02 January 2016

Why I learn languages,and why I'm not learning any languages

I've probably said before, but the reason I like learning languages is because of the look on people's faces when I speak their language to them.

What I didn't realise was how far back this went.

My dad was a teacher at my high school, and I knew the main janitor before I knew most of the teachers. Lucien, the janny, was from France, and by a couple of years into high school I would say "Bonjour" to him - I couldn't say much else, but it was enough.

When my dad started talking about him this Christmas, the main memory in my head was just a smile - the delight of being spoken to in his own language, even for a moment. It was the same sensation that I've seen so many times since, and I started to wonder why it had taken me so long to start learning languages properly, and then I realised that I've stopped learning again.

I remember that all through my late teens and early twenties, I was keen on the idea of learning languages, and I picked up a couple of books here and there but never got anywhere. I only started to get the proper motivation back when I started speaking broken high-school Italian to a young woman serving in a local sandwich shop. Again I tried picking up the old books, and again I put them down.

As it turns out, restarting a half-forgotten language was really hard - if you attempt to read notes on things you already sort of know, you switch off, so that's when I switched to new languages: Spanish and then Scottish Gaelic. After that, returning to tidy up my French and Italian was a lot easier.

But right now, I'm not really learning, or relearning, or even consolidating anything. Why not? Maybe it's because I can already give lots of people the satisfaction of hearing their own language. More likely, though, it's just because I'm not meeting enough non-English-speaking people. That would be understandable, I suppose. Last summer I moved to an island off the north-west coast of Scotland, where I'm studying full-time, and there aren't many foreigners in the area at all.

What there is, though, is a lot of native speakers of Gaelic, and I just keep falling back to English.

Am I just being lazy? Or is my brain overworked? Or am I just being antisocial?

Probably a bit of each. I really want to get back on track this year, and start learning something new. To that end, I'm starting to plan my summer holidays now -- an epic cycle journey across part of Europe. I need to take in at least one area which requires a new language, and at the moment, I think Germany fits the bill. I've already got a solid basis to build on, so I just need to build fluency and vocab and see where I can get to.

Even just thinking about it, I can start to feel some of the anticipation building.