Sunday, 10 October 2010

What makes my heart sing: words and foreign languages

Well, sweet friends of PB (all 91 of you – welcome to the newbies!), I really enjoyed reading your responses to my French post. It seems I have a lot of fellow Francophiles among you. So, now we’ve got the ball rolling, let’s have a chat about another of my passions – words and foreign languages.

An Anglo upbringing

I grew up in a typical Anglo-centric family in 1970s Australia. We only spoke English at home and Hobart had nowhere near the ethnic diversity it does now. Sure, I went to school with a few children from Italian and Greek backgrounds whose families had emigrated to Australia after WWII. There was the occasional child with Chinese heritage and in the early 1980s, Vietnamese refugee families (or the ‘boat people’ as they were called then) started arriving. But all up, it was a pretty Anglo upbringing. I enjoyed learning to write in cord cursive. That was as exciting as it got!
Isn't this pretty?
Falling in love with words

My Grade 6 teacher gave me the glittering key to unlock the mysteries of foreign languages – a solid grounding in English grammar. Once I started learning French and German in Grade 7, the scales fell from my eyes. I was absolutely, dizzyingly enchanted. Whole new worlds lay there to be discovered, shimmering like mirages in the distance. I fell in love with words. Yes, I’m a logophile! I subscribe to Wordsmith’s ‘word a day’ e-mail which delivers me daily delights of fascinating words and their origins. If I could choose my dream job, it could well be as an etymologist, studying the history of words, their origins and how their form and meaning have changed over time. I bet you didn’t guess that one!
The magical grammar key
Learning French

I learnt how the Norman conquest of England by the French transformed the English language, forever entwining the two. I used my grammar key to unlock the door of French, the most delightful of the Romance languages. 
Ooh, I want a staircase like this!
Some features of French are:

• It uses the Roman alphabet with a number of accents on vowels, circumflex (eg forêt), acute (eg école), grave (eg élève), cedilla (eg garçon) and diaeresis (eg Noël);

• It has two grammatical genders, le and la; and

• Its sentence structure is very similar to English.

Learning German

I used the glittering grammar key again to discover German, one of the Indo-European languages. I marvelled at the way two countries could exist side by side but yet have such different roots and traditions to their languages. It’s quite a complicated language to learn.
One of the pixies' favourite books
Some features of German are:

• It uses the Roman alphabet with three extra vowels, namely ä, ö and ü, together with ß;

• Nouns have three genders, der, die and das. Remembering them all is tricky!;

• It is the only major language that capitalises all nouns; and

• Many words are long compounds. The longest German word is ‘Rinderkennzeichnungs- und Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz’ (or the ‘Cattle marking and beef labelling supervision duties delegation law’). Try saying that in a hurry!

I studied French and German for my HSC and then, school finished and 18 years old, jetted off on a Qantas plane to my grand adventure, living for a year in Münster, Germany as a Rotary Exchange Student.

A year of speaking Deutsch

What a culture shock that was! Fortunately, my host parents spoke fluent English so they gradually eased me into speaking German. It was mentally very taxing as I was translating all the time. The time that took caused me to appear hesitant in my response, as I always worried about making mistakes. I found I didn’t have enough appropriate adjectives or adverbs at my disposal so my conversation sounded very bland, such as “Wie süß!” (or “How sweet!”) instead of what I really wanted to express such as “Wirklich zauberhaft!” (or “Absolutely enchanting”). That in turn meant that people often thought I wasn’t really interested as I was using such banal language. Ooh, the frustration! Sometimes I would burst out into English as I attempted to get my point across more accurately.

Another hindrance was that my teachers had taught me slang from the 1970s which made my fellow school students laugh, it was so dated, like saying things were ‘groovy’ instead of ‘cool’! Everyone spoke so quickly and I was constantly waving at them, pleading “Langsamer, bitte! (“Slow down, please!”). After several months, I awoke in raptures – I had been dreaming in German!
'Be quiet and speak German'
From that moment on, my confidence and vocabulary soared. By the end of the year, I was speaking quickly, using local slang words intuitively, cracking jokes and even fooling some locals into thinking I was a native speaker! I also mastered some local dialect dating back a couple of centuries. My favourite words were ‘Eichhörnchen’ (‘squirrel’) and ‘Schlittschulaufen’ (‘ice skating’).

