Confessions of a late bilingual  

My name is Madeleine and I work for Bilingualism Matters. A large part of my job involves promoting the idea – to parents, teachers, public bodies – that early language learning (during pre-school and primary school years) is a Good Thing. Sadly, I have no personal experience on which to draw.

I grew up in an old salt mining town in north-west England, and it’s fair to say that it wasn’t exactly a hotbed of bilingualism. My first exposure to another language came at the local comprehensive: two hours a week learning the French present tense by rote while the boys (“Greeny”, “Hughsey”, “Clarkey”) drew on each other with chalk. At about the same time, I went to the local library and, for reasons I still can’t remember, requested a set of Teach Yourself Swedish cassettes that had to be ordered in specially from Manchester. I kept at it for months, acquired a Swedish penpal, all the while dreaming of the far off glamour of Nordic winters. Alas, most of the Swedish has long since deserted me, though I will always have a soft spot for Swedish athletes in the Olympics. And for Wallander, of course.

In my second year of high school I took up German. My resounding memories of this course are (i) the textbook, illustrated with anthropomorphic sausages in Bavarian hats, and (ii) my GCSE oral exam (Why do you need to cancel this campsite booking? Weil meine Mutter gestorben ist). In third year I tried – and failed – to take up Italian (not enough interested students). French I carried on at A-level – I still remember the shock of a teacher who spoke for the whole lesson in French – and then University.

Prior to starting my degree, I took a year out. I hesitate to call it a gap year, because for me that conjures up images of life-changing experiences saving endangered primates in Borneo or transforming children’s education in Africa. I, on the other hand, spent my year out doing the washing up in a provincial French hotel with a line manager who was arrested for fraud three weeks after I left. But what my year out lacked in exoticism, it made for in linguistic education. After six months chatting with kitchen hands and delivery men, I could gossip and swear with the best of them. There were, of course, problems with this approach. Who knew, for example, that bordel or meuf were not necessarily words to be used in polite conversation? Not me. I remained blissfully unaware of all sorts of pragmatic nuance until spending a year at a French university three years later. In university seminars, it was quickly made clear, verlan would not be tolerated.

After graduation I went to Japan for three years, speaking no Japanese at all. I studied hard and, living in a small rural community, learnt fast. Apart from the writing. I decided early on that I would be better off investing my time in conversation rather than kanji. Looking back, I still think it was the right choice, if only because being an essentially illiterate citizen in a society where education is so prized was an eye-opening and humbling experience.

Now, five years after leaving Japan, and eight years (EIGHT YEARS!) after the end of my French degree, I’m ashamed to say that I barely use either language at all. I made a half-hearted attempt to use my Japanese through the University of Edinburgh’s language exchange scheme, but my first partner was so clearly appalled by my Northern accent that I’m ashamed to admit I never went back. And so my Japanese has slipped, and slipped. My French has slipped slightly less, since it was better to begin with, and I still listen to French radio when I can. But the biggest slippage of all has been my confidence.

I mumble and then shrug when people ask if I speak Japanese. I find myself dreading meeting French people in case they expect me to talk in French. I am, if truth be told, sliding into that dreadful British mindset: because I can’t speak the language perfectly, I’d better not speak it at all. It doesn’t help that my work means I’m surrounded by fluent bilinguals day in day out. For some, that might provide an incentive to use what languages they have. For me – and this is my real confession – it has meant one long kicking for my linguistic self-esteem, a constant reminder of my monolingual childhood.  The truth is, where once I thrived on finding new – often unconventional, if not wholly ungrammatical – ways of saying things in other languages, over the past five years I have slowly but surely become too ashamed of my imperfect grammar to speak these languages at all. I have become afraid of not being understood.

Last month, the Principal of the University of Edinburgh, Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, officially opened the new Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University. In doing so, he challenged us all to learn another language – but he could equally have challenged us to overcome our fear of using those languages we already have. Languages take work, at least for us late learners, and that can be frustrating. I know to my cost how easy it is to slip into a vicious circle of avoidance behaviour: the more I need to practice my French, the more I embarrassed I become about speaking it. But meeting so many language enthusiasts – fluent and otherwise – at the launch event reminded me what I love about languages, and have always loved, in spite of the sausage-themed textbooks and indifferent classmates. It reminded me of the joy of be able to say something.

At the outset, I didn’t intend this blog piece to be quite so confessional. I’ve toyed with deleting and re-writing the whole thing. But I have also wondered how many people like me there must be: able to speak a language, but too frightened of making a mistake to do so. I thought it was about time that I owned up and I hope – excuse the touch of megalomania – that by doing so, I may convince one or two others to join me. So here we are. I am publishing this post in order to hold myself to account. Being a non-native speaker of a language isn’t just about learning words and grammar. It’s also about learning to trust in your own ability to communicate, funny accent and all, and in other people’s ability to listen and to empathise (is someone really going to run off screaming because of a misplaced vowel? I would hazard that if so, it’s probably not worth our time speaking with them in the first place).

My challenge to myself is to rediscover that trust. I hope you will join me.