Thursday, 5 March 2009

Language Learning History

Miranda asked me about my languages today, so I thought I'd post a bit about my language career. It's not really as impressive as hers - see her comment on my last post, (esp as I'm about twice her age too!), but I've enjoyed most of it, and that's the main thing.=)

Although I often jokingly class the Geordie accent as the first foreign language I learned, the real thing started with French lessons in 2nd year of middle school when I was just 10. That first class, we did 4 expressions for weather and drew matching pictures in our new French exercise books. I can still see that page in my mind... Those who did well in French were able to elect to take up German as well in high school, (those who flunked were also able to do German, but that was to replace French, not as an addition), and I did it mostly as we were told it was an extra subject that would mean missing one session of a practical class, like woodwork, home economics etc and one of games. I took it for the latter reason as I'd always been rubbish at games. So, at the age of 13, nearly 14, I started 6 years of continuous German learning. I also had 6 years of French in total, but I'd had to drop it after compulsory education ended (age 16) as mine was the only chosen combination of A Level subjects that didn't fit in the timetable!

When I was about 17 and in lower sixth form, I began to develop an interest in other languages, principally Spanish, but also Portuguese, Italian and Dutch. I did some evening classes in Spanish and Italian during my upper sixth year, but mostly I kind of taught myself and practised on penpals, of whom I had many dozens in those days. I got a lot of practice in written French, German and Spanish then in my late teens and this continued into my early 20s. Much of this was done by just using a Collins Gem dictionary and the verb tables they contained, as well as guesswork from knowledge of French, but I was able to keep up 2-way correspondences in Spanish this way and also write in Italian and Portuguese.

When I was 24 I started a BA(Hons) programme in Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds, which was pretty intensive in terms of Chinese training. The first year was, as one of the academics there had told us, 'cramming as much Chinese as possible into our heads within 22 weeks'. The year abroad, which I spent in Taiwan, was much the same, only more weeks in class and all in Chinese. During my 2 final years, I also took the intensive Japanese beginners class (same sort of thing as the Chinese I'd done in 1st year, only easier on the script front already having Chinese) in 3rd year and the Cantonese intro course and a beginners Spanish class from the Language Centre in 4th. In fact, with the exception of 2 Mongolian history classes in 1st year and 2 IT skills ones in 3rd, all my options and electives were spent on languages! I did Mongolian in 1st year as well!

Whilst in Taiwan, I met the German chap I've now been married to for almost 10 years, so my German has come in handy with family. It's not that fluent now. Well, it isn't bad fluency-wise as my time in Taiwan give me the confidence to just use whatever language knowledge I had, however small it was, but vocab is limited and grammatical structure can be a bit English or stilted at times. I simply don't use it enough! I did a course with the Open University a few years ago as a refresher, which was helpful and the materials excellent, and also a course at the Language Centre of the other university in Leeds, but I gave up part-way through. I wanted to learn more everyday stuff, not write essays on language change and other social phenomenon....=(

So, now I describe myself (on my CV) as having advanced level Mandarin Chinese, intermediate German and basic French. My French would come back very quickly if I needed it and that did, indeed, happen in France and Luxembourg last summer. I found I could still understand what I needed to and also sentences began to formulate themselves in my mind there. Luxembourg was the most fun as I could try a bit of French, but my hubby could just use his own native German as everyone there is pretty much quatrolingual - Luxembourgish (almost a dialect of German), French, German and probably English as well. As for other languages, I can read a bit when needed and find I can pick up decent amounts if I apply myself, like I did to Italian for the few months before we went there in May 2005. I would say my linguistic ability is more latent than active at the mo and has become more knowing about languages than actually knowing them. I'd like to change that in the future though, starting with improving and re-polishing my Chinese, which we hope to do in Taiwan as soon as we can. Since early 2002, I've been helping out with beginners' teaching at my uni in both my old department, East Asian Studies, and for 13 months from Nov 06 - Dec 07 in the Language Centre, so I'm able to use my Chinese ability professionally there. I have thought of a possibility of creating a role too, but that will have to wait until I know I'm going to be in the area for a while before I even put out feelers.

In addition to the languages mentioned above, I've also taken an interest in Norwegian, Greek, Korean, Vietnamese and Finnish, although have studied/learned very little of any of them. At the moment, I'm reading 'Teach Yourself Linguistics' so as to get an introduction to the theoretical side of language, which has recently become very interesting to me. Half of me would really like to go back to uni and just study as many languages as I could get away with doing, but I somehow doubt the possibility or practicality of that, but one never knows....


Elindomiel said...

Nice! Good job with the Chinese. :D I hope that someday I'll get reasonably good at a non-Indo European language. But we'll see. ;)

Elindomiel said...

"Although I often jokingly class the Geordie accent as the first foreign language I learned"