“What do they know of English, those who only English know?”

We at the British Council are currently involved in at least two projects on the theme of multilingualism. One is Language Rich Europe – you’re probably reading this post on the Language Rich Europe project blog right now – and the second is Poliglotti4.eu, which we’re working on in collaboration with our EUNIC colleagues (see Ulla and Julia’s piece last week).  Both projects have received funding from the European Commission.

For these two multilingualism projects, we are recruiting a series of ‘Language Ambassadors’, i.e. people from all walks of life who believe in the benefits of learning other languages and are prepared to say so on camera. They introduce themselves,  answer a series of questions about how they use languages in their work and social lives and tell us about a time when knowing another language came in handy. We’ve had tales involving plain-clothes policemen in Kazakhstan, lobbying in Esperanto for the recognition of Irish as an official language of the EU, and lessons for life in Jamaican patois.

I love making videos and volunteered to film and edit as many language ambassadors as possible to serve both projects (by the way, if you think you fit the bill and want to be interviewed, send me an e-mail). Examples of Language Ambassadors so far include a Belgian multilingual reggae artist (with tattoos on his head), the deputy major of London (no visible tattoos), and Seán Ó Riain, an Irish diplomat who speaks eight languages fluently including Irish, Welsh and, yes, Esperanto.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, Esperanto conjures up images of academic recluses, possibly also shortwave radio enthusiasts, who only ever have the chance to meet other like-minded individuals, and converse with them in this artificial language, at Esperanto Club conventions. I won’t go as far as to say “Well, nothing could be further from the truth” but I will say that since interviewing and editing our Language Ambassador Seán I have drastically revised my opinion.  I also learned a lot in the process.

Five interesting things I didn’t know about Esperanto:

  1. It’s the only language that has a time and place of birth (1887,Bialystok) and is one year younger than Coca-Cola (1886).
  2. It was created by Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, a Belarusian-Jewish ophthalmologist.
  3. At the time, people in Bialystock (back then part of the Russian Empire) spoke Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish, Belarusian. According to Zamenhof, each group “spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies” and he wanted to create a neutral language of communication.
  4. Critics have said that due to its very strong European nature it cannot be considered a world language. However, the grammatical structure is very close to Chinese (although Zamenhof probably could not have known this).
  5. It’s very easy to learn: 3 years of studying French = 1 year of Esperanto.

And perhaps even more interesting were Seán’s arguments in favour of promoting Esperanto in schools (featured in this post). He reckons that of the people who take languages in school, a high proportion do not progress to a level where they feel that they are successful. And this, he thinks, puts them off learning other languages. With short Esperanto courses (Seán said he was challenged by an Australian Ambassador to learn it from a book in 3 months and succeeded) students can quickly get to grips with a foreign language, know what it’s like to be successful, and move onto a more complex language. Also, throughout the process they’ll learn lessons on grammar and pronunciation which will benefit further language learning.

As Seán sees it, learning another language, any language, is fun, and it gives you a better grasp of your mother tongue. He likes to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling’s “What do they know ofEngland, who only England know?” with “What do they know of English, who only English know?” In my case I know that I only learned about language tenses and language parts when I learned Spanish, so I tend to agree.

All Language Ambassador videos will be available soon on the Poliglotti4.eu and Language Rich Europe websites – until then I’d love to hear your thoughts on Esperanto, learning multiple languages, and whether you yourself would like to be a language ambassador. And if you are a shortwave radio enthusiast, you’re also invited to come forward and defend yourself!

Jonathan Brennan (Aptalops).

Meeting of Esperanto speakers in Huesco, Spain (1920)

Meeting of Esperanto speakers in Huesco, Spain (1920)

Some 50 million EU citizens, 10% of the EU population, speak a regional or minority language

Some of my recent posts (Reindeer racing in Sápmi, Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Duit, etc.) have been triggered by news items I’ve spotted in the Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity’s  website. The NPLD is a pan-European network which covers regional, minority, indigenous, cross-border and smaller national languages to promote linguistic diversity in the context of a multilingualEurope.  Some 50 million EU citizens, 10% of the EU population, speak a regional or minority language.

The network currently includes representatives from the following languages: Finnish, Basque, Catalan, Breton, Occitan, Cornish, Welsh, Swedish, Lithuanian, Irish Gaelic, Frisian, Estonian, Sami, Corsican, Galician, Meänkieli and Karelian.

Their aim is to facilitate the sharing of existing best practice and the development of new and innovative ideas across the field of language planning in education, the home, the workplace, legislation and the media in the contexts of constitutional, regional and smaller state languages.

NPLD website

According to the network: “as language planners we are aware that many of the issues facing these linguistic communities will be very similar and that sharing good practice is a must if these languages are to survive and flourish.” 

Further information can be found on the NPLD website (www.npld.eu) which includes news stories concerning the network and European multilingualism, which brings me back to where I started.

Dodgeball is good craic: untranslatable words

I recently completed Google’s ‘‘Living on the Web Quiz’‘. It’s linked to the imminent launch of their new laptop which uses the search engine giant’s own operating system employing web-based applications only. Even though I knew the quiz was a marketing questionnaire masquerading as a quiz, with pretty birthday card imagery,  I couldn’t stop myself somehow. I wanted to see how much I was ‘living on the web’. Turns out less that everyone else.

