Before I had children, I was quite happy to be a passenger in a car and be driven around by someone else willing to accept the responsibility of getting us both safely to wherever we were going. With the arrival of my son and daughter, however, there came a ‘Damascene’ moment, when I looked into the future and saw other blokes ferrying their own kids and mine to swimming clubs and birthday parties, while I would be a fairly useless dad, unable to return the favour. With this cringeworthy vision in mind, I resolved to learn to drive. I can now proudly claim to have been the family taxi-driver for the last 38 years.
What has this to do with learning another language? The answer is pretty obvious. It is possible to be a ‘passenger’ and just let people of other nationalities learn English, so that they take the responsibility and make all the effort. This, bad though it may be, seems to be the attitude of most native speakers of English. Do we want to rely on other nationalities to do all the work and should we not at least make an effort to meet them halfway? I would hope the answer is a red-faced ‘No’.
Are there any reasons, other than being shamed into it, for learning languages? Of course there are. We humans are naturally acquisitive. As a child, I loved collecting picture cards from Brooke Bond tea, gluing them into an album and proudly poring over my completed sets. I also collected words, both English and non-English. Maybe I was, to say the least, atypical, but when I was at primary school I found myself collecting the ‘complete sets’ of the numbers 1 to 10 in as many languages as I could, tabulating them, learning them by heart and, perhaps most important of all, observing the similarities between ‘un, deux, trois, quatre’, ‘un, dos, tres, cuatro’ and ‘uno, due, tre, quattro’. At one time, I could count up to twenty in thirty-six languages. When I went to secondary school and discovered Latin, the basis of modern Romance Languages and the root of over ten thousand English words, the lightbulb flashed on in my head and has never switched off. Over the next sixty years, I made it my business to learn as many languages as I could. The count stands at nine so far, although I must admit that most of them would need a lot of polishing up even after the rust is scraped off.
Along the way in this linguistic Odyssey, I have come across one mini-treasure after another. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to look at the idioms that various languages present and to let them put cartoon-like pictures into your head. I don’t think I’ll ever look at a dragonfly the same way ever since I learned that, in Basque, it is a ‘witch’s needle’, or a hotel in the same way ever since I found that, in Greek, it is a ‘container for foreigners’. When Italians are furious with someone, they ‘wear the devil for a hat’ and in Latin, one might fish for compliments ‘with a golden hook’.
I am going to sign off now, with the promise of more musings to come. In the meantime, don’t just rely on other people to translate for you. Looking at the world through the eyes of speakers of other languages is like being colour-blind and then suddenly being dazzled by a rainbow.
George N Littlejohn
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