My name’s Jonny, and I’m a monoglot. I speak and write English, and that’s it. I know many non-English speakers will think I’m lazy. Stupid even. I think I’m neither lazy nor stupid, but if it’s any consolation, being unable to speak more than one language is a quite a source of annoyance to me. I’ve long been of jealous of people who can speak multiple languages. It’s not about being able to go places, or talk to people. I can can fly to pretty much anywhere in the world and book a flight, take a taxi, find a hotel room, order a meal. Rightly or wrongly, being English means not having a great need to learn another language.
I’m jealous because I don’t think you can truly understand what language is until you can speak more than one of them. How could you understand colour if you’d only ever seen the colour red? Understand what music was if you’d only ever heard one song? What does it feel like to have two languages in your head? What does it feel like to read text in a foreign language, or heard it spoken – and understand it? Does it feel different?
I did study a language at school, supposedly: German. But that just seemed like a textbook example of how not to teach a language. Firstly, they arbitarily divided the school into two halves, teaching one half German and the other half French. So my best mate Paul spent three years learning French and I spent three years learning German. So right away, those of us learning German had two big motivational issues:
1) How could the teachers claim that it was important that we learn German? After all, if it was important, then my mate Paul would be getting taught it, wouldn’t he?
2) German? That’s the unsexiest, least cool language ever! (I’m not saying it is, but it was how we felt). How come they get to learn the language of love and we get to learn the language of invading people? They get mon amour, and we get Actung! Schnell!
And then they started teaching us, and this is the weird thing. I have no recollection of what they did beyond about week three or four. This is what I remember of German, all learned in the first three or four weeks (apologies for mis-spellings, but this is all from memory, and from thirty years ago).
Ich bin Jonny. I am Jonny.
Ich heisse Jonny. I am called Jonny.
Meine name ist Jonny. My name is Jonny.
Ja. Yes. Nein. No.
Der, die, das. Male, female and neuter ways of saying the.
Eins, zwei, drei, feir, funf and so on. (I won’t bore myself by going up to neun-und-neunzig).
One, two, three, four, five and so on.
Ein, eine, einem. Three ways of saying “a” – can’t remember now which is which.
Rot, blau, braun, weisse, schwartz, gelb. Red, blue, brown, white, black, yellow.
And that’s pretty much it. I studied it for three years, eighty minutes a week, forty weeks a year, but it seemed like somewhere around week four or so we just stopped learning. I literally have difficulty remembering what we did. We must have done something. But it’s a blank.
Quite frankly, it was a pretty shit school. I don’t have exact figures, but I think the exam results for my year were something like:
40% getting at least one O’ Level or CSE (precursors to GCSE) at grades A, B or C.
8% getting at least five O’ Levels or CSEs at grades A, B or C.
6% staying on to do A’ Levels.
1% going to university or polytechnic to do a degree level course.
A lot of time in all lessons was spent going round in circles while people pissed around, but I think German was especially hard hit by this. There was homework, I think. And we had bits where we supposed to learn things. But there was never any progress. Never any sense of building on things. And we never had to have conversations. You might occasionally be asked by the teacher to saying one word or a sentence fragment out loud. But never more than that. You never actually had to talk. It was all just the occasional exercise. I think it only ever seemed to be about being given a list of words to copy off a sheet on the wall and being supposed to memorise whether or not they were male, female and neuter. I don’t ever recall being told to break into pairs or groups and try talking to each other. I don’t ever recall being told to watch a TV programme in German and copy down what they were saying, and then translate it into English, which I would have thought would be an obvious way to teach us. It was all just, copy these words off the sheet on the wall.
So after three years, I’d never actually attempted to speak German, out loud, and would probably have been very tongue tied if I’d tried. We didn’t have to study a foreign language for O’ Level, so everyone I knew dumped German after three years as soon as they had the chance. Maybe the guys who did French did better. I don’t know. After a year or so I sort of lost touch with my mate Paul.
Strictly speaking, not knowing any German has never inconvenienced me. In the thirty-seven years since I failed to learn German, I’ve spent precisely two and a half days in Germany, on a business trip, meeting a bunch of programmers who spoke perfect English. But it’s left me feeling faintly stupid when I meet people who do speak multiple languages. Learning a language seems so hard at an intellectual level that it scares me like nothing else I’ve ever encountered.
Which seems like a good enough reason in itself to learn one. So I’m going to try, and I’m announcing it here because the best way to get yourself to do something is to tell so many people that you’re going to do it that fear of embarrassment will keep you going whenever resolve might flag.
Tomorrow I’ll write a bit about why I’ve picked Esperanto.