggled to understand our customers from Manchester. Talk about another language...

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Big D,

I think being able to order a beer is pretty important.




Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi MoM,

I would have a go if I were you. You never know when you might need to know the odd word in another language.




Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Jackie,

I'm jealous about that. A mate of mine has managed to teach himself Greek too; he spends time listening to Greek radio on the internet and has spent six months there doing voluntary work - he claims to be almost fluent and I believe him.

II think you might have inspired me to write a(nother) post about English accents.

I do not speak with a pure Mancunian accent but the odd word comes out (I have lived here for almost 30 years).

I can understand your struggle; but I can guaratee that if you heard me 30 years ago with my full Walsall accent you would not have understood a word.

Thankfully for you and your fellow Ozzies, I am now perfectly understandable - as I discovered on a trip to Oz some years ago.




Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Jeremy,

Rammstein AND opera?

That's great - and funny!