Learning Indonesian

Upon returning to Hobart, I studied first year Indonesian at Uni. It was fascinating – it uses the Roman alphabet so no tricky characters to learn like Mandarin, Japanese or Korean, the sentence structure is quite flexible and the verbs are not conjugated. Oh, and no worrying about the ’gender’ of words. The 350 years of Dutch rule have left their imprint on the language, not to mention the intriguing influences of Portuguese, Malay, Mandarin, Sanskrit and Arabic. I loved learning funny phrases like ‘jam karet’, translated as ‘rubber time’ to describe time spent waiting patiently or as expected, rather than wasted. I understand that phrase is used often in Indonesia to explain the endemic delays in bureaucracy or transport! If you want to learn an Asian language, this is a great one to start with.

Learning Spanish

I also spent three years learning another pretty Romance language, Spanish, from a Chilean man, the extremely kind and patient Julio Herrera. I learnt the similarities and differences between Chilean Spanish and standard Spanish. I also discovered so many similarities with French that I often confused the two!

Using my languages on Planet Baby

Since arriving on Planet Baby, my opportunity to use my languages has been limited as I’ve had to learn PB’s language (a story for another day!). However, I still maintain close contact with my German host families and other friends made in that year. When I meet them, it takes a while for my rusty brain to crank into gear but after a day or so, German starts pouring out of my mouth as if I speak it every day. I find my brain’s ability miraculous in the way it remembers things long-buried.

I really want to encourage the pixies to learn languages from an early age so they also have the opportunity to experience the delight I feel. 
From one of my favourite childhood books, Richard Scarry's European Word Book
I think I might do an Adult Ed class to brush up on my French as I miss it! I’m also pondering whether to tutor school students in German and maybe even become a German teacher one day. I think Confucius had it right when he said “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”!
This makes me smile
Have you learnt languages, whether at home in a bilingual family, in classes at school, overseas while living there or for work? Maybe you started learning languages early or came to them later in life. Do you want to learn a language but can't choose which one? Do you want your children to learn languages and if so, which ones would you choose? I’d love to hear your stories and favourite words.


  1. Wow Jane, I am impressed! Sadly, I did not receive the gift of learning and speaking foreign language. My children can testify to that. I am very envious of anyone who can. I studied Spanish for eight years thru high school and University. On travels thru Spain at that time, I was able to converse and was starting to get a grasp but it has been many years since then.

    I am off to see what you have been writing about France :))

    Jeanne xx

  2. I learned French (up to second year university) and Spanish (in Spain)

    One thing I would say about languages is they teach you about sentence structure and grammar in a way I was never taught in relation to English.

    Which is why I know what conditional perfect means!


  3. How I LOVE this post today, Jane! Adore languages too, esp French. Your last image is sooooo great.
    Hope your weekend is the loveliest so far, do have a happy week ahead! xx

  4. wow....i am soo not surprised...i knew you were full of exotic hidden talents....& languages...what a talent!!!
    oh to speak french {properly} in paris...another dream of mine!!
    and german!!
    our eldest has just started at h.s here in england and is learning both...loves them!
    i studied japanese and lived there for a year and a half....soo exciting!

    i definately think you should do something with it...and absolutely get the kiddos into it!

    melissa xx

  5. I'm bowing to you in awe. I so admire multilinguists (my husband speaks Italian - his first language; English - his second language; and French - his learning language). I think it's amazing and despite being surrounded by the Italian language for 14 1/2 years, I still cannot manage more than a mini-convo. I just don't have an ear for languages at all. x

  6. Oh, ladies, I'm so pleased you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

    Jeanne, it's amazing what your mind can do, tucking away a language in some little corner and then plucking it out when you need it. I wouldn't be surprised if you rediscovered your Spanish if you went there on holiday for a while.

    Ah, Jane, you know where I'm coming from. Tenses galore (and how rarely people use the conditional at all in English), not to mention the four different 'cases' which apply to nouns in German, depending on their context. So much to remember!

    So glad you liked that last image, Saskia - it's one of my all-time favourites.

    And Melissa, thanks, you funny girl. I'm so pleased you have a language lover in the house. And wow - a year in Japan. Have you done any posts on that which I could read? How fascinating. It's such a hard language. Friends who did an exchange year in Japan when I was in Germany then studied Japanese at uni for 3 years when they returned. They said that meant they had the reading age of a Japanese 8 year old! Ah yes, I'll do some posts about my future career moves.

    Thanks, Bron. I think you're the first to do that to me! So does that mean you have regular trips to Italy? J x

  7. Wow you are clever Jane, I am in awe. Thanks for this post. I only can speak English but love the sound of the French Language.

  8. My pleasure, Kylie. I agree, it just sounds so romantic. J x

  9. We have the Richard Scarry European Word Book and both boys spend hours poring over it! I learnt to speak Bahasa (Indonesian) as a toddler, but quickly forgot it when we returned to Australia. I often wonder if I studied it now whether the language would return... my French comes back very quickly when I am speaking to French friends despite rarely using it these days!