Image for Google's "Living on the web quiz"

Not living on the web that much

One of the questions was ‘You’re scheduling an important meeting with your dodgeball coach. Do you… (a) use desktop calendar software, like Outlook? (b) use a web calendar that syncs to all your devices, like Google Calendar? (c) pencil it into your schedule book? or (d) write it on your hand? Now, I used to be a (d) person. Then I got a job. Now when I’m in the office I’m an (a) person. However, for some reason I try to be a (c) person (ok, the ‘some reason’ is that I really like those Moleskine diaries that appear every year in my Christmas stocking, but I have to force myself to use them, even perversely writing reminders retrospectively). When I’m not an (a) person I have a technique, which I can’t seem to shake, of e-mailing myself: I write something meaningful / meaningless / nothing in the subject line, a scrap of text or URL in the body, my name in the ‘To’ field, and click ‘send’, hoping I will read it and act on it after an undefined period of time has passed. It’s an imperfect system, but it doesn’t work!

All this is a long-winded prelude to excusing the amount of time which has passed between spotting this nice article by Jane Nethercote on the Lonely Planet blog (September 2010…) called Say again? Words that have no translation, e-mailing it to myself, and getting around to writing about it.

The article begins: ‘Travelling overseas and want to show the locals your know-how? You might not be able to say ‘please pass the cheese’ in Danish, but if you can use ‘hygge’ in a sentence, you’re bound to astound.’ It turns out that ‘hygge’, similar to the Dutch ‘gezellig’ is not so easy to translate.

Hygge is followed by a list of similarly untranslatable words like ‘antojo’ – a whim or sudden craving in Spanish, ‘saudade’ – a melancholic longing for better times in Portuguese, and ‘schadenfreude’ – ‘the classic’, meaning: deriving happiness from others’ unhappiness (interestingly one of the comments refers to a word in Sanskrit which means the exact opposite: ‘mudita’). There are also some more obscure words like the Czech ‘litost’, the Farsi word ‘ta’arof’, and the romantic ‘vacilando’, another Spanish word.

Do you have a word you’d like to share? From Irish I have ‘craic’, but I’ll leave it to the Urban Dictionary to venture a translation. Share your word here.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Duit

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m interested to see that it’s Féile Pádraig that’s trending on Twitter, rather than its title in English (including the variations St. Pat’s, Paddy’s Day, etc.). I’m also reminded of an article I read recently in the Irish Times on a new proposal for the language from Fine Gael, the party that came into power in Ireland after elections in mid-February. Enda Kenny’s party are proposing to make Irish optional after the Junior Cert (roughly equivalent to GCSEs, state examinations taken around the age of 15).  So maybe Irish is not doing so well after all…

Irish, also known as Gaeilge, is the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland. Today, it is spoken as a first language only by a small minority of people in Ireland, and as a second language by a larger minority. However, it is widely considered to be an important part of our (yes, if you haven’t guessed by now, I’m Irish) culture and heritage.  It is also an official language of the European Union and an officially recognised minority language in Northern Ireland. And for all of the above reasons, but mostly for cultural/heritage reasons I suspect (rather than the language’s practical uses), several hundred students staged a silent sit-down protest at Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament) before making their way to the party’s headquarters to deliver a petition with more than 15,000 signatories opposed to the proposal.

St. Patrick on a 3p stamp

St. Patrick on a 3p stamp

As readers of this blog will know, I’m often at two minds about how we artificially preserve languages, or resurrect them as in the case of Modern Hebrew, and to what extent we shrug our shoulders and allow the natural ebb and flow of languages to take their course.

The reasons for Fine Gael’s proposal are not articulated in the Irish Times piece, however the comments from the protesters give some telling clues, and having been through the Irish education system myself, I can see where they are coming from. Comments refer “to a problem that has been brewing for years”, “Fine Gael […] avoiding the issue” and “it’s a lot easier in the short term to just do away with it and not have to deal with what the difficulties in teaching Irish are.”

Irish is a language that was actively revived in the 19th and 20th centuries after the English occupation of the country as part of a Gaelic revival. However, it seems that the school curriculum has changed little since, and I interpret the comments above as references to this fact. Those who do well at the language in school seem to do so, to a large extent, on account of summers spent in Irish schools in the Gaeltacht parts of the country, i.e. Irish-speaking regions located in the west of the island. These schools are part of the lore of an Irish upbringing where success is generally measured – on the part of the pubescent students at least, rather than the parents who forked out the money – by the number of members of the opposite sex one kisses, as opposed to the number of new additions to one’s Irish vocabulary.

Those who don’t, suffer unabated years of reading and writing short stories of idyllic (or deadly boring) picnics on sunny days (?) where ceapairí (sandwiches), milseáin (sweets) and cáca milis (cake) abound. However, joking aside, the immersive nature of these schools, where a full sentence in English could see you sent back to Dublin in shackles, or at least disgrace, are a far cry from the sterile Irish classes I experienced.

My friend Philip just asked me if I honestly think that the proposal, if implemented, would make any difference, positive or negative, to the language. I always contrast my 10+ years of learning Irish to the 5 years I spent learning Spanish: I received an A+ in Spanish at ‘Honours level’ in the Leaving Certificate – my highest mark – yet struggled to pass the ‘Pass level’ Irish exam. True, this is anecdotal evidence, and true, a term abroad in Murcia did wonders for my Spanish, but I feel that my learning there was supported by the curriculum, not deadened by it. So Philip, if you’re reading – I doubt the number of fluent Irish language speakers will ever tip the balance. And while it continues to be an obligatory subject, Irish will continue to plod along.

However, with Irish threatened by becoming optional after 15, and the curriculum staying as it is, a decline must surely ensue. But how about a scenario where teaching methods are updated, textbooks are revitalised, and terms in Irish schools are incorporated into the curriculum? Maybe we’ll master the language by 15 and can then choose fairly whether to continue or not.

Anyway, Happy Paddy’s Day to one and all, I’m off for a gargle (not Gaelic but Hiberno-English – a whole other language!).