Not a Nerd, A Linguist

I love languages. I haven’t always. My language learning was somewhat limited in secondary school as PowerPoints made me peeved and speaking exercises were sickening to me. I have always felt that there is something so incredibly embarrassing and frustrating about trying to speak a foreign language. It is almost like you are a toddler again, crying with frustration about how you can’t tell people what you really think with the limited words at your disposal. It’s yet more embarrassing because it is easy to feel when talking to a conversation partner in a foreign language that you are incredibly boring. Where in English you would usually launch into an elaborate story about how the coffee machine scalded your hand and how the dog was sick in your slippers this morning, when asked how your day is, in a different language you resort to saying ‘It’s ok’.

However when you do eventually get past the point of being horrendously embarrassed with every decibel, you can start to enjoy yourself. You start to learn phrases which you like and which are fun to throw into conversation (my particular favourite is ‘it’s a storm in a teacup’) and then you feel pretty smart. Yes I said it. You feel smart. Why is there a big taboo over acknowledging when you have learnt or done something which represents a high level of intellectual skill? Everyone likes to feel smart, and that is one thing that you do feel with languages.

Taking you back a few weeks to my trip to the Touchdown Dance event in Birmingham; we were waiting at the tram station when a Japanese couple approached a friend of mine. Between them the couple had determined how to ask how to get into ‘Centre town’. My friend explained to them that they needed to get the tram from the other platform. The couple did not understand this, and I found myself trying to explain it to them. My friends tried to keep their laughs internal as I told the couple in a thick Japanese accent exactly what my friend had said, occasionally throwing in one of the only relevant words I know in Japanese ‘Ryoko – Travel’. The couple got it though, the accent and that one word of their mother tongue had earnt understanding, and the laughs of my friends turned to surprise. It was a pretty good feeling.

I have the confidence of a spoon. I don’t like compliments and have to work hard at not getting angry at those who try to give me them. In fact until the trip to France in march this year I wouldn’t even admit that I would like to do a degree within languages because I was so adamant I was rubbish at it. In my classes I don’t feel that confident, because my colleague and lecturer obviously know a lot more than me, I’m learning though. But just occasionally, completely out of the blue, my knowledge takes me by surprise and makes me smile. So now I have just decided that smiling is as good a reason as any to take a degree in a subject.

This week I have done work experience in the languages department of my college and I have really enjoyed it. Particularly today when I delivered a lesson to an NVQ class.

So… If nearly two-thirds of 300 UK firms have said that they prefer staff with language skills. Why aren’t more people learning them? French, German and Spanish were highly commended by the companies but Arabic and Mandarin are vastly growing in importance. Research shows that one in five schools in England have a persistently low up-take of languages, which in this job deprived environment is ridiculous. However, with most schools in England offering mainly European languages like French, German and Spanish the chances of even the most enthusiastic young people picking up highly sought after languages like Arabic and Mandarin are slim. Make it available in schools and make it exciting. Communication is never a bad thing.

At the news that in college we may get the opportunity of conversational Arabic next year with a volunteer I was very excited. Then I somehow felt the need to make a self deprecating phrase about how I am such a nerd that I embarrass myself sometimes. To which my teacher replied: “You’re not a nerd, you’re a linguist.”, and I guess I am quite proud of that.


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