I studied linguistics as part of my Modern Languages degree, and I was terrible at it. I really struggled to work out what it was all about. Was linguistics a science or an art? Was linguistics about the heart or the mind? I spent hours ploughing through articles with as much soul as a dead fish. I wrote thousands of words of essays that were returned to me covered in red. Right up until the very end of my studies, linguistics was the bane of my life. The fact that it then ended up being my highest mark is one of life’s great ironies.
One topic we studied was German dialects. I had to memorise all the boundaries and sound shifts that criss-cross the German speaking world and reproduce them for the final exam. But something about dialectology grabbed me, and I’m very glad I’ve studied it. I’ve never quite looked at language in the same way again.
As we worked our way through the endless weaknesses of my essay one tutorial, I interrupted the conversation to ask my tutor a question. “Why is it that people seem to like certain languages or dialects more than others?”
My tutor’s eyes rolled to the ceiling. Yet another irrelevant question, she thought. She sighed.
“How ‘nice’ people think a language does or doesn’t sound is nothing to do with linguistics,” she said. “Everyone says they love Italian. They say it’s musical, it’s melodic, it’s the most gorgeous language in the world. But they all forget that a language like Romanian sounds almost exactly the same. What people are really talking about when they say they ‘like’ a language is the culture. It’s not phonology, syntax, or lexis that they love about Italian, it’s opera, food and sunny weather. If the people in Italy spoke German, everyone would probably say that’s the language of love.”
My tutor’s very frank answer had taken me by surprise. Was it true that people don’t really like languages for the languages themselves?
Recently, I’ve been trying to learn Brazilian Portuguese. Everybody told me it would be easy. I’d be fluent in just a few weeks. But the truth is that I really struggled, because for a long time I just didn’t get on with the language.
It’s not entirely true that I didn’t like the language. Really, I just didn’t feel anything for it. It was perfectly fine and nice, but whenever I sat down to study I couldn’t help feeling I was wasting time that could be spent improving my Spanish instead.
The time in which I was supposed to be studying Portuguese flew by with my books still unopened. I started lessons on italki, but still found it hard to get into the language. My biggest frustration was understanding nearly everything, but being able to say hardly anything. My Spanish was still flowing like the Iguaçu falls, but my Portuguese was as arid as the Brazilian sertão.
People would ask me how Portuguese was going, and I’d change the subject. People would tell me how beautiful they thought Portuguese was, and I would cough and comment on the weather. People would ask me whether I was looking forward to my upcoming trip to Brazil, and I would scream. Needless to say, things were not going well.
But when after 16 hours of red-eye flights Richard Simcott and I touched down in Rio, things started to change.
Brazil was stunning. The famous sites like Sugarloaf Mountain and Cristo Redentor were even more breath-taking in real life than any photos could imply. For every meal my plate was stacked high with exquisite food, fruits and vegetables that I’d never heard of, and rounded off with desserts that blew my mind.
Everybody – from taxi drivers to people giving directions on the street –beamed at us huge smiles and sometimes even went completely out of their way to help and make us feel welcome. And the best thing of all was that everything was being done in Portuguese.
And then the real turning point came. That weekend we left Rio for Belo Horizonte to run two days of the Polyglot Workshops, which we’ve made work all over Europe and decided to bring to the Americas for the first time. There the participants were fantastic. Some people travelled over 600km just to be with us that weekend, and were even heading back again that night! On both days the room was packed with people who took part so actively in all five sessions, asked questions, and made an incredible effort to speak English – even though we had a live translation into Portuguese of the whole event for the first time (courtesy of Sérgio Rodrigues).
I was so touched by my experiences in Brazil and so moved by the people I met, that my feelings about Portuguese started to change too. I started speaking. I even spent a whole evening in Portuguese with Richard and Gustavo, one of our participants who hadn’t made it to the workshops in the end because of illness. As we left Brazil and flew south towards Spanish-speaking Argentina, I was reading a magazine in Portuguese and vowed to one day come back and learn to really speak this language.
Until that moment my Portuguese studies had pretty much been a disaster, and now it’s clear why. Like with any language, you need motivation to learn it, and until I’d seen the world that Portuguese would unlock, I couldn’t see any reason to spend time on it. Until I got to know and formed friendships with the people that speak Portuguese, I couldn’t see it for the beauty that it is.
It doesn’t matter how hard or easy a language may be. If you don’t have any need to learn it, then you probably won’t. But even with the hardest language in the world, if you really want to speak it then you will. Work hard at it, and you’ll even speak it well.
Want to find out more about how I learn languages?
Come to one of my live events! Richard Simcott and I will teach you:
- the fundamental techniques required for learning any language
- how to take your languages to an advanced level
- how to understand the real language native speakers read in books, watch on TV, and use in conversations
- how to deal with motivation issues and set realistic goals for your success
Our next events will be in:
Valencia, Spain | 30th January 2016
London, UK | 27th and 28th February 2016
Or… Join us online! Programme starts 4th January 2016
Places are limited, so book now to secure your ticket! Once we’ve sold out, we can’t make any exceptions.
Can’t make any of those events? Don’t worry, we’ll be planning a new one near you very soon!
Like the Polyglot Workshops on Facebook for fresh updates!