What’s that you say? Most people don’t think about language learning while they’re being hospitalised?
So, a disc ruptured yesterday, and I was a teary, hyper-ventilating immobilised mess clinging in despair to the bottom of the banisters by the time the ambulance from Blaenau Ffestiniog got to us – but Arwel and Kevin were not only kind, efficient and sensitive, they were kind, efficient, sensitive and in possession of morphine. I’m now considering a lead role in ‘A Long Day’s Journey into Night’, so if any of you have got any morphine to share, please send it in straight away. Ten minutes in the ambulance and I’d gone from nightmare to pleasant lucid dreaming, and spent the journey to Bangor talking about language learning with Arwel.
I’m fairly sure he started it. Honest.
I’m now on Tramadol and the promise of some oral morphine [Mmmmmm, oral morphine ] tomorrow, and more or less compos mentis. And since I’m currently obsessed by myself in the way that only people in pain (and some television presenters) can be, I thought it might be interesting to tell you a little more about my own journeys in other languages, how they lead to SaySomethingin, and what I hope to learn in the future.
[If this is interesting and you’d like to hear more, do please let me know. If there’s other stuff about SaySomethingin you’d like me to talk about instead, do please feel free to ask – I’ll be happy to share.]
My first language learning experience was German. I was 5, and my father was teaching in a secondary school near Dusseldorf, so I was put into the kindergarten, which was run by fearsome German nuns. It was a perfect opportunity to acquire native fluency in a new language, so of course I spent most of my time running away from nuns and crying as loudly as possible whenever my father dropped me off or picked me up. The poor man was broken in a matter of weeks, and transferred me to a British Army school, where instead of German I learnt how to speak as though I came from Kent.
I presumed that I had learnt precisely zero German – and when I tried to sit German ‘O’ Level in school, I was politely requested to leave the class, since I was going to do serious damage to their average grades. That wasn’t quite the full story, though, as I discovered in a chance drunken meeting in Zimbabwe many years later – that’s a tale for another day, though.
This inauspicious start to language learning was, sadly, a very clear sign of what was to come.
After Germany, my family, I and my Kentish accent moved to Portugal – the Algarve, which was then a string of fishing villages, which I gather I would no longer recognise. My parents were teaching in an international school, and of course I had the opportunity to learn Portuguese. I soon nipped that in the bud, though, making myself so insufferably obnoxious in my Portuguese lessons that I was quickly transferred into an extra English class. Yes, really showing lots of early signs of cultural sensitivity and curiosity, I don’t think.
The only Portuguese I ever actually learnt was how to say ‘Get off that boat, it’s not yours’ – practical, but not perfectly designed to lead to many new friendships.
After Portugal, we spent a year in Wales, just outside Aberystwyth, where my Nain and Taid lived. I went to the village primary school, and inspired by my experiences in Portugal, managed to make myself obnoxious enough in my Welsh classes to be given extra Maths instead. Yes, I know. Talk about hanging your head in retrospective shame. In my defence, I had some vestigial Welsh (perhaps as a result of spending the first two years of my life in Cwm Cynllwyd and y Felinheli, perhaps because my Taid used to talk Welsh to his dogs) and ‘Mae [insert farmyard animal] yn y cae’ had me bored to tears in no time flat.
Next stop, Sri Lanka.
By this point, I was firmly ensconced in boarding schools in England, paid for as part of my father’s work contract. We lived in Sri Lanka for two years, and I acquired precisely 0 words of Sinhalese (although I could sing the entire (and rather bizarre) Air Lanka advertising jingle, bits of which come back to me even now – ‘Who wants a shining ice, Sri Lanka paradise’. I beg your pardon?).
We spent one memorable visit with the Veddah, the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka. They weren’t open to visitors – they were engaged in a political struggle to be allowed to maintain their nomadic life instead of being ‘settled’ – but a friend of my father’s, Tim Severin, who was in the middle of the Sinbad Voyage in which he sailed a reconstructed mediaeval dhow from Oman to Hong Kong, had pulled some strings and got the Veddah to take us to look for the semi-mythical elephants’ graveyard.
You can probably guess that I didn’t exactly pick up Veddah like a sponge. We’d been warned that the Veddah took offence very easily, and that we shouldn’t smile at all. We had a translator from English into Sinhala, and another from Sinhala into Veddah – and when we’d agreed the details about the journey we were to take with them, the Veddah chief Tissahamee asked why we looked so unhappy. My father explained that we’d been warned not to smile, at which point the assembled Veddah laughed for not far short of five minutes or so…:-)
But I did, and do, remember a word of Veddah. Metai. It’s their counting word – you say ‘Metai’, and hold up the relevant number of fingers. If you’re talking about something more than ten, you just say ‘Metai metai’ and give it up as a lost cause. I’ve always wanted to believe that Terry Pratchett’s description of how trolls count (one, two, many, lots) owes something to the Veddah.
From Sri Lanka, we went to Malaysia – just when the troubles were beginning in Sri Lanka, as it happens, which was my first introduction into how the most wonderful of countries can descend into savagery in the blink of an eye.
You’ve probably already guessed how much Malay I learnt, haven’t you?
Well, you’re wrong. I learnt two words – orangazli means person, and orangutan means person of the forest. That may have been my first sniff of the glorious unexpected bursts of colour that other languages can give you – but otherwise I can only remember that they formed plurals by saying the word twice, which struck me as having a certain logic to it (and which would probably come as a huge relief to anyone trying to get to grips with all the different ways we have of making plurals in Welsh!).
Then, when I was 15, my mother, brother and I moved home to Wales – to Tre’r Ddôl, to be precise.
And there, based on an impressive series of failures as a language learner, began the flirtation with Welsh that was one day going to change my life.
I think that’s enough for today – I need to go and take a fresh batch of drugs – if you’d like me to carry on with the rest of the ‘journey to SSi’ story, and talk about my language plans for the future, do please let me know in the comments – or I might come down from this drug-inspired high and feel embarrassed about being so self-obsessed on a blog which is meant to be about what SSi is trying to build…;-)