Name: Alison Carminke (Ms)
Nationality or Ethnicity: British
Where do you live?: Wolverhampton, UK
Languages: English, Italian, French, Spanish, and Japanese, Portuguese and German, Dutch*, and Esperanto*, Russian*, Polish*, British Sign Language*, Norwegian*
*Conversant or studying
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
I was raised in a monolingual household, and was a bookworm with a love of English and words. My first memories of language learning are from when I was around 7. My dad started learning some basic Greek for work purposes, and would teach us a few phrases (amazing that I still remember those phrases today). At 11, I started secondary school, where we had compulsory language study of French from 11, Latin from 12 and German from 13. Something just clicked; I picked up languages and accents with less effort than my classmates, and enjoyed seeing the patterns in language structure.
As well as studying French, German and Latin to A-level (national UK exams taken at 18), I was able to study Italian GCSE while at school. This led to 9 months working in Italy as an au pair, which is when I really learned what it is to be fluent in another language. After Italy, I spent 6 months in France. The family I was staying with had a Spanish textbook, so I started learning Spanish, and took that forward to a BA in Language Studies. While doing my degree, I started learning Japanese as I planned to work as an English teacher in Japan. Since then, the rise in online resources has increased exponentially and I’ve just continued learning the languages I’ve taken an interest in.
So I can say that I’ve never really stopped studying languages since I was 11. I don’t always go to classes, as I enjoy studying online, and I don’t often learn with an aim in mind. Sometimes I think a language might come in handy, sometimes it looks like it’ll be easy to study, sometimes I just think it sounds cool. For me, the learning itself is part of the fun, and I think that’s a huge component of why I’ve been able to learn so many languages in a monolingual environment with a generally poor reputation for language learning. It doesn’t take any willpower, I always feel like I want to learn more.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
British Sign Language - I’ve found learning a sign language to be really different from learning a spoken language. There are fewer resources such as dictionaries and textbooks, and most of the video content available is for and by fluent native speakers, so I’ve struggled to find beginner-level materials to practise with. Added to which, many of the common language learning and community platforms are not particularly accessible for D/deaf users, which makes it harder to find native speakers interested in language practice and exchange.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Mandarin and Cantonese are two biggies, which I keep putting off because of the effort involved with the writing system and tones. I also think African languages are neglected by the language community in general - Duolingo offers more conlangs than indigenous African languages (Klingon and High Valyrian vs Swahili). I’d love to learn Swahili and Yoruba.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I don’t really rank the languages I learn. They all have good and bad features. I can be more or less into a particular language at a particular stage in my studies, but otherwise I just can’t compare them.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
For me, the benefits of languages are around communication, and there are two things I really love.
First, being able to facilitate when two people are struggling to communicate. For example, I was in a German airport years ago. Ahead of me at the till, an English speaker was asking for his receipt, and the shop assistant didn’t know what he meant. I was able to jump in and explain, and then instead of leaving the transaction feeling confused and misunderstood, they smiled at each other and went off happy.
Second, being able to have a deeper connection with people. I go to project meetings with participants of several nationalities and a working language of English. By the end of the day, people are tired, particularly if their level of English is low. If I can chat to them in their language, they’ll say things that they may not have bothered to say in English, or that they weren’t sure how to say, because it feels effortless for them in their native language. This has really strengthened the relationships I’ve built with contacts over the years.
6. Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in a 100 years, do you think this is really true?
I really doubt this. History shows us that languages tend to split and diverge into different dialects, and that people feel a lot of pride in their native language, particularly if it becomes endangered. There will always be a need for a lingua franca such as Latin, English or Esperanto (unless future automatic translation becomes much stronger than the current capabilities of Google Translate). However, I think people will always want to preserve their home language if they can. Maybe a situation like in “A Clockwork Orange” is more likely, where dialects become so pronounced that native speakers of different generations can have trouble understanding each other.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Every language you learn opens up a new way of thinking, so you can take something of value from language learning, even if it’s a language you think you’ll never have the opportunity to use.