Imagine if languages were a super power and a schoolboy were a languages superhero!
Like many twelve year-old schoolchildren, Liam Quest was not the greatest fan of school. As he lay in bed, several minutes after his phone had woken him, his maths test on probability and the thought of double physics were doing nothing to encourage him to throw off the duvet. He sleepily stared across at his ‘flags of the world’ poster and, as he did every morning, he tried to pick out one more flag that he hadn’t noticed before and see if he could guess which country it belonged to. This morning it was East Timor. “They speak Portuguese there,” he thought to himself. He smiled a proud and happy smile. He was going to learn Portuguese, just as soon as he’d finished the Spanish course on his iPad.
If anything was going to coax Liam out from under that duvet, it was knowing that he was going to have his first German lesson at school that day. He’d already been learning French for a year (well, more than a year, if you include learning random words from his parents’ old French dictionary) and he was excited about another new language, not least because his phone instructions were only printed in German and the funny long words fascinated him. For this was Liam’s ‘thing’ – his biggest talent. Languages made him buzz, smile, feel that all was right with the world and, more importantly on this particular morning, want to get out of bed and head to school.
Liam’s dad Tom called out from the kitchen, “Liam! It’s nearly ten past eight and you’ve not had your breakfast yet. Get down here now!” Liam’s dad only spoke English. Well, he also claimed to be fluent in cockney rhyming slang, but Liam would always argue that that was actually just English too. Tom believed that speaking English very slowly and pointing to things was the perfect international language. When Liam suggested that Esperanto would make a better international language, Tom asked him to say something to him in Esperanto. Liam offered, “well, what’s the time is ‘kioma horo estas?’” “That sounds nothing like English. How can that be an international language?” Tom exclaimed. Liam couldn’t reason with that argument. But for all that, Tom was impressed with his son’s linguistic abilities.
Having thrown on his uniform, run his hand through his hair and splashed his face with cold water, Liam came running down the stairs, checking as he did so that he was still on the leader board for his Spanish app. He was. He dashed into the kitchen, sat down and tipped cereal into the bowel and over most of the table. As he poured the milk, he stared at the tiny Arabic writing on the back of the cereal box. He loved the squiggly letters. He’d learn that one day too. Definitely.
Just as he was about to leave everything out on the table and bolt out the door, Liam’s mum Jenny walked into the kitchen, surveyed the scene and moaned, “oh, Liam! Can’t you at least put your bowl in the sink?” “No, mum!” Liam shouted back, as he grabbed his bag and headed for the door. “I’ve got German first lesson today, so I don’t want to be late”. And with that, Jenny sighed (and smiled) and Liam slammed the door, jumped on his bike and rode off, desperately trying to remember the word Gebrauchsanleitung from his phone instructions manual.
Liam’s journey to school usually only took ten minutes or so and along the way he would normally meet up with his two best friends, Joshua Marsden and Oliver Finch – Josh and Oli, as everyone called them. Today was no exception. Just as Liam passed the park, Josh and Oli hurtled over, their mud-strewn bikes screeching as they did so. “Hi Li”, they shouted (because even the shortest names seem to get shortened nowadays), “I bet you’re looking forward to starting German today!” “Yep,” Liam replied, beaming. “I can’t wait.” Josh and Oli were not quite so keen. “I can’t remember any French, apart from bonjour, ça va, so I’m never gonna remember anything in German. My mum says it’s really hard,” Oli moaned. “Yeah,” Josh chipped in, “they have really long words and it’s well complicated.” But Liam was having none of it. “But guys, that’s the best part. It’s like being a spy and learning a secret code. You get a long word and you have to work it all out like a puzzle. And it’s got loads of words for ‘the’ and cases and THREE genders!” “You’re weird,” said Josh. Oli and Josh were used to this, but they still, secretly, thought that Liam was cool all the same.
Before they knew it, they were at the school gates. Josh and Oli dashed off to the canteen for their usual pizza slice, arguing loudly about something along the way and Liam headed for his classroom, thinking of all the countries he would visit once he’d learnt German (“Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and don’t they speak German in Belgium too?” he thought to himself). Registration and a very dull assembly about renovations to the English block toilets couldn’t go quickly enough for Liam. Josh and Oli were rather more distracted by the pieces of post-it note they were flicking at each other. Finally the bell rang and it was time to go to the languages block and start German!
