Eddie Izzard, stand-up comedian, currently touring his show Force Majeure in a multiplicity of languages across the globe
I describe my language ability in percentages of fluency. I’m about 65% fluent in French, 30% fluent in German, about half a percent fluent in Spanish. I’m already touring my show in French in France, and after that I’ll be doing it in Spanish, then Russian, then Arabic. They say if you have French and English you should be speaking Spanish pretty well after a month of deep immersion. If I get stuck with a word or a phrase during a show I ask the audience, “How do you say such and such”, and they help out. I don’t find languages easy but I have a hunger to learn. When you can speak another language you go from being a person in an adult’s body pointing at things like a child to being able to communicate with people like an adult again. There’s a political basis for me to learning other languages, because if we don’t come together in the world then the world’s not going to make it. There’s a business case, too – I’m beginning to turn a profit on my foreign shows. Plus, no stand-up has done this before, so there’s also the fun, bloody adventure of it.
Alastair Campbell, communications supremo and former Labour spin doctor; studied French and German at university
My dad comes from the Hebrides and his native language was Gaelic; he spoke no English until he went to school. I definitely had an aptitude for languages and was always top in French and German at school – being competitive, that’s one of the reasons I liked learning them. But another reason is because of my interest in communication generally. Language is one of the fundamental building blocks of a country: the intonation and expression, and phrases that never translate. It’s fascinating, and knowledge of a language is good per se, regardless of its immediate use.
I love French books and films. For more than 30 years we’ve been going on holiday to France and speaking the language is the best way to get into the culture and the best way to get to know people. I travel a fair bit and go to a lot of countries where I don’t speak the language. If I’m in Russia or Japan, for instance, there’s an immediate barrier, which, even if they speak English, is still there.
I think Britain has a bit of a reputation for being a bit lazy and arrogant with languages. When I was working in government, we dealt with the French quite a lot and with [President] Chirac’s people. Even though there were often big differences on policy, I felt I had a very good relationship, in part because I picked up the phone and spoke to them in French. If you make the effort, it’s appreciated. I could do briefings in French, talk to my opposite number in French – even being able to read documents in the original language was helpful. If I were back in my teens now, mind you, I would probably be thinking I should learn Chinese and Arabic. You’re going to have an advantage.
Caroline Wyatt, BBC defence correspondent; speaks French, German and some Russian
Speaking the language makes a huge difference to how people relate to you, and the experience that you have of that country. It enables you to relate to people in a different way, and understand vital nuances that are otherwise lost. And knowing something of the language generally means you have at least tried to gain some understanding of the culture and history of a place, which is invaluable whether reporting or going somewhere on holiday.
English is probably the richest language of all because it is such a global magpie, borrowing from others, and accepting so many “foreign” words before claiming them as its own. I love the difference in register between the French/Norman words, and the short, sharp Anglo-Saxon vocabulary – never mind the imperial borrowings such as bungalow or pundit.
Growing up with a second language at home did mean that I struggled with the pronunciation of some words in English when I was very young, and I still can’t say lunch or shoulder properly. Having another language from a very young age accustoms your mind to the idea that there are many different ways or words with which to express concepts and objects, and I suspect it must also shape the brain to make more connections between things. It also enables you to understand what fluency in a language really means, as well as the nuances of different languages, and what kind of concepts each language is best for expressing.
Michael Erard, journalist and author of Babel No More
It’s always seemed to me that speaking another language was the mark of achievement and culture. When I was five or six, I had two little playmates who were Spanish, and they would switch to speak in their common language: the feeling of being left out is something I remember clearly from that time. Much later, I went to Asia to teach English, and there were long stretches of time when I didn’t speak any English at all. I was not only grappling with Mandarin Chinese but also thinking, “Why is Chinese hard for me? Why is it becoming easier? Also grappling with the politics of language: why are so many people learning English and why isn’t anyone angry about it?
If you’re trying to promote language learning, the family identity and family story is a very important way of doing that. When I taught at the University of Texas, I got students to write a linguistic history of their family. There was always a bilingual group and a monolingual group. And the second group would say: “What do we have to write about?” But, when they looked back at their family history, they might discover they had an Italian-speaking great grandmother who came to the States.
Is learning a language difficult? No. It’s something that’s perfectly natural. One of the things that makes the experience challenging is that methods of teaching living foreign languages are drawn from the way dead languages were taught. At certain points in history, the people who were teachers of Latin and Greek were tasked with teaching French and German. And their methods were not based on an understanding of how people acquire languages. That legacy still exists. Another challenge is the common definition of success: when you learn a foreign language you will never speak it like a native speaker, so holding up a native speaker as the model is setting people up to fail.
Chris Packham, TV presenter and naturalist; became fluent in French as an adult
In France, where I have a house, it’s quite remote and none of my neighbours spoke any English. I rocked up 10 years ago and had no more ability in French than being able to go to Paris and survive a weekend. I bought some CDs, but learning it that way didn’t work for me, so I had to think of a plan B.
I bought some wildlife books at a local bookshop and because I understood the context, I was able read them cover to cover and grasp some of what they were saying. Then I said to my neighbours: “Look, I’ll speak to you in French and I want you to constantly correct me. I won’t be offended.” And they were great, they did.
Now, I suppose I’m pretty good, though if I’m away for a bit, which I often am, I’ll get rusty. There will be a word that suddenly eludes me – like leaves and I’ll struggle to remember it’s feuilles. And it’s so annoying – I do find it quite difficult. If I was living in the language all the time, I’d get on top of it and it would stick. The longest stint I’ve had there has been three months, and by the end of that I was thinking in French and putting sentences together in a French way, and it felt really good.
What’s brilliant is that I can meet up with my neighbours now and have a laugh with them. They’ll gossip with me, whereas before it would have been quite formal and polite. So you feel much more part of things. People have been extraordinarily welcoming and are appreciative of the fact that I’ve made the effort to converse with them.
With my broadcasting work, if I’m doing an interview out there, it won’t be grammatically perfect, but it will be comprehensible. I want to get better, and I will do, but it feels great that now, if I meet someone walking the dogs out in the woods, we can have a conversation. There’s a real sense of satisfaction that I can relate to someone in their environment and am able to share an appreciation of that environment with them.
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