I speak five languages – English, Mandarin, French, Welsh and Irish – more or less fluently, and am able to have at least basic conversations in five others – German, Japanese, Spanish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx and Esperanto. I can understand spoken and written Italian and Porguese to some extent, and can get the gist of texts in other Romance languages. I have a basic knowledge of Cantonese, Taiwanese, Czech, Russian, Breton and British Sign Language, and have picked up bits and pieces of Arabic, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Korean, Latin, Turkish and Urdu.
Since 2007 I’ve sung in a number of different choirs in Brighton, London and Bangor, and attended singing courses and workshops in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. I’ve learnt songs in many languages, especially in English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Manx, and also in French, Spanish, Italian, Corsican, Latin, Bulgarian, Croatian, Greek, Georgian, Russian, Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Yoruba, Tswana and Maori.
Below are details of the languages I’ve studied in some depth, more or less in chronological order.
English is my native language and the language I feel most comfortable with. My default variety is more or less standard British English with a bit of an RP accent. I’m also quite good at mimicking different accents in English and in other languages.
I studied French at secondary school from the age of 11 to 18. It was compulsory at first, then I chose to continue learning it as I found it interesting, was quite good at it, and thought it would be useful if I ended up working overseas, as I hoped I would. I’ve been to France a few times, mainly while I was at school, and also spent three months working on farms in southern France after finishing school. The last time I was in France was a brief business trip in 2000. Since 2009 I’ve practised my French every week at a French conversation group and have more or less regained my fluency in the language. I sometimes listen to French radio and read French novels.
I studied German at secondary school from the age of 12 to 18. During that time I went to Germany and Austria a few times and stayed with local families. This really helped to improve my spoken German. Since then I’ve rarely used my German at all, apart from on a holiday to Germany in 2008, so it has become decidedly rusty. I can still understand and read it fairly well and have a basic conversation, but would need a few weeks or months in a German-speaking environment to regain the fluency I once had.
I did a degree in Chinese and Japanese at Leeds University. I chose Chinese because I thought it would be a useful language to know and because I thought it might be interesting to spend time in China or another Chinese-speaking region. During my second year I spent a semester in Taiwan, a semester in Japan, and four months in China and Hong Kong. After graduating I studied for another year in Taipei (Chinese literature and Classical Chinese), and then worked for the British Council in Taipei for four years. I became fluent in Mandarin during my time in Taipei and am still fluent, though don’t speak Mandarin nearly as often these days.
I studied Japanese at university and spent a semester in Japan during that course. I haven’t been back to Japan since and rarely use my Japanese, so it’s now very rusty. I can still have a basic conversation in Japanese and understand and read it to some extent.
I first started to learn Scottish Gaelic while in Taiwan, mainly because I fell in love with Gaelic songs and wanted to sing them. Since then I’ve learnt more Gaelic and have done a course in Gaelic Song at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye. I can sing, understand and read Gaelic quite well, and can speak and write it to some extent also, though am not fluent yet.
I started learning Spanish while in Taiwan because I planned to go travelling in Latin America, and have learnt some more since then. I didn’t go travelling at that time, but have since been to Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba and Spain, and found my Spanish very useful. I can understand spoken and written Spanish fairly well and can have a basic conversation.
As I have Welsh roots on my mother’s side I’ve always wanted to learn Welsh. I finally started in 1998 and have been dabbling with the language ever since. I listen to Radio Cymru every day and can understand almost everything they say; I have read quite a few novels and short stories in Welsh, and feel confident writing and speaking the language. Since 2008 I’ve lived in Bangor in Wales and I hear Welsh regularly, and speak it whenever I can.
I started learning Esperanto in 1999, mainly out of curiosity – I wanted to see if it was as easy as many people claim. While it does have its own peculiarities, I think Esperanto is a lot easy to learn than most European languages. I can now read Esperanto and understand it, and have had a few written Esperanto chats on Skype. I’ve yet to have a spoken conversation in it though.
I’ve enjoyed listening to Irish music and songs since taking up the tin whistle while at school. I particularly like songs in Irish and wanted to know how to pronounce the words and to learn what they meant. Eventually in 2003 I started learning Irish, and since 2004 I’ve been going to Ireland every summer for a summer school in Irish language and culture where I spend a week speaking Irish and singing traditional Irish sean-nos songs. I often listen to Radio na Gaeltacht (Irish language radio), read novels in Irish and occasionally write in Irish on my other blog, Stwff a lol. I can understand, speak, read, write and sing Irish fairly well.
In 2005 I decided to have a go at Manx. I learnt some basics, then didn’t learn much more of it until 2009, when I wrote a dissertation on language revival with a focus on Manx for my MA in Linguistics. I went to the Isle of Man to do some research and met lots of Manx speakers and learners and tried to use my Manx with them. Since then I’ve returned to the Isle of Man most years for Yn Chruinnaght or Y Cooish, festivals of Manx and other Celtic music, languages and cultures at which I get to speak not only Manx, but also Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, and hear Cornish and Breton. I now have basic conversational fluency in Manx and can understand read, write and sing in it quite well.
I’ve been learning Russian on and off since 2006. I started using a Rosetta Stone course, mainly to see what it was like – I wouldn’t recommend it. Then had another go at the language for a few months in 2011 with an online course – I made a lot more progress this time. Since November 2012 I have been studying Russian fairly regularly using Oxford take off in Russian course, which I am finding much better than other courses I’ve tried. My first opportunity to use my Russian to any extent came in December 2012, when my brother married his Russian girlfriend and I found what little Russian I knew by then very useful when speaking to her relatives and friends at the wedding – my sister-in-law speaks English very well, but few of her relatives speak any English.
I started learning Breton in October 2012 inspired by a visit from some Breton-speaking couch surfers, who stay with me for a few days. I try to learn a bit of Breton everyday with the Assimil course Le Breton Sans Peine – so I’m also improving my French as the course is in French. I listen to Breton language radio regularly and am starting to understand some of it. I can also get some sense out of written Breton.
Current language use
While I use my foreign languages whenever the opportunity arises, English is the language I speak most of the time. Since 2010 I have been going to a French conversation group every week; in 2013 I started a polyglot conversation group where I have opportunities to speak Welsh, French, German and Spanish, and sometimes other languages; and I use my Irish at a summer school in Ireland every summer. Apart from that most of my language use involves listening and reading, plus some writing on my other blog, Stwff a lol. I am also studying Breton and Russian at the moment.
Ultimately I’d love to be fluent in all the languages I’ve studied or dabbled with, and in many others. I recognise that this is perhaps overly ambitious so am concentrating on maintaining and improving my Welsh, Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, French and Mandarin.
Other languages I might get round to learning one of these days: Basque, Cornish, Greek, Hawaiian, Norwegian, Swahili, Swedish