Who knows where languages can take you? My language journey (so far…)

I think my love of languages and ultimately wanting to work with languages stemmed from primary school.  I was fascinated with words, books, reading, writing – even punctuation and grammar – from a very young age.  Of course, at first it revolved around English and a love of creative writing, but then I would write stories about going to other countries and meeting other people and although I was aware that they usually spoke different languages, at that stage I didn’t know any, so I would invent words and make up my own languages.  I still love the idea of that today!  My first foray into other (real) languages came at the age of 8, when I noticed a book teaching Spanish to tourists on my parents’ bookcase.  I started flicking through it and was immediately hooked.  I found that the grammar, pronunciation and so on made sense to me and the new words were exciting, exotic even.  I’d found something that I not only enjoyed immensely, but was good at and from then on, I couldn’t stop. 

My first real memory of knowing that I wanted to work with languages then came as I started secondary school.  Having Spanish and a little Portuguese under my belt already, I was introduced to French and I fell in love all over again!  The relationships between languages and the way you could transform yourself by using a different language convinced me (initially) that I would teach languages and that later expanded to include translation, interpreting and other work.

That initial childhood fascination with words and the differences and relationships between languages never disappeared and, if anything, keeps growing stronger.  As I then got the opportunity to travel abroad and actually use my languages in authentic situations (even if I couldn’t understand everything, say everything I wanted to or always make sense of the accent), languages became inseparably associated with different people, traditions, customs, cultures, histories, politics and ways of life.  That could be something as seemingly small as making someone smile when you address them in Catalan or Polish, or as transformational as understanding Roma people through their language and losing ingrained prejudices.  Languages had shown me why cross-cultural communication was so vital (not to mention, so invigorating and exciting), so I have always wanted to convey that to others.  Languages are not just about school French and Latin grammar (as gripping as both those things are!).  They’re about understanding your place in the world, interacting with and relating to other human beings and discovering more than you could ever imagine in a monolingual setting.

My father used to work in advertising and he was working on a joint UK/Netherlands campaign.  I was 18 and he asked me to translate the content of a poster.  That was my first experience of professional language work and ever since then, I knew that was the path for me.  In my final year of university, I started teaching Portuguese to a future UK diplomat in advance of his posting.  I hope my enthusiasm rubbed off on him.  For me, it was a dream come true.  After graduation I joined the civil service and worked with a whole range of languages: Albanian, Basque, Farsi, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and others, in a wider variety of contexts than you might imagine languages can be used in.   When more Albanian linguists were required in the mid to late 1990s, I was asked to teach Albanian (specifically the Gheg dialect of Kosovo) and that led to me writing a book on the subject.  It also led to interviews on Albanian-language media and a regular column in a Kosovo newspaper.  I spent much of the late 1990s and early 2000s in Albania and Kosovo interpreting and translating for the government and the military.  Since then, I have set up my own language services business, and have been translating, teaching, interpreting, transcribing and promoting languages and the many benefits of learning them.

When I was first bitten by the language bug, I never imagined that one day it would lead me to meeting the Queen.  Ever since 1985 I had a particular love for the Albanian language and all things Albanian.  For me, it was a passion, but never a future career prospect.  However, when Albania became prominent on the UK news in the mid to late-1990s, I was already working in the civil service and (naively) answered the call to help support the government.  Shortly afterwards, Kosovo became a major worldwide issue and both the UK government and military needed support with this little-known language.  This is one of the reasons why I always say that you never know where languages might take you.  I travelled in delegations, taught, translated, interpreted, transcribed, presented and explained for many years.  It’s important to acknowledge that you can be recognised for work in languages and language work makes a real difference.

The seven or eight languages that I work with on a regular basis are Albanian, Romanian, Basque, Catalan, Romani, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish, but I also work with languages as diverse as Persian, Esperanto and Afrikaans, less frequently.  This is the result of ‘catching the language bug’!  I would happily converse in any of those languages.  Indeed, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of using your languages in real situations with real people and realising that you can understand and be understood (most of the time!).  There are (so far…) another 7 languages in which I could hold a conversation with varying degrees of competence, but I don’t plan to stop learning any time soon.  If the definition of ‘polyglot’ is “versed in, or speaking, many languages”, then that is what I am, but I didn’t set out to become a polyglot; I just enjoy discovering more and more of the world.

