Playing with languages - from invention to reality

I love language.


And I love learning languages.  I’ve learnt 18 languages so far, and I can’t wait to learn the next one.  There’s something exciting and thrilling about being able to communicate with other people who don’t understand your language.  Seeing the looks on their faces when you say something in their language and they understand you is precious and priceless.  It can come from the smallest of things.  I always remember, on my first visit to Croatia, having been learning Croatian for only a short time, I asked in a supermarket on the day before a national holiday, “jeste li vi otvoreni sutra?” (‘are you open tomorrow?’), with that rush of adrenaline inside, and getting an answer, in Croatian, that I understood.  Not only had I made myself understood, but I understood the answer too!


We all have a language - whether it’s spoken, written, signed or felt.  It’s something that all human beings have in common.  We didn’t acquire our language in order to pass an exam or get our homework right.  So if you think that languages are intrinsically and inevitably difficult, that can’t be true.  If you understand English, you understand me now.  We are communicating in a language and we both understand what we’re communicating to each other.  Human beings who use other languages are exactly the same.  If we’re French, German, Chinese, Russian, Zimbabwean, Somali, Syrian, Yemeni, Cherokee or Thai, we are human beings and we have a language that can be learnt, understood, spoken, read and used.  Learning other people’s languages is like travelling all over the world and seeing and discovering new things and new experiences.  It makes you a more outward-looking, more understanding and I would say, happier person.


But how do you encourage children in Foundation and Key Stages 1 and 2 to start learning another language?  Their parents may not have a background in languages or may even hold the view that everyone speaks English anyway, so they may not necessarily encourage a desire to learn languages in their children.  Or, parents or the children themselves may be under the misconception that languages are difficult and not worth the effort.  Well, what if you could invent your own language and make up all the rules and spellings and everything?  SPAG would be easy.  You’d never get anything wrong in your spelling tests.  All the rules would make sense, because you’d invented them.


So let’s say you wanted to invent a word for ‘bird’.  What would you come up with?  Maybe it’d be AAG, because that’s the noise that dinosaur birds make.  Okay.  So how would you spell it?  Would it  be AAG or ARG, or would you invent a whole new spelling and spell it EURK, even though that doesn’t look like how you say it?  Think of a word in English like ‘THOROUGH’.  We pronounce it ‘THU-RER’ but the letters we use to spell the word don’t help at all.  We don’t say the ‘GH’ at the end.  When we write ‘KNIFE’ or ‘KNEE’, we don’t pronounce the ‘K’ at the beginning, but we do write it.  So why not spell our new word for bird as KEURGH?  It might not look anything like how we say it, but nor do a whole lot of words in English, or French, or Russian.  As well as being a fun way to introduce the concept of other languages, it also highlights the difference between spoken and written language, the fact that living languages have changed and developed naturally over time and helps take the edge off of the moan that French is really difficult because ‘HEUREUX’ and ‘BOIVENT’ are not pronounced anything like how they appear to be.


Now, once you have some basic vocabulary in your very own language, you’ll need to come up with some kind of syntax, structure and grammar to string it all together.  And why does grammar have to be difficult?  Just think of English.  Unlike French, English speakers don’t have masculine and feminine nouns or adjectival agreement to worry about, and beyond the odd ‘whom’, ‘whose’ and ‘mother’s’, English is no match for German, Finnish or Basque on the cases front either.  But once again, the process of creating grammar and structure for your invented language could take the whole ‘grammar is so boring’ message out of the equation.  For example, if I wanted to translate, ‘I drink milk’ into my new language, I start with my individual words - let’s say, MUJUS, HIUL and MA - and then I have to think systematically about how to put them together in a sentence.  Would it be as simple as, ‘MA HIUL MUJUS’ (and why not?) or could I introduce the concept of tense and verb endings?  Is ‘HIUL’ just ‘drink’ and not specifically ‘I drink’?  I might want to say, ‘MA HIULAM’ for ‘I drink’.  That could then lead to a discussion of what the rest of the conjugation might be, what the other subject pronouns would be and how you would convey past or future tense, for example.  Would it be a synthetic future tense, like Spanish (e.g. ‘MA HIULSUN’) or would it be analytical like English or German (e.g. ‘MA SUN HIUL’)?  What’s more, if we go back to our original sentence (‘MA HIUL MUJUS’), who’s to say that the words have to be in that order?  That could bring in thoughts about whether your language is an SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) language or something different.  It would make the concepts of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ seem more real and practical and open children’s eyes to the fact that not all languages have the same word order as English.  It could also introduce cases.  Should ‘MUJUS’ have a case ending because it’s a direct object and would you have a word for ‘the’ like English or French, or not, like Russian or Latin?  As you can see, the myriad of possibilities thrown up by one simple sentence in a language a child has invented him or herself could spark so much interest and ‘demystify’ a good deal of the process when learning ‘real’ languages.


