Speaking the Lingo and Talking the Talk-

A language cannot be hard to learn. A child can do it.

OK, although most linguistics experts agree that children are quicker and learn new languages with ease than adults.

Of course there are some notoriously difficult languages, such as Japanese and many of the obscure African languages that utilise clicks and other sounds that are not in our sound vocabulary, but where European languages are concerned I don’t believe there is anyone who cannot become familiar enough to understand and make themselves understood in a relatively short space of time. And while heavy work is made of conjugating verbs and swatting up vocabulary lists in schools it is only necessary to spend some time living, working or travelling in a country to learn the basics of that country’s language.

For some, however even the radical step of moving to a new country does not lead to language acquisition-you have only to visit some of the areas of the Spanish Mediterranean with large concentrations of British to see this. Many ex-pats remain solely English-speakers in spite of adopting a new land. Heaven knows what the Spanish think of this…

Our latest trip covered a number of countries and languages, prompting some challenging demands on my inconsistent language skills. As a schoolgirl I learned French, German, Latin and Spanish with varying degrees of success. That I had most success with French I attribute to long summer camping holidays in France with non-French-speaking parents. Like many I gave up on Latin early, seeing no point in continuing and I was a miserable failure at German, whose grammar mystified me [and still does]. The Spanish was an add-on to A-levels, and seemed easy for being similar to French.

We travelled across Northern France into Germany, then Austria. Unlike the French, Germans are not only excellent English speakers but are also happy to speak in English-particularly, at this time on the subject of Brexit. ‘We DO NOT understand the Brexit!’ they told us on more than one occasion. What are we to say? We could only agree that, no, neither could we. On then to Italy. Italian is a most beautiful and musical-sounding language, enough to make anyone want to learn it for the sheer pleasure of speaking it, but for anyone who has learned Spanish the similarity between the two languages leads to much initial confusion. I consistently muddled my ‘grazie’ with my ‘gracias’, my ‘due’ with my ‘duo’ and my ‘per favore’ with my ‘por favor’ etc. After a week or so I fared better and, armed with the ‘Lonely Planet Phrase Book’ was able to stumble through some phrases. I felt inordinately proud when my much practised ‘lavatrice giettone, per favore’ resulted in the swift handing over of a washing machine token, more so when ‘prego’ was the response to my ‘grazie’.

Of course most people understand a nod or a shake of the head and when one set of words doesn’t work another way of saying something often does. And we are yet to meet anyone who doesn’t understand a smile-

 

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Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!

                Whilst there is an increasing distance of years between my [proper] working life and retirement, there are still situations and occurrences that remind me of it. My last years were as a first school teacher. Seven year olds. Children of this age and younger retain an egocentric personality. They want attention. They crave praise. They want to stand out, be heard. What they patently do not want is to be ignored, especially by the adults charged with their care. The skill of an infant teacher lies, principally in managing to give each and every one of the children in their care the conviction that they are infinitely special and unique-which of course, they are.

                And what is it about adult life that reminds me of this? It is Facebook behaviour. Why? Because without exception, every post you read, watch, appreciate, scoff at has been displayed for the purpose of nurturing the ‘friend’s’ ego.

                I once shared an enormous classroom area with another teacher. There were, at any time, between sixty and seventy small children in this area, all clamouring for attention, for their shrill, little voices to be heard. As teachers we learned to capitalise on this desire for attention; we harnessed it. We used it to enhance experience. We facilitated ‘speaking and listening’ sessions. In those days we simply called it ‘sharing’. Of course there were very many tots and only a limited slot available. It was over-subscribed. Certain confident, precocious, verbose children dominated the session. My teacher partner conceived the brilliant idea of issuing ‘sharing’ tickets, like library tickets, that, once used could not be re-issued until every child had had a turn…Naturally there were, besides those who monopolised the session, some who never uttered, who had to be coaxed and cajoled into issuing a few words.

                On Facebook everyone [I do not except myself from this] wants attention. There are some who feel moved to offer up every nano-moment of their day, from what they’re cooking for dinner to what they can see from their window. There are those who feel the need to change their profile picture with monotonous frequency and elicit a gushing flow of complimentary comments. There are those like myself who post up album after album of snaps, [although I do try to keep them to a modest number-nobody is going to plough through 200 photos, wherever you’ve been]. And there are those who, in the absence of any pearls of wisdom to impart rake up quotes and sayings to share, often accompanied by pictures-flowers, baby animals, rainbows. These missives litter the screen like the pavement outside MacDonalds.

                The fact is, just like a class of small children, everyone wants to talk but nobody really wants to listen. Social networking? More ‘personal broadcasting’ perhaps?

It’s Only Words

                Does it matter if language disappears? Languages, of course have been disappearing at the rate of knots for many years. Some have never had any written form, so can only be sustained by anyone who cares enough to perpetuate them. There are around 6,700 languages spoken in the world but half may be lost before the century ends. Many would say it was a good thing, a blessing; that it might lead to less misunderstanding, more global cohesion, but our language is what defines us. It is our frame of reference and the means on which our culture rests. Cavemen communicated with their paintings on the walls, their own language, then came hieroglyphics and so written language developed in myriad directions.

                As a child at primary school, learning ‘English’ in the fifties, the exercises I undertook were very different to those taught and practised in schools today. There was nothing specific to address ‘speaking and listening’. Our early writing was ‘copy writing’. Those who’d whisked through their first set of reading books [‘Janet and John’ for me] and picked up the basics could begin their own amoebic scribbling, writing ‘news’ or rudimentary stories. We laboured over grey workbooks, completing page after page of exercises that involved completing phrases and sayings eg ‘a stitch in time saves ____’ or ‘many hands make light ____’; or we’d have had to learn collective nouns- ‘a ______ of geese’, ‘a _____ of sheep’, ‘a ______ of fish’ –or even, ‘a flock of _____’!

                Oddly, I enjoyed completing these exercises. They were like games or puzzles to me, except that I was not allowed to race ahead with them, or if I did my prize was to ‘help’ someone who was struggling, not a task I relished.

                I would guess there are few children-or adults these days who would know what the collective noun for porpoises is or what you should not put all your eggs in. But does any of it matter? I feel that it does, because the more our language shrinks, the less we have at our disposal to make ourselves understood, and misunderstandings are the cause of many of the world’s troubles.

                Texting, emails, symbols for words, abbreviations, acronyms-these are all the tools of expediency that we’ve come to expect, and from which we can never look back. This is progress. But I still say that the bedrock of language must never be dumbed down, never be forgotten, or we will have less to communicate with than the cavemen did!