Relax, I’m back to the short, easier to digest blog posts for now.

After my second year at university, my then girlfriend, her brother and I headed off to Amsterdam for the summer break, hoping to get work fruit picking for a couple of months. A lot of students did that back then, it was a great way to see a bit of the world, make some money, and get comfortably stoned every night. We weren’t very organised though and ended up returning three weeks later far worse off than we had been when we set off, not having done a minute’s work. We did get comfortably stoned every night though 😉

Something odd happened while we were looking for work that I’ve always remembered. The tourist information people at Centraal Station sent us to some anonymous looking office to get work permits or some such, and we had a brief interview with a fairly casual looking guy in an office. After introducing ourselves and explaining our reasons for being there, he gave us a stern lecture for being arrogant and expecting everybody to understand English. Despite this, he stamped our passports and pointed us in the direction of the employment agency. Feeling suitably ashamed we headed off to the next anonymous looking building seeking work, and started our conversation with the man behind the counter by politely inquiring as to whether he spoke English.

“Of course I speak English. Everyone speaks English. Do you think I’m stupid?”

Maybe this was some sort of joke arranged between the two men to mock gullible, naive students, I don’t know but I’ve never forgotten it. Anyhoo, we’d left it too late, and there weren’t really any jobs left. Lack of organisation…

I only mention this story because I often feel ignorant and stupid for only being able to speak my ‘mother tongue’. Chatting to people online from all over the world, it quickly becomes apparent that the vast majority of people who have another first language can speak excellent English, and a decent percentage of those can speak better English than a lot of English people I know.This makes me feel embarrassed!

I studied French in school. I didn’t have any choice and I didn’t enjoy it. It didn’t sink in too well, largely because there was no enthusiasm or commitment on my part. If anyone asks me if I can speak French, I’ll say “un peu” (a little) and that’s about as good as it gets.

I studied Japanese for about a year after I finished university. It was an evening course at the local college, and being interested in Japanese literature and cinema I thought I’d give it a go. I really enjoyed it and seemed to do quite well, because I was enthusiastic and committed, but then a change in my hours at work meant I couldn’t attend the classes any more and that was that. If anyone asks me if I can speak Japanese, I’ll say “choto” (a little) and it’s all downhill from there.

I’m currently learning German. I bought a couple of phrase books and primary school level text books and I do it in my free time. I think I’m doing OK so far, because I’m enthusiastic and committed, but if  there’s an evening course starting at the local college, I’ll sign up for that as it will make it easier. Can I speak German yet? “Ein bisschen” but I hope to get better.

Maybe the reason for my ignorance is partly the blame of successive governments who have never really made foreign languages a priority in British education. Without getting too political (I gave up being interested in politics long ago) I think it would be much better if all children were taught at least one foreign language from the age of five. There are plenty to choose from, some more practical than others, but starting early is the best way for children to learn, and with learning a language there also comes understanding of a foreign culture, which is no bad thing.

There is another problem which is hindering British people from learning a foreign language. The fact that, as I mentioned earlier, most of the rest of the world can speak English giving us the ideal excuse that we don’t need to bother. I’ve even had Dutch and German people tell me I’m wasting my time trying to learn a foreign language because there’s ‘no point’! Why should I go to all that trouble when almost everyone can speak English anyway?

Because I feel ignorant and stupid if I don’t even try…

In the past I’ve had holidays in Turkey and Portugal. On both occasions, before travelling, I’ve picked up those little phrase books. In both countries it was noticeable that even though I could only say “Hello”, “Excuse me”, “Please” and “Thankyou” in their language they appreciated the effort.

I’m at a disadvantage though… The all-pervasive power of ‘Western culture’ force-feeds English speaking cinema, TV and music all over the world. The world’s biggest movies and pop acts, all English speaking. If I want to watch a film in Korean, Icelandic or Spanish, I have to search through the TV guides amongst the obscure channels and in the small hours of the morning. The rest of the planet’s got it easy. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but that’s a different matter.

That’s about it really… There’s no grand point to this post, I’m just rambling. I might suggest that if everybody in the world learned a second language, then maybe, just maybe, the world would be a better place 🙂

Next time, I’m not sure yet, then after that it’ll be a ‘stuff in the garden’ update (yeah, contain your excitement!)

Biss naechstes mal… ses x

P.S. I try to avoid offending people as a rule, but if you refuse to watch a film because it’s in a foreign language with English subtitles you’re a fool.

P.P.S. Thanks to Jenn for help and encouragement with learning German, making it much easier and more fun!

P.P.P.S. On the way back from Amsterdam I remember having my hair searched by a customs officer at Schiphol Airport. Weird but true.