Mind Your Language

I’m fascinated by languages. I’ve Advanced levels in French and German, studied Japanese for a time and picked up some useful bits of Arabic in the Middle East.

German came into its own when posted to Mönchengladbach in the 70s and I developed it to a good standard. It may be a pronounced language, but it’s not easy, with three genders, prepositions which alter pronoun endings and fiendish word order rules including placing the verb at the end. Thus ‘I went to Munich by car at six o’clock’ becomes ‘At six o’clock, by car to Munich I went’.

French I found simpler, a Romance language with only two genders. But those hideous verbs…… I used it in business, and upped my skills during an EU project, but moving to south-west France provided a quantum leap. You tune in and learn what people actually say rather than the textbook version. There’s no dictionary to tell you that livret is a deposit account or that intervention means a service call. TV’s a great help and conversations with my French neighbours work wonders. We’re trying to have more of those – when lockdown finishes!

Proficiency in European languages is no guarantee of the same in Japanese. The first hurdle is not one but three alphabets – Kanji or Chinese characters, Hiragana and Katakana. The second barrier is the sounds, which are completely alien to Western throats. On the Tokyo underground with a Japanese colleague, I was observing a moving information display.

‘How ever do you understand all this?’

‘I was born here!’

Despite its exploration heritage, Britain is, alas, not a nation of linguists. Contrast that with Holland and Belgium, where languages are in the DNA. Less and less importance is placed on languages in UK schools and the common attitude is that foreigners should learn English. I’ve been openly sneered at on several occasions for speaking in a foreign tongue. In hospital recently, the nurses were delighted I spoke French. They asked me to teach them some useful phrases ‘as so many of our British patients speak little or no French, even those who’ve been here a long time’.

Why is it that we don’t follow other countries and start languages at an early age, when young brains absorb them like sponges? My German teacher in Mönchengladbach had a son with asthma who went to school in Davos. During one visit, she observed him swing round in the playground and go through seven languages without missing a beat.

We hear about 50% of what is said, our brains automatically fill in the gaps in our native tongue. For another language, you need 75% or more. Age diminishes learning ability. For some, absorbing a new language is hard if not impossible, as they’ve no ear for a sound.

If you live in a foreign country, I’d advocate learning the language, it makes life so much easier.

With that, I’ll say à bientôt, auf wiedersehen, sayonara and mas salamah.

Image: Nigel Wild


  1. Gail Aldwin

    It is a long term ambition to become fluent in Spanish, but I remain a beginner. Your post gives me cause to try again!

  2. Nigel, I love the subject of your blog post! Wish we could sit together over a bottle of red or white and exchange tales of our experiences. Maybe one day…
    I understand well your comments on the German language. Even after learning it since I was eleven and living almost all of my adult life in the country, I still struggle with the finer points of grammar, although verbs at the end of sentences is the easy part! I do write short stories in German but always need a native speaker to “fix” the text. And then there’s the problem with Germanic style. Literary writers adore long sentences with a myriad of dependant clauses which the reader must unpack and get the relationship between the bits of info into the correct subordination. In fact, Germans call these sentences “verschachtelt”, meaning that they’re packed in boxes. So when writing German, even after all my grammar faux pas have been eradicated, I’m still a dead giveaway as a foreigner for not writing thus.
    I admire your attempts at learning an oriental language. It sounds like a punishment rather than a learning experience. 😉 I’ve been learning Italian for 20 years now and would still not consider myself fluent. As a romance language, Italian vocab is easy, but learning idiomatic conversation is not. Living in a country is a game changer, as you pointed out. Since my husband’s retirement, we are spending more time at our house there and thus have more opportunity to make friends with the locals. It’s actually an advantage that we live in a very rural area where, other than the other English expats, the locals speak very little English and no German. They are very patient with our efforts.

  3. Debbie,

    Interesting comment about long German sentences. In English, we’re taught exactly the opposite.

    Learning Japanese was just part of being employed by a big Japanese pharma company in UK. Bridging cultures 180 degrees apart was really hard, but while many Japanese spoke English, it was colloquial social. Getting into concepts etc was damn nigh impossible at times. We reckoned that if a Japanese understood 25% of a meeting in English, he was doing well. I remember that I had an important document translated into Japanese to ensure understanding. Then they asked for the English original to make sure the contents matched!

    Happy days.

  4. Patricia

    I do admire you, Nigel. Like so many British I do not have an aptitude for languages. However, having lived in Greece for 15 years I can get by. I have enjoyed the process and although I will never be fluent, I treat it as more of a mental exercise and am fascinated by the grammar, the three genders and the almost total lack of sentence structure to say nothing of the different letters.

  5. When my wife and I were first together we lived a year in Bulgaria, then two years in Finland. In Bulgaria after about 9 months, I was just about able to pick my way through the Cyrillic signage around town – and to order a beer. At least Bulgaria is an Indo-European language.

    Finnish by contrast is a whole other language family. (As Japanese is – though that’s probably the only similarity.) Instead of prepositions, Finnish has post-positions. Fourteen of them, if I remember right. The only two I can still remember – and only in these two sentences – are:
    — Which is the train for Helsinki? -> Mikä on juna Helsinkiin?
    — Which is the train from Helsinki? -> Mikä on juna Helsingistä?
    It’s the post-position – the ending tacked on to Helsinki – that makes all the difference.

    Here in Sweden I worked for many years as an advocate of immersion education, a.k.a. Content and Language Integrated Learning. The teaching of some school subjects through the medium of a foreign language. Everyone can learn another language, given the right opportunity and motivation, but the older you are the more difficult it seems to be. Pre-pubertal kids, though, have an amazing capacity to absorb and then use foreign languages.

    Some countries exploit this. Luxembourg is a fine example. The entire education system is geared up for it and after 12 years graduates trilingual or even quadrilingual teenagers. But immersion education is looked on with suspicion in many places and by many people. Sadly, I doubt it will ever come to England.

  6. Laura Besley

    Interesting article, Nigel. Being half-Dutch, I speak English, Dutch and German. I tried learning Cantonese when I lived in Hong Kong, but the tones were just too hard for me. I don’t have a musical ear.
    You’ll be pleased to hear that my 7-year old son, who is in Year 3 in a British school, will be starting French this year. I was very pleased when I found out because, like you, I think the younger they start, the better.
    I’ve always wondered whether the difference between the fluency in English of the Dutch (as well as languages being in their DNA) vs. the Germans is subtitles on the TV. It worked in my favour when I lived in Germany – I just had to make up whatever I didn’t understand!

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