Language in our DNA

Long before the EU came about, when I was a wee girl, my father taught me to count in German and Italian – ein, zwei, drei; uno, due, tre………

I loved it, the sound of the words and the feel of them in my mouth.

Despite spending time in a POW camp in northern Italy and then in an internment camp in Switzerland, working on small farms in both countries, he still thought it worthwhile to teach me the basics of German and Italian.
He brought home a tiny German bible, printed in a dense black Gothic typeface; a battery powered bakelite torch with a noisy spring ratchet action that you had to squeeze repeatedly to get a glimmer of light; a pair of wire rimmed glasses with German lenses. Fascinating foreign things.
He also brought back a smattering of both languages and a love of Italian lyric opera. Alongside these “foreign” languages, I was learning Burns’ songs and poems and reciting them on demand for visitors. Burns was challenging too, with lots of words I liked getting my tongue round, but had no reference for. Chapman billies and bowsing at the nappy, or a “skellum, A bletherin, blusterin, drunken blellum”. Even if the words were unfamiliar, you could hear the disgust.

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And nonsense songs like….. There was a Wee Cooper wha lived in Fife, nickety nackety noo noo noo…

As I grew older, the pull of languages grew stronger.
I was schooled in Latin and French, under the old Scottish academy system. Latin was great for unlocking the English language and the Romance ones, while learning German revealed much in common with Scots. Later on, I learned to speak Italian, its rolling r’s and rounded vowels entirely at home in my Scottish mouth.
I was able to get close to the meaning in the writings of Virgil, Dante, Moliere and Thomas Mann and even though I never became really fluent, I could feel the power of the words in a way that is mostly diluted, when translated into English.

Teenage school exchanges brought Flemish kids from Aalst, with their impressive self confidence and alien sounding conversation. I had pen pals too, Jamil, from Morocco and Dieter, from north west Germany.

Jamil looked like a young Camus and sent me photos of a warm gaggle of little brothers and sisters with his mum. It looked hot and dusty but friendly.
Dieter was pale, blond and distant and sent photos of the massive statue of his national hero, Hermann, set in green forest.
His letters were written on graph paper, and the landscape in his photos wasn’t unlike Scotland, but the scale of the monument had no counterpart here. I didn’t really understand why a boy my age would send me that; I was into pop music and boys, not William Wallace – not then!
But in retrospect, good for him and good for the education system that taught him about his country’s history and its heroes. It’s more than I was getting in Scotland.
And the same thing happened with all the Europeans I met. They were proud of their countries, proud of their towns, unashamed about their language and culture. It was normal to be an independent country and represent it. I had very little sense of my country’s identity, its history and its past, despite my knowledge of Burns.

School brought foreign language assistants in from Berlin and Rabat, in French Morocco.
Fraulein Inge loved walking in the mountains at home, so four of us took her up Ben Lomond. She sucked on slices of lemon as she climbed, while we gasped and slugged bottles of ginger. She was stereotypically Germanic too, tall, slim, blond and scarily polite in all her dealings with us, but extremely kind. She left us each a little Berlin Bear charm when she went home.

Mam’selle proudly showed us slides of her home town with its wide, scorched streets. She had dyed red hair and a foul temper but she loved the Rolling Stones and threw a farewell party for us kids in her digs and played them very loud. She was raucous and intolerant in class but otherwise treated us like adults. I first heard Edith Piaf in my French class at school.

A further two young French language assistants lodged with a friend of mine, in her parents “chalet”, on the shores of Loch Lomond. The chalet was a large wooden shed at the back of the garden, with plenty of room and even a verandah. It must have sounded idyllic when you were stifling in Paris in August, but it suffered from Scottish damp, rain, muddy paths and midges. Both girls had high octane Gallic personalities, smoked and used lots of make up, creams and lotions.
They pushed their hair up into the Bardot look.
They were always falling out with each other, rivalries were high, and frequent bouts of French screeching came from the chalet. When the Luss Games came round, it got worse, as they vied for the attentions of the strong men, the caber throwing giants. Watching them flirt with the kilties when you were 14 was an education in itself.
Organised visits to the French and German Institutes in Park Circus were rare opportunities to mix with foreign students in an easy way, watching their films and eating their biscuits.
All these encounters with Europeans taught me something valuable: that despite fascinating superficial differences, we were essentially very similar and we found a lot to like in each other.

But I have now finally got round to learning Gaelic and it seems strange to have spent a lot of my life learning other peoples’ mother tongues, having never listened properly to my own.
Gaelic has had a bad press, of course, it’s been suppressed and reduced to a fringe activity, but is now enjoying a renaissance across Scotland.
Having been out of favour for so long, it does not have its own vocabulary for the currency of the 20th C, politics, banking, technology, lifestyle etc.

What it does have in spades, is a deep and elemental bond with the ancient landscapes and weather of Scotland and with the peoples who live here.
Its placenames are both poetic and unashamedly descriptive.
It is able to carry stories, ideas and feelings that allow us to connect with our own culture again. And its music travelled the world with the emigrant Gaels.

Language is our birthright, it tells us who we are. While few Scots can speak Gaelic, most of us have a good grasp of Scots and English. We are, in varying degrees, bilingual and many of our Scots words are only a heartbeat away from their Gaelic roots. They are also quite likely to be the words we turn to in moments of strong emotion. English has a civility that disnae dae it, when yer greetin or beelin – or feelin’ smashin.

Britain is an insular place in language matters. The domination of the English language in international trade and financial systems has made us lazy. We don’t make much effort to learn the languages of other countries. But a lot of them do spend time and effort on learning to speak English, to a degree that is significantly higher than classroom level.
When Brits travel abroad, they mostly make little effort to acquire some language for the country of choice. There is an expectation that they will get by without trying.
And, mostly they will. Others are required to make the effort to communicate. In the hospitality industry, it would be rare to find accommodation abroad where there are no English speaking staff on hand.
In the UK, only the largest chain hotels trouble to hire staff with language skills.
In schools, language teaching is on the decline too. But without these skills, so much is lost. The chance to communicate and relate to other cultures is absent. The average Brit moves around the non English speaking parts of the world in a bubble of Britishness, deaf to other ways of speaking, living or thinking. That creates feelings of otherness.
Speaking another language is challenging, whenever you start. I don’t deny that, but its what we humans are good at. Our brains are hard wired for language.

And nursery rhymes, songs and ditties are a great way for little kids to get into language. Many of our fairy tales come from Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm, with their dark tales of forests, witches, magic, and stories of good versus evil.

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We shouldn’t worry about not teaching them English well. Kids are like sponges for new things and they love to parrot sounds. The more wordplay and fun with language that children experience, the more their language skills develop. There are lots of online resources for them to learn from. It doesn’t demean English, it enhances it. By exploring other ideas, we begin to recognise ourselves.

Most folk are familiar with songs like Frere Jacques when they hear them. Football and rugby crowds regularly hear the French Marseillaise and other national anthems. Or a psalm like Silent Night (Stille Nacht). To hear those different words sung to a familiar tune can reveal something of the soul of the people, and their unique sensitivities.
If we understand even a little bit of our own and our European neighbours languages, then we understand a little bit about them too and suddenly we have things in common – shared experiences or beliefs, and isolation has no place any more.

Teach your children to enjoy their own and other languages and they will learn to value other cultures too. Words are currency in a global world. It worked for me!

M

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