Now here’s a challenge I couldn’t miss: Brad Patterson (@Brad5Patterson) was asking how we learnt our languages. Well I’m afraid my story’s a terribly boring, traditional one and I really am very British (are we not famously bad at languages?) so do not expect any surprises here.
Let me start with Cantonese: I lived in Hong Kong as a child (military brat) and learnt some basic Cantonese by listening to our illiterate amah (with whom I spent hours as I loved the way she cooked!) and some extra swear words from the native kids hanging around our flats. Ok, so wishing someone a happy new year and counting to three is about all you’ll get out of me these days – really, the rest has simply gone.
German: before moving to Hong Kong we lived in Germany and I know that as a very young kid I was able to ask for milk etc in the local shops, having learnt the essentials from my parents. Later on we moved back to Germany and I no doubt improved my listening skills but never actually actively used any German – living on an English speaking military base is not conducive to foreign language learning.
French: from Germany we often went to France on holiday and that is where I learnt huge amounts of French. As a shy young girl I tagged along behind my older brothers who soon made badminton friends on the campsite (they were at secondary school and already knew a smattering of French). I again used my ears. After a couple of years, we met friends of our new friends, one of whom was a girl my age. Without the parents around I actually even dared open my mouth and try to produce some of the chunks of language I had been storing up until then. Remarkably my new friend,
Sonja, understood me! Our friendship grew and we spent many holidays visiting each other: Sonja’s English got so good that she became a huge fan of the Pink Panther movies (the originals) and my French became so good that I even managed (as a young 15 year old girl) to figure out my way back from France via Belgium when there were various strikes on and I had to persuade all sorts of train conductors and shipping companies that I really needed to get back to the UK.
Spanish: I shouldn’t really count this but it’s a funny story so what the heck. In my second year at university one of my former housemates had invited me to go and stay with her on her year abroad in Valencia. So before going I spent a few hours in the language laboratory at the university, trying to learn some essential Spanish. It worked – to this day, I can still ask where the bank is! But oh my goodness, if someone were to actually try to tell me where it was……
At secondary school I was obliged to learn German and French. My German teacher, Frau Kent, was inspirational – in spite of using a terribly old-fashioned grammar translation method (and book) she also taught us some songs (which I can still ‘sing’ today – rote learning!) and we listenedto many stories of her family’s attempted flight from Nazi Germany (her parents didn’t make it). My French teacher, Sister Helen (yes, I was at a convent!) was not so inspirational, but I always had Sonja to fall back on.
Aged 16 my parents returned to the UK for a couple of years so I took the opportunity to move to a local sixth form college. Wow, what a change; not just the fact that I could go home every day rather than only 3 times a year; but also the fact that the teachers treated us quite differently. Let me explain: my first French lesson made such an impression on me that I can still remember it today. Our teacher, Dr. Ruth Brinton (now Bivand) reminded us that we had chosen to study French (A’level, 6th form college) so if we weren’t serious we knew where to find the door. She was right! Ruth was strict on us but not in an unpleasant way. We spent hours in the language laboratory using our ears. We transcribed the songs of Maxime LeForestier and did projects on French politics and economics. We read books – Ruth guided us from book to book, encouraging us to read books we would enjoy but each time a notch up on the last one (l+1). My German teacher was from Austria, and though no doubt a sweet lady, I didn’t have the connection with her that I’d had with Frau Kent – my German grades dropped and French became my strongest subject.
Moving on from secondary school, A’levels, S’levels and whatever else I did there, I went off to study at university. I had first thought of studying Russian and French but found the university a little too snobby (how naïve teenagers choose….) so I ended up studying Dutch and French. Why Dutch? Well, I’d chosen all the scientific subjects as o’levels and missed out on history and the Dutch course had a large amount of (socio-economic) history which interested me and, let’s face it, I was fed up with German and thought studying just one language would be boring (after years of dividing your attention across so many subjects how could one subject be satisfying?). And Dutch was a subject you could study from scratch in Hull in those days.
Our language teacher in Hull, Roel Vismans, was fairly traditional – lots of grammar.
And yet at the same time, he was also fairly untraditional: we listened to him, listened to broadcasts and tried to repeat things we heard. Though the move from receptive practice to productive practice was fairly rapid, we were provided with plenty of input. The books were traditional and boring but seemed, nonetheless, to do the job. But, as in true British style, we had another fantastic opportunity to brush up our language skills as we all had to spend our third year abroad. As a student of a joint honours programme I opted for the academic year in the Netherlands and a long summer in France. So I moved to Utrecht to work at the university library and study French (in Holland, yes, weird!). That was, of course, the year I learnt the most Dutch. I’d had the basics, spent two years listening and producing in a safe, non-threatening environment. Now I had to fend for myself – I had to shop, eat, sport, work, ‘live’ Dutch. I survived!
There’s more I could say but this will otherwise end up way too long (it’s already longer than I intended) but I think the main thing I have learnt is that it’s so important to train people to use their ears; to be aware of the repetitive chunks of language we hear around us; listen for the collocations. Just because there’s someone in your class who isn’t very forthcoming with their language doesn’t mean they’re not listening and soaking up what’s going on around them.