Nothing like a trip to the hospital to get you thinking about language learning…

What’s that you say?  Most people don’t think about language learning while they’re being hospitalised?

How peculiar.

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…;-)

26 responses to “Nothing like a trip to the hospital to get you thinking about language learning…

  1. Fascinating stuff, there’s got to be a book in this (provided the drug supply is maintained). I hope they sort your back out soon but part of me would love to hear the rest of the tale.
    Pob hwyl,

    • Looks as though I’m going to be stuck in bed for a fair chunk of the next few days, so the rest of it is almost certain to be inflicted upon you…:-)

      A book – interesting call! I did write a book about learning Welsh – it got turned down by the Lolfa (either because it didn’t fit any of their funding bids or because the commissioning editor didn’t like me or perhaps both!) – but I’ve been meaning to publish it on for ages, must get around to that at some point…:-)

  2. Continue please! I love hearing peoples stories, go figure…
    “What’s that you say? Most people don’t think about language learning while they’re being hospitalised?” – No, but I’ve come to expect nothing less from you 🙂

    Hope you get better soon, and enjoy the morfin in the meantime.

    • Thank you so much, Marie…:-) I’m still mostly in shock at seeing you in Cardiff – that was real, not a hallucination, wasn’t it? Talk about unexpected!

      The next time you’re going to be in Wales, give us some warning – it would have been lovely to have more time to talk to you, and you’d be very welcome to come and visit us in Mynytho…:-)

      • Seeing me in Cardiff? How much morfine are you on?

        But no, luckily for me that was real 🙂 And I’m still in shock too, both at meeting the Aran and at having such a lovely Welsh evening! To be fair you didn’t tell me either that you would be in Cardiff, if you had I might just have made the connection between “he looks a lot like Aran…” to “he probably is(!) Aran”.

        Any SSIW’er that makes that offer to me better be sure about it, cause I WILL take you up on it! Too late for you now though, one day I’ll show up! I’ll try to give you some warning though 😉

        Oh and of course if you’re ever in Oslo, please let me know 🙂

      • Serendipity is one of the loveliest parts of life…:-) It was a bizarre and wonderful treat to see you, even if it did make me worry that I might have put my doses up a little too high!

        We love being visited by learners, so that’s an open invitation. And one of my lasting dreams is to do a world tour where we stay only with Welsh speakers – Oslo will be a very handy addition to that!

      • Maybe you can go when you retire?

        Haha, yeah, like you’ll ever retire! But a round the world field trip should be manageable surely. If you do come to these parts I’ll also give you a ride to the south of Sweden and provide you with accommodation there, I take any excuse to go home 🙂

      • Good, that sounds like a deal. The only issue I can foresee is taking the children out of school, but I’m more than ready to explain it’s a field trip in which they’ll be learning several dozen new languages…;-)

  3. way to cut off a story right at the good bit! please continue, drugs or no. (hopefully drugs – ruptured discs sound ridiculously painful otherwise 😦 )

    • Thank you! As you’re about to see, it takes very, very little to get me to carry on talking about myself…;-)

  4. I wish you the best, but can’t help wondering whether you could sell some of your drugs to help fund SSIW.

    If you’re interested, “orang” in Malay means person; “asli” (with an s) means genuine, and “utan” means forest. So, in addition to what you wrote above, there’s also “utan asli,” for “genuine forest,” “orangutan asli” for “genuine orangutan,” so you actually know enough Malay to make sure that your orangutan isn’t counterfeit.

    • You have just given me a genuine dose of joy. The idea of becoming a drug dealer myself is the stuff of genius (although the thought of *sharing* my best stuff is worrying) – but to discover that my 30 year old memories of Malaysia bear some resemblance to the truth, and that I can quiz orangutan orangutan as to how genuine they are is a sheer delight that will live with me for at least another thirty years.

      DrGecko, I salute and thank you!

  5. Una lectura muy amena, me he alegrado mucho al ver que hay una nueva entrega, y otra en camino, al parecer ^^
    Pero ante todo desearte una rápida recuperación de tus problemas de espalda, no me quiero ni imaginar lo que debe de doler una hernia discal :s

    • Muchisimas gracias para tus palabras tan amables, Sergio – si, va a ser muy emocionante presentar las nuevas lecciones en el gales y el espanol – y los que ya tenemos para el hollandes usan el nuevo sistema por la major parte…:-)

    • Fascinating, diolch! But that says that Piraha doesn’t have one or two, whereas Veddah (sort of) does – so I’m going to cling with fanatic belief to my idea that Pratchett was inspired by my personal favourites…;-)

  6. “Trying to find out how fast languages can be acquired”? Really? Seems like every other post I read here somehow glorifies how little the blogger has managed to learn. Wow, two words of Malay! Way to inspire people.

    • Yes, this post is about how bad I used to be at learning languages. One of the reasons I share that is because a lot of people believe that you’re either good or bad at learning languages, and you can’t change it – but I did change my results, and I enjoy helping other people do the same.

      But I’m guessing you’re not having a very good day today? Because you don’t seem to be in a very good mood! I hope it gets better for you. When it does, any time you’d like to come on here and chat about languages and learning, you’ll be very welcome – but if you don’t like the kind of posts I write, then it would probably be better for your blood pressure not to read them…;-)

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