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My History Learning Languages

Anyone that knows me knows I’m a total language nerd.

I learnt four foreign languages at school (to various levels), studied linguistics at university and have taught myself three other languages since then.

While I don’t claim to speak all these languages now to a useable level, I do know bits of them and can recognise, understand and parrot them to varying degrees.

I am not so much a numbers person: words come to me much easier, and learning language has always fascinated me as I find it such a great way to become familiar with other cultures and expand my mind. Here’s my history of learning languages.

1997: French, German

When I first started secondary school at age 11, I was required to learn both French and German. I went to a state school that specialised in foreign languages, and we had two lessons a week for each. I already knew a bit of French at that stage from having grown up with several French au-pairs and having travelled to France with my family on multiple occasions. I liked them both and always looked forward to the classes, perhaps partly because I was one of the teachers’ favourites!

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1999: Spanish, Japanese

In my third year of secondary school (when I was 14), I had the option to start a third foreign language and could choose between Spanish and Russian. I chose Spanish and immediately loved it: it was like French but without all the complicated grammar!

I then also had the chance to do very basic Japanese classes in my lunch break once a week, so of course I jumped at it! As I said: language nerd. While now I wouldn’t say that I speak Japanese, I do understand a lot about the phonology of the language, the writing system and difficulties that Japanese speakers have with learning English.

Spanish is to this day probably my strongest foreign language, and this is largely due to having lived in Spain briefly, travelling around South America for 10 months and having several Spanish-speaking friends.

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2008: Mandarin

After I finished university, I got a job working in a bookshop to save up some money so that I could travel. When I decided that I wanted to travel from Singapore to London by land and that I wanted to spend a reasonable portion of that trip in China, it made sense to learn a bit of Mandarin.

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This was my first experience of teaching myself a language, and though I was slow at first, I made some reasonable progress. The unusual thing about the way I learnt was that I only focused on speaking and listening, so when I was actually in China, I could not read anything at all! This confused locals quite a lot and meant that I would talk more to people in restaurants and train stations for example, as I couldn’t simply read the menu or timetable to get the information I needed.

On our recent trip to Taiwan, I got to use my Mandarin again a bit, mostly to ask for vegan food! I found that in Taiwan many more people could speak some English than in China seven years ago. This combined with the fact that I hadn’t used it for several years meant I didn’t speak as much as before and made me realise that I would like to pick it back up again soon.

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2010: Arabic

After my first year of teaching English, I decided to take some time off to travel in the Middle East. Again, it seemed logical to me that I should learn some Arabic in that case. I focused on Levantine Arabic, as I would be travelling through Syria and Jordan, and this is a quite different dialect from what is spoken in Egypt or further west in the Arabic speaking world.

Though I didn’t learn much more than the introductory basics and some food vocabulary, and in fact didn’t need it that much as a lot of people spoke at least some English, it was a nice way to connect with people at first. Unlike with Mandarin, however, I did teach myself some reading and writing, and towards the end of my month spent in Syria, I definitely started recognising words on signs, labels and buildings, which was quite satisfying.

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2016: Swedish

I’ve been flirting for several years with the idea of learning Swedish, ever since the time Zab and I almost bought a house in the Swedish countryside. I have several friends in Sweden, and I always liked how it sounded. From a linguistic point of view, I always liked that Swedish had some very unique features, such as pitch accent and having a sound that exists in no other language. Recently, I started teaching myself some Swedish more formally than just by asking friends for vocabulary and parroting, then likely forgetting it! Let’s see if it sticks this time.

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If you’re serious about learning a language, and also want to tie it in to a travel experience, check out