Confessions of a multilinguist

I've always been somewhat of a linguist. Therefore my latest decision should not come as a surprise: I want to learn more languages!

Next to my native language German, I currently speak English fluently, and basic French and Spanish. But that's not enough for me!

My plan is to learn as many languages as possible. Not because it would look impressive on a CV. I do this for the fun of learning something new, and I am not giving myself a deadline. As a travel journalist, I have always tried to learn at least some basic phrases in the countries I visited, out of respect for the locals.

I also find it interesting to see how a language developed, and compare it to others.

My love for languages had quite humble beginnings, though.

Aged 5 I asked my parents what simple phrases meant in English, so I could impress my godfather who was on a visit from the USA. I learned "how do you do?" and "what's the time?" and was mighty proud.

Then in primary school Yorckstrasse in Solingen, Germany, I had a British classmate for a while. Her name was Susan and we became close friends. If I had lunch at her house after school, her mum would make us count to 100 in English before we got our food.

I haven't stopped speaking English since. In fact, I liked English so much that I started courses for primary school children in Year 4 - back then, you only started learning English at school from Year 5 onwards. I became fascinated with English; so much so that when my secondary school, grammar school Gymnasium Schwertstrasse Solingen decided to offer a bilingual stream from 1997 onwards, I was one of the first to volunteer.

My entire grammar school career (9 years in total, from 1997 to 2006) I was taught bilingually. We were guinea pigs in many respects. None of the teachers had taught bilingual classes before, so being among the very first 60 bilingual students wasnot always smooth sailing.

For the first two years at the Schwertstrasse, we had 7 hours of English per week instead of 5 in the regular classes. In those extra hours, we read about history and geography, and we even wrote and performed our first plays, including Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood. My big advantage was that our English teacher was Scottish and therefore a native speaker. Everybody else learned from German teachers - and some of those teachers used to think that they were better than native speakers.

In Year 7 we started geography classes in English instead of German - History and Politics soon followed. The Year 7 class trip saw us staying with hostfamilies in Canterbury. At the beginning of Year 7 we were given a choice as is usual in German schools: we had to pick a second language and could choose between French and Latin.

I decided to study a language I'd actually be able to speak. So for the next four years, I had French lessons on top of all the English I already did. But unlike English, French was only taught in 2-4 hours a week, compared to over 10 hours (including bilingual lessons) of English.

Unfortunately, my school did not put emphasis on French. Although I sat and passed the TELC / DELF A1 exam, my French course never really gave us practice in reading or speaking the language. While I was reading The Lord of the Rings in English aged 13 (one of the first books I read in English cover to cover), I struggled to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's stone in French aged 16.

My first Spanish lesson came in the same year as my first French lesson. Together with my best friend, I signed up for beginner's classes at the community college. However, this was short-lived, as we kept mixing the two languages which had a negative impact on our exams at school.

When I turned 16, I moved to New Zealand for a year to be an exchange student. I would have loved to attend Maori and Japanese classes, but I arrived in the middle of the school year down there and was not allowed to join these language classes as I would have missed too much. But especially Maori intrigued me!

Within weeks of arriving in Auckland, I was able to sing the national anthem in Maori thanks to my friends, and one classmate made it her personal mission to ensure I knew all the words to the Ka Mate Kapa Haka (All Blacks rugby challenge). When I saw Italian classes offered at my school for night classes, I signed up and completed the 14 week course.

Returning to Germany, I found my English had improved while my French had suffered. A weekend trip to Paris revealed what I already expected: I would not be able to continue my French classes, if I wanted to skip Year 11 completely and go straight to Year 12. In retrospect, that would probably have been the better option.

Ever since Year 5, my plan had been to start learning Spanish and Russian in Year 11. Because I went abroad, I was not able to learn these languages at school, so I opted to fully concentrate on my bilingual classes, taking Geography, History and English all the way to A-levels.

It was my mum who saw an ad in the paper, offering lessons in various languages including Spanish and Swedish. I figured this could be a safer combination than French and Spanish, as there would be more of a difference between the languages.

The courses were great! Small classes, individual tutoring. For a while I made good progress. But then the Swedish classes got cancelled because the other students stopped showing up. And Spanish? There was only 1 other student, and he missed a few classes. But because of that, we kept repeating lessons that I had mastered weeks ago, and didn't proceed past lesson 5 in the book. I didn't sign up for more classes after that.

After graduating from grammar school, I went on a Gap Year. In Accra, Ghana, I learned to ask my way around in Ewe and Twi. In South Africa, I was amazed how easily I picked up Afrikaans. As a native German speaker, I can usually understand and read Dutch. But Afrikaans was even closer to my hometown's dialect. When I asked my dad to send me Maeck on Moer (Max und Moritz) in Solinger Platt, my hosts were able to read and understand it.

Travelling through East Africa, I picked up a few words in Swaheli, and learned standard Arabic greetings in Dar es Salaam. But the biggest challenge was Ecuador: I had to stay with a family that did not speak any English.

On Isla Isabela, one of the Galapagos Islands, I worked as the photographer for the Parque Nacional. My Spanish improved quickly - I had forgotten most of it when I arrived, and was limited to Hola, que tal. By the end of my 7 weeks there, I had worked as a substitute English teacher at the local Colegio, which meant I had to conduct my lessons in Spanish.

My Spanish is still not the best, but when I returned to Quito at the end of my stay in Ecuador, a friend commented that my pronouncoation had become Galapagueno.

While travelling I made the decision to study fulltime in the UK. I had always thought that a degree in a widely spoken business language would give me advantages.

During my studies, I took more language classes. It all started with British Sign Language. We got quite a few deaf customers in the shop I worked at part-time, and I figured a beginner's course in sign language couldn't hurt. I learned the Cumbrian accent, and soon noticed that the customers came to me for help and they also increased in numbers. Word that I'd be able to understand properly must have made the rounds.

During my second year at university, I got ambitious and signed up for evening classes in Mandarin Chinese and Russian. I am determined to learn languages that use different alphabets and signs. But after three lessons each, I fell very ill and was unable to leave the house for 7 weeks. This means I missed all my classes and because the new starts were only offered once a year, I had missed my chance.

Now I work in a multinational and multilingual company. Every day I hear my colleagues speak English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. I get to practise my French and Spanish again and have made the resolution to be at at least TELC level A2 if not B1 by the time I turn 25 in July next year.

There are many more languages I want to and will learn at some point in my life. These include, but are not limited to: Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Turkish and Latin. Yes Latin. As it is the basis of so many languages, I figured it can't hurt to know it. And yes, the way it looks at the moment, they will be self-taught.

At some point, I would like to be able to speak and understand all these languages at level B1 at least. "No chance" some of you might say. "perfectly achievable", I say. Give me some time and I will prove it to you!! Just don't expect it over night.

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