From a young age, I was fascinated by language. I grew up in Chester, to Merseyside-born parents, with Welsh and English heritage. I absorbed the Welsh words my nan taught me and parroted my relatives’ scouse accents.
I remember a holiday in Spain, aged seven, when two boys asked if I spoke Norwegian. When I couldn’t respond, they ran off, leaving me sad. Back home, I’d search shops for old language books and enjoyed trying all these different words to express what was in my head. I thought it was amazing, and still do.
The first language I learned was French, at school, aged five. I got top marks each year. The teachers wouldn’t let me study German too, though, and I was devastated. In high school, I joined a geography trip to Germany, just to be around the language.
At sixth-form college, I completed Spanish GCSE, then A-level. From there, it became a way of life. I did a combined languages degree at the University of Hull, studying French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. I sat in on Swedish and Old Icelandic lectures, and did language exchanges for Romanian and Catalan. I went to Lyon, playing darts with the French gas and electricity trainees who were sharing my accommodation, then to Málaga. I spent time in Verona, where I read the Bible in Italian (I had never even read it in English).
After university, I worked as an au pair in Germany, and finally studied German. I cycled to the Netherlands, picking up Dutch, then took Russian classes in Spain, and a Czech diploma in Prague. I joined a Greek night school in Rotterdam and took Arabic lessons in Leiden. It turned out that speaking a language abroad with local people was an ideal way to learn, especially in a time before the internet.
Travelling to learn a language became an adventure – it came with huge excitement and of course lonelier, more complex moments. I have found that the speed of learning depends on the language and how intensively I’m studying. If it is similar to a language I already speak, I find I can use it in a comprehensible, although perhaps not polished, way within weeks.
Languages have had a big impact on my personal life, too. In 2003, during a train ride in the Balkans, I met my future wife – she is Macedonian, with a south-east Slavic languages and literature degree. I came back to the UK and got a job in the Foreign Office, where I used languages to liaise with diplomats. I transferred to Skopje and Sarajevo in the Balkans, and Chișinău, Moldova, and learned the local lingo.
When our daughter was born, in Chester in 2007, we spoke to her in English, French and Macedonian. By age one, she could speak three-word sentences in three languages. We introduced German and Spanish. We still speak all five at home.
We moved to the Balkans in 2010. I studied Turkish and Albanian and soaked up content – including TV, music, radio, memes and jokes – from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Bulgaria. Now I live here, I only speak English for work or with friends online. When I’m introduced to someone new, I’m often asked to reel off languages, like a party trick, which I take on the chin. After all, it is unusual.
I’ve been described as one of the UK’s most multilingual people, which is very sweet. I’ve studied more than 50 languages now. I generally use 15 weekly and more than 30 in a year.
During lockdown, I took short courses in Northern Sámi, Scots, Korean and Irish. I joined conversation groups and sat exams in Cornish. I also did an intensive, month-long study in Estonian and was interviewed about the experience – in the language – on Estonian TV. In 2013, I founded the annual Polyglot Conference. I also advocate for vulnerable, indigenous and endangered languages.
Having a world of languages out there and not learning them is like watching TV in black and white and not knowing there is colour. They will continue to enrich me for a lifetime.
The most important thing about learning languages is the ability to build bridges with other people. They allow you to experience dimensions and perceptions you may never have otherwise considered.
As told to Deborah Linton
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