Could this be an effective way to engage primary school-age children with languages and their many quirks and facets and encourage them to see beyond the misconception that “languages are difficult”?  What is more, many primary school teachers say themselves that they are reticent when it comes to teaching foreign languages and often consider that languages are not their forte in amongst the many other subjects that they teach.  Giving children the bare linguistic bones needed to let their imaginations fly and create their own language would not require, in the teacher, any more than a universal understanding of language and would not demand degree-level knowledge of French, German or Spanish.  And yet, it could provide the spark that one day might lead to a lifelong love of languages and that degree-level or working knowledge that is not only a significant boost to employment prospects, but can also be a key that opens the door to a world way beyond the classroom.  I used to love inventing languages as a child.  My favourite two languages at the time were Spanish and Portuguese, so I decided that I would take ‘the best bits’ from both and make my own hybrid language.  Years later, I discovered that I’d inadvertently ‘created’ Galician!  When I came to learn the real Galician, that childhood joy was still there.  If we could instil that joy in others at an early age, through play with the building blocks of language, might our lifelong attitude towards language learning be a more positive one?

Why are languages so fascinating? A language festival address

            So why are languages so fascinating?  Well, ever since the first time I went abroad (on a school exchange to France), I’ve enjoyed the ‘buzz’ of speaking to someone in their own language and being understood (not that you always entirely understand their answers!).  While at university, I went hitch-hiking around northern Portugal and came to a village that had never seen foreigners before.  When I spoke to an elderly woman sitting on a chair on her porch in Portuguese, her face lit up.  Mind you, she probably thinks the whole world speaks Portuguese now.  People react to you differently if you’ve made even a bit of an effort to speak their language, rather than shout at them in English.

            Without wanting to bombard you with anecdotes, I went with friends to New York a number of years ago, and our taxi driver from the airport to our hotel was Puerto Rican.  He spent the entire journey insulting us, his passengers, in Spanish over the radio.  I didn’t say a word.  Until we got to the hotel, when I told him, in Spanish, that I was “from the mother country”.  His face dropped when he realised I’d understood everything he’d said, but then he smiled, as if he’d met a long-lost friend, and even better, gave us a discount on our fare!  As well as connecting with people better, learning a foreign language lets you into someone else’s culture and way of life, and you learn more about the world.  Because I speak Basque, for example, I understand the funny customs and traditions that the Basque people have, and why there were originally only three days in a Basque week (not a bad idea!).  Even better, the Basque word for ‘a Basque’ is euskaldun, which literally means ‘someone who speaks Basque’, so you really do become one of them, just by speaking their language!  And just one other thing to bear in mind – not everyone speaks English. In fact, English is the fourth most spoken language in the world in terms of native speakers.  Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and Spanish are all ahead of English, and Russian, Arabic and Portuguese aren’t far behind.

            So, back to how I got started with languages, unlike many British people who learn French as their first (or only!) foreign language, I started with Spanish, teaching myself initially from a book that my parents had had going yellow on a shelf from an old holiday in Spain, and then proceeded to move around the Iberian Peninsula, learning Catalan, Portuguese, Basque and enough Galician to get by!  In fact, as my very patient and long-suffering former Spanish teacher might remember, as our school Spanish exchange was to a town near Barcelona in Catalonia, I ended up learning Catalan there and speaking that instead!  Mind you, that did mean that my pen friend’s grandfather would sit and tell me - apparently in Catalan - about his exploits during the Spanish Civil War and I was too polite to say that I was only catching about one word in twenty...