There were different reasons for choosing each language, some sensible and logical, but some random and quirky.  Spanish was my first language love, so it stood to reason that I would want to work with it.  Portuguese, Catalan, Galician and Basque followed on naturally from there (although Basque was a considerably greater leap, obviously!).  I came to Albanian pretty much by chance.  I was, as I often am, looking for a new language to learn and Enver Hoxha, the dictator of Albania, died and suddenly Albania was in the news.  I just had to learn that language.  At that time I never imagined that I’d be working in it one day and would even meet the Queen because of it.  In the case of Romani, while researching my family tree, I discovered that I had Roma ancestry, so of course I had to learn (a variety of) Romani.  Using that language to interpret and translate for Roma people, not to mention promoting the fact that it is a real, rich living language, is particularly rewarding.

Promoting language learning in schools has always been one of the most immediately rewarding parts of my job.  On one of my first school visits, I remember a teacher taking me aside before my talk and saying, “we just want the students to hear from a real person who uses languages in their work.”  If languages are seen as difficult or remote AND not leading to many jobs, it’s easy to see why that teacher said that.  I’m always keen to point out that languages can lead to teaching, translation or interpreting (all potentially rewarding jobs), but they can also give you the edge in a whole host of jobs.  They can make you a better lawyer, actor, games developer, engineer, musician, diplomat and much more besides.  Also, many children equate languages with French alone.  I have found that teaching short taster sessions in other languages, particularly those with other writing systems, such as Arabic or Russian, or those with clearer similarities to English, such as Dutch or Swedish, enthuses students who are otherwise turned off.  It also has the advantage of encouraging more boys to join in, which MFL teachers often tell me is a real issue.  I like to make it clear that you don’t have to be ‘good at languages’ to benefit from the good in languages.

There are so many times that languages have come to my rescue or given me an advantage that it would be difficult to pick one anecdote.  I think the first time was when I was having breakfast at a hotel with my family and the waitresses happened to be Brazilian.  When the waitress came over to our table, the 11 year-old me said, “não gosto de ovos fritos. Você tem ovos mexidos?” From that morning on, my family was served first every time, with a smile and a short chat in Portuguese.  Later, on a trip to New York, our taxi driver was Puerto Rican.  I sat next to him for the journey to our hotel and he spent the entire journey telling his wife over the radio, in Spanish, that he was not a fan of the British (shall we say, politely).  When we arrived, I asked him, in Spanish, how much we owed him, and not only did his complexion change, but he gave us a sizeable discount on the fare and asked me where in the mother country I came from.  But I think perhaps the most gratifying occasion was in Pristina, when I ordered food for some colleagues in a restaurant and couldn’t for the life of me remember the Albanian word for ‘artichokes’.  When we finally realised what they were, the waiter told me, “don’t worry.  I wouldn’t know what they were either if I didn’t work here.  Are you from Ferizaj too?”  I said I was actually anglez, and he wouldn’t have it.  He was adamant that foreigners didn’t speak Albanian, so I must be local.  These reactions to a foreigner speaking another person’s language drive my passion for language learning.

One of the things I most love about language work is that you never know where it might take you, just as I never knew how useful Albanian would be for me one day!  But I certainly don’t intend to stop learning languages.  In the next 5 years, I’d like to learn a language that’s completely different from the current 18, ideally to a proficient level – maybe Japanese, Korean, Mandarin or Thai.  I’d also like to find the time to work harder on languages that I’ve only ever ‘toyed’ with so far, such as Maltese, Swahili, Hungarian or Georgian.  That’s quite ambitious!  It might fit more into the next 10, rather than 5, years.  I would love to have the chance to use at least one or two more languages on a professional basis in the next 5-10 years.  Wherever languages take me next, I know it will be a thoroughly rewarding and stimulating experience.

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