The Opening - An Autobiographical Journey to Speaking Languages





I travel a fair bit and meet people from many different countries, and very often, during the course of conversation, when I apologise for murdering their language, they say that they wish they could speak French the way I speak their own tongue. I therefore came to the conclusion that daring is the key word.  Excuses are not good enough to stop communicating.

“I would love to learn a foreign language but it is so difficult and anyway everybody speaks English!”

“I studied French at school, (or Spanish, or German, or any other combination of languages) but I never got to speak it.”

“I can read and write but I get stuck when I try to speak.”

“I don’t have a flair for languages!”

“I was quite good at languages at school and I understand everything when I go on holiday, but I would not dare say a word, I don’t want to make a fool of myself!”

“I am not gifted for languages!”

“My older sister was doing badly at languages at school, so I thought it must be in the family!”

“Oh, it’s genetic.  We don’t learn foreign languages in our family!”

“The teacher was so strict; we were so frightened of making mistakes!”

“I am far too old to start learning a new language now!”

“When I speak French it sounds so awful!”

How often have you heard these familiar excuses?

The importance of knowing other languages was made abundantly clear by a huge headline in the London Guardian on 1st March 2008: Passage to India curtailed in Calais as language barrier trips campaigner.  A full page was devoted to Mark Boyle’s very generous idea of walking all the way to India, to Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace with no money in his pocket, leading the life of a modern day monk and begging on his way. He managed very well all the way from Bristol to Calais, but once there he was not able to explain the rationale behind his action and had to return home. He had no problems in England, as he could explain what he wanted to do. How a few words would have helped him make the world right and in support of his cause! Of course he could not have learnt all the languages of the countries he needed to cross to go all the way to India, but a few words in some of them would have helped him greatly to promote his message of Peace. English eccentrics are well liked in France.  Even then a minimum of communication is necessary. In business knowing other languages can be very rewarding, if not an absolute necessity as illustrated by the famous Willy Brandt[1] bilingual statement: “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

Are other languages more difficult than our own? Is there a psychological barrier stopping us from learning when we become adults? Why don’t we manage to learn languages well at school so that we can enjoy them later, when we start travelling abroad? Are there good and bad methods to learn a foreign language? I have often asked myself these questions and I will try to address all these issues, and more, to find out why we find it so difficult to learn languages and then enjoy using them.

What I am aiming to achieve in this book is to help adults overcome the psychological obstacles that they need to conquer if they wish to speak another language. I will then try to provide broad hints on what one can do to actually start learning a new language, based on my own experience. Learning is an on-going process with me; I am constantly trying to improve my English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. I am always tempted to start learning new ones, but it requires a lot of discipline and time. According to some researchers there are over six thousand languages spoken in the world, so only five thousand five hundred and ninety five left to go!

I will give you some information about the languages of the world, how academics have organised them in families and groups and subgroups and why it is important to know a little bit about that before embarking on the study of a new language. I will also have a look at one artificial language and what impact, if any, it has in the world.

I think the first step to learning a language as an adult is to accept that it is going to be a challenge, that it is not going to be a Piece of Cake[2], and that it will require dedication.  But always bearing in mind that if you can speak one language, there are no technical, physiological or genetic reasons why you should not be able to speak another. In view of the publicity campaigns that have been launched at the public in the last few decades it is not surprising that adults give up learning another language after the first few weeks or lessons. Publishers have successfully managed in their advertising campaigns to convince people that learning a language is easy and can be achieved very fast. I beg to differ, in my view everyone can learn another language but it is not easy and it is going to take time. I think a much higher success rate will be achieved once students realise this, as they will be psychologically prepared for the hard task ahead and will not give up so easily.

However before looking at the problems adults encounter when trying to learn another language, I would like to explore the way children learn languages. 

I will give you some tips and little tricks to increase your vocabulary. 

I will also give you a chapter full of fun about friends, false friends; I do not mean your mates at work, and sayings.

This book is based on my personal experience of languages. I have of course complemented my knowledge by perusing books and by surfing the Internet to double check facts and dates, to confirm some of my own deductions and to delve a bit deeper in certain areas.



[1] Willy Brandt (1913-1992) was born in Lübeck, Northern Germany. He was Chancellor of Western Germany between 1969 and 1974 and leader of the SPD from 1964 to 1987.

[2] I played the part of Henri in Piece of Cake directed by Ian Toynton, for TV Film, London Weekend TV.


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