            So my passion for languages was already there, well before I started learning French at school, to which German, Italian and even Latin were added as I went along.  In all those cases, the culture and history of the countries where those languages were spoken fascinated me - more than studying their literatures, I have to admit.  Apologies to A level language teachers and any university lecturers who might be here this evening!

            Although you might think that that was quite enough variety, by the age of 13 I was getting bored.  When I get bored, I learn a language. But I’d had enough of languages with mega millions of speakers by then. I quite fancied learning something more ‘exclusive’ - more of a minority language, one with a bit of cachet.

            But which one to choose?!  By happy coincidence (but not for him...), Enver Hoxha, the old communist dictator of Albania happened to pass away at the exact same time that I was looking around for a language to learn.  On our TV news, reporter after reporter kept saying things along the lines of: “Albania - an almost unknown, forgotten and mysterious little country”.  Well, that was it. I wanted to learn whatever it was that they spoke there - which turned out to be Albanian, in case you were wondering.

            That was the easy part.  The hard part was working out how to learn Albanian, short of actually going to Albania.  And as I was 13, and the TV pictures from Albania at the time hardly portrayed a sunny, family-friendly tourist destination, my parents were a bit reluctant to consider that...  Thankfully, it turned out that there was an Anglo-Albanian Association in London, so I called them and they dusted off their one copy of a book written in Communist Albania to teach the language to ex-pats who’d never learnt it and sent it to me.  It even came with an audio cassette!  A lifelong interest in Albania, Albanians and their language started from there.

            And for me, that’s what language learning brings you - a lifelong interest, almost an addiction (well in my case, it is an addiction!) and so much more than just another subject in school (apologies to mathematicians, geographers and so on).  I was never any good at maths.

            So my chosen degree course at university will not surprise you - modern languages.  Or modern and medieval languages, as it was actually known.  I can now chat with 10th-century Spaniards and 13th-century Dutchmen, should the need ever arise.  I started off with Spanish and Portuguese, and then added Dutch, French, Romanian and a bit of Catalan on the side as I went along.  I spent a fascinating thoroughly multilingual year abroad, teaching English at a school on the east coast of Spain, where they also speak Valencian, a variety of Catalan, so of course I learnt that as well for good measure.  My flatmates in Spain were French and German, and the German’s boyfriend was Flemish (until she dumped him for a Spaniard), so our flat was a little microcosm of Europe, where Spanish was the only common language, but several others were available for use, should you have wanted them.

            So I can speak from experience when I say that language learning and proficiency in foreign languages (with a knowledge of local culture and history) are highly valued, sadly quite rare, but professionally very much needed skills.  And because language skills are so much in demand and relatively few Brits have them to a usable level, being a linguist is a serious boost to employment prospects, in all sorts of ways.  This is one of the key reasons why I jumped at the chance to participate in, and celebrate and promote foreign languages at your school this evening.

            Since then I’ve had the chance to work with a whole range of languages throughout my career - including that Albanian that I learnt all those years ago for no particular reason.  I’ve even had the chance to meet the Queen because of languages.  And I’ve now collected 18 languages in all, with a few others that I could perhaps order a cider and a pizza in.  But I have no intention of stopping there!  In fact, I’ve just embarked on my latest language.  Not anything obvious like Mandarin or Arabic, unfortunately.  I would tell you which one it is, but my former colleagues always complained that whenever I learn a language, a war breaks out in the country where they speak it, so suffice it to say, it’s pretty wacky and exotic, and doesn't have mega millions of speakers.

            So to get back to what I was saying at the start, this is why I am particularly honoured and proud to be opening this Language Festival, happy in the knowledge that another generation of language aficionados is on its way.  So rather than say ‘welcome’, I think it’d be fitting to greet you with bienvenidos, mirë se erdhët, ongi etorri and benvinguts before calling on you to enjoy the festivities and the performances we’re about to see, and wallow in foreign languages and cultures! Thank you.


Chris Hughes MBE

February 2010

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