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!

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