  10. Oh, Emma, you're the only person I know who has it as well! It's just brilliant, although I must say that some of the words are rather dated now. I really do think it's buried deep in your brain. I last spoke it in 1992 and all I can remember at the moment is "Saya berbahasa Indonesia sedikit-sedikit" ("I speak a little bit of Indonesian"). But I'm sure it would come back if I were exposed to it more often. J x

  11. Another wanna-be etymologist. I'm glad I've found another kindred soul! This is my all time favourite thing to do - understand the roots and origins of words. Check out the origin of Spice and where the original root of the word has travelled. Hint - special and especially are closely related to spice, which will come as not much of a surprise if you think about the french word for spice (epice).

    And then there's all the funny words in German that literally translated have been in hysterics : - naked snail, hand shoe, time magnifying glass, breast wart.

    I could go on for hours...

  12. Oops - should be "have me in hysterics"

  13. I am fascinated by languages as well. I am fluent in Spanish, for I lived in Costa Rica for 2 years. I have started taking French, now that France is so close. I love seeing the inside of a culture by learning their language ;).

    Jane, I have no idea how/why I missed this series of posts about languages. I have enjoyed catching up on all of these ;)

  14. Ooh, Clare B, I just found this comment. I'm so delighted you stopped by - I love your blog. You are the only other person I know on this planet who shares my desire! My dearest friends (who well know the difference) tease me about my desire to become an 'entymologist' - that little 'n' making all the difference! And German is brilliant like that with its building block-style. Lucky you to live in Berlin!

    Oh, Laura, the more I find out about you, the more I realise we have in common. Uncanny! Now, back to your tag! J x

  15. I wished when I was growing up I could have had you explain and gift your love of language.

  16. Why, thanks, Rick! That's one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me. J x

  17. You wrote this a couple of years back and I came accross it when trying to find info on the Tasmanian cord cursive because my daughter who home schools her kids want them to be able to write fluently like their grandparents did. We actually learned copperplate at school in the fifties and adopted cord cursive when we learned it at the Launceston Teachers' College. (In my second year there it moved from Charles Street to Mowbray.
    I too learned some French and German at high school ... German for only a term but it stayed with me and amazingly, I managed to get us around Germany in the eighties and to hold a few conversations ... the grammar must have been atrocious but no-one seemed to mind.
    These days I watch SBS to practice both French and German. My German seems to be better even though I did French all through HS.
    Thanks for bringing back some lovely memories

  18. My pleasure, Gwenith! So wonderful to find a fellow linguaphile ☺. J x

  19. It is so interesting to see that many of you know German, I wouldn't have thought that people so far away would mind to learn our language. It's my native language and of course I learned English at school (we all here do) and then 2 years later I started with French, which is so difficult ... I love it though and took lessons last year again, just so that the 5 years that I learned that wonderful language at school weren't wasted.
    I live not too far away from Münster by the way and my brother lives there. ;)
    I also learned a year of Swedish at school, but don't remember anything really, but I had to take that class back then because I wanted to go to Sweden with an exchange.
    When my daughter was born I bought her a lot of books in english and read to her a lot, like Babybug books, if you know those? And some with pictures and the words in English and German, like "Postman Pat's wonderful word book" and "Winnie Pooh's opposites" and so on. The children here start to learn English in their first grade at school now and my daughter will probably be fluent in English in a few years. I will support that and esp. travel with her to England and France. The good thing in Europe is that you don't have to travel very far to reach another country with its own interesting culture and language. ;)

  20. ¡Hola Jane! I've seen this post only now! I love languages. I can't speak a word in German, but I love the French language. France is only a couple of hours away from where I live, so I can visit the South of France and speak a little bit. I love languages and I love etymology too. I work as a translator, so, I can't really complain. I just wish translation fees were higher so I could travel around the world and visit so many countries that I've been dreaming of visiting for years! Best regards from Barcelona,

  21. Fabulous thoughts, Jule - how cool that I've lived not far from you! I was so impressed at the wonderful English spoken by so many Germans during my time there.

    Hi Marta Ooh, what a gorgeous comment to read! You're the only other person I know who loves etymology ☺. And you lucky duck to be a translator. *Sigh*. J x

  22. Wow! I am impressed with all the languages you've accumulated over the years! Now if I could please borrow that German grammar key, I haven't brushed up on my German since high school...
    Thanks for your support with my bilingualism essay!

  23. Oh, my pleasure, Liene! J x


Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, you gorgeous soul. You've just made my day! J x

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