As everyone filed in, not entirely without talking, shoving and checking phones on silent when they thought the teacher wasn’t looking, Frau Redmond, the head of German, greeted her class with a cheery guten Morgen, looking thoroughly calm and collected, despite the pandemonium all around her. Frau Redmond loved German and she loved teaching German. She would always tell anyone who listened, “deutsche Sprache, schöne Sprache” (“German language, beautiful language”). She had already written on the whiteboard, “Guten Morgen. Ich heiβe Frau Redmond. Wie heiβt du?” Once everyone had sat down, Liam stared at the whiteboard and marvelled at the fact that German even had a letter that other languages didn’t have. It was already living up to expectations. And when Frau Redmond pointed at Liam and asked, “und wie heiβt du?”, he replied tentatively, “ich heiβe Liam” and suddenly, that was it! He was speaking German. He smiled, relieved, as Frau Redmond exclaimed, “ja, genau!”. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but the big smile on her face suggested it was right and she’d understood him. It only got better from there.
Fifty minutes seemed to go very quickly. Liam felt a pang of disappointment when the bell rang. He had his test on probability next. That couldn’t compete with German. As he was packing up to go to maths, however, Frau Redmond went over to him and said, “Liam, I notice that you were very enthusiastic in today’s lesson. I know you love French, so it’s great to see that German already interests you. Would you perhaps be interested in borrowing this German children’s book to look through? You can keep it as long as you like.” Liam was thrilled, of course. He knew he would hardly understand any of it yet, but, as always, that would be a challenge that he would look forward to. “Yes, miss. That’d be great. Thank you!” he replied. He looked at the title and tried to work out what it meant: “Eine Woche Voller Samstage”. Feeling a little deflated, he asked Frau Redmond what the title meant in English. “A Week Full of Saturdays,” she replied. “Well, that sounds good for a start,” Liam thought to himself. He put the book in his bag and could think only of that book for the rest of the school day.
On the way home, as Josh and Oli set off ahead of him, Liam found himself drawn to the German book in his bag. He was so curious that he couldn’t wait until he was home to take a proper look at it, so he stopped off at the park, sat down and took Eine Woche Voller Samstage out of his bag. He flicked through it eagerly, keenly looking for words that he might recognise or at least be able to guess at. Some jumped out – Mann, Haus, gut and hier. He felt encouraged. As he flicked to the back page, he noticed that the paper on the back cover was slightly torn and raised. He investigated and found some odd handwriting. It read: “All the languages of the world – mundo, wereld, monde und Welt!” “What’s that all about?” Liam thought. In his puzzlement, he read it out loud, “all the languages of the world – mundo, wereld, monde und Welt!” He suddenly felt a strange tingling sensation all over; lights of different colours: red, yellow, black, gold, white and blue flashed above his head. He looked around quickly, but there was nobody else there. And then, silence. But his brain was buzzing with activity and excitement. “Wereld,” he thought to himself. “That means ‘world’ in Dutch.” But how did he know that? He didn’t speak Dutch and he hadn’t ever learnt it. Nor had he ever learnt Polish or Croatian, but all of a sudden he knew for a fact that ‘world’ in those languages was świat and svijet. This was fantastic in every way. Liam wondered whether it would work for any word. “Car,” he thought. “That’s bíll in Icelandic and makinë in Albanian!”
As he started to think about what his new-found ‘power’ could bring him, not to mention what a piece of cake GCSE French and German would be now, a young child appeared beside him, crying and shouting, “ajutați-mă, vă rog. Mi-am pierdut mama. Nu o găsesc”. “What?” Liam cried, “you’ve lost your mum and you can’t find her? Eu te ajut! I’ll help you!” But Liam couldn’t speak or understand Romanian – at least, not until now. He leapt to his super linguist feet and peered around with his super linguist eyes. At first he couldn’t see anyone else, but then he noticed a lady at the bus stop over the road. She looked upset and she seemed to be asking people something, but they were shrugging and shaking their heads, looking confused. Liam ran over to her. “Cred că pot să vă ajut, doamnă. V-am găsit copilul. Este acolo.” He’d just told her, “I think I can help you. I’ve found your child. He’s there.” But he’d never spoken Romanian before. “O, mulțumesc frumos! Mulțumesc!” the grateful lady told Liam through her tears. Liam had done something he loved. He’d spoken another language, been understood and helped somebody in the process. He had to hurry home and tell his parents all about it. He couldn’t wait to find out where his linguistic adventures would take him next.