The need to talk in many languages

15th November 1996 at 00:00
The walrus wins. I have been putting it off for far too long, but the time has indeed come to "talk of many things", and, even more than that, "to talk in many things". I'll own up: I have never been good at learning languages.

At school, I could chat about the difference between the past historic and the third declension plural with no bother at all; they were neat theory to me, and practical use wasn't what my school valued. I hold the English education system wholly responsible for my failure to develop a good relationship with a very attractive young German man when we met in a Swiss coffee bar in the sixties. He spoke neither English nor French, and I had not one word of German. Latin was the only means of verbal communication available to us two youngsters.

Now, I don't know about your chatting-up techniques, but we didn't find phrases like "the third line of battle", "foraging for supplies" or even that stuff about Hannibal, elephants and how many bits they divided Gaul into any use whatsoever. After a few drinks we called it a day; such missed opportunity.

A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to spend time in Sweden, and while there, learnt enough words to get me by. A Swedish girlfriend taught me that, above all else, I should learn to say that useful phrase for adolescent girls abroad: "No, thank you, not tonight."

And all of this was dutifully forgotten until last month, when Norma and I were asked to speak to a group of visiting Swedish women, all of whom run small businesses. Norma is smart and does her homework, so, although there was an interpreter present, she started her talk with a couple of introductory phrases in Swedish, much to everyone's delight. And then it was my turn.

I made full use of the interpreter until I was sure of my audience, and finally admitted that I, too, could speak a little Swedish, but didn't think it relevant to the context of our meeting. When pushed, I came out with my party piece, unused for 30 years: "Ney, tak, inte inacht."

Recently in Spain, I realised that our interpreter had the same problems when it came to knowing useful words. Brilliant during meetings, he could translate phrases and concepts about European funding and sustainable this, that and the other. Only at meal times did he start to run into problems when members of the party wished to know the ingredients of local dishes. We managed to work out that cow's stomach was tripe, but were literally lost for words when he sought the translation for boiled cow's nose.

One of my new Spanish colleagues has had problems more like mine than his. As a child, she wanted to learn one useful phrase of English to impress her boyfriend. What was she taught, but the time-honoured phrase, used by English speakers every day - "Would you like to kiss me, lovely?" Needless to say her social life flourished with English lads in inverse proportion to my failure with devastating looking young Swedes. In adulthood, on meeting an English speaker, she has had to learn not to demonstrate her limited proficiency.

Once we had exchanged these nonsensical bits of language learning, my friend Encarna set about teaching me some elementary Spanish to practise with her colleagues. I am now able to converse on one topic only: marriage. In Spanish I can enquire whether or not you are married, whether you have children, how old they are, and I can order a cup of coffee. Of these, only the last seems to be of any real benefit.

So, what are the lessons to be learnt from all of this? Schools in the sixties did little to encourage real language learning for communication. Friends cannot be relied upon to impart the most useful phrases in their language; they have hidden agendas and can ruin your social life. As in all aspects of personal development, you are best advised to tackle the problem according to your own needs. So, here we go, I have just signed up to be a beta-tester for a "Spanish by e-mail" course.

Hasta la vista

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