A hard-won flair

Me in Peru at the age of 22, busy learning Spanish

Me in Peru at the age of 22, busy learning Spanish

Several British journalists have asked with incredulity and a hint of admiration how come I ‘speak so many languages’. My standard response is embarrassment and stout denial.

Don’t think the denial is false modesty; it’s firmly grounded in fact. By sheer fluke, I grew up with two mother tongues, Dutch and Limburgish, the national and regional languages of my hometown. Studying English is compulsory in Dutch schools. Choosing German as a subject is wholly unremarkable, and the same with French. Since my school days, I’ve added only Spanish to the collection, severely damaging my French in the process. I don’t have the figures, but I’m pretty sure tens of thousands of Dutch people have a similar story. I’m just one of those who ‘speak a nice little word across the border’, the Dutch expression for being able to travel abroad and still talk to people.

The one eccentric thing is that, as a hobby, I’ve taught myself to read (not speak!) Danish and Norwegian, but these twin languages share so many similarities with Dutch, English and German that this wasn’t exactly rocket science either.

What I will not deny is that I have something of a flair for languages, particularly in their written form. But even this is susceptible to a much less awe-inspiring explanation than my having some miraculous, gene-given talent: the 10,000-hour rule, to use the fashionable phrase. Practice, that is, and lots of it.

Let me substantiate this claim with a linguistic microautobiography. Foreign language learning at school can’t, between lessons and homework, have taken up fewer than 5,000 hours. From the age of 14 to 18, I exchanged almost daily letters with my then German girlfriend and we spent several weeks a year together, with some 2,000 hours of rather varied activities in German as a result. Between the ages of 21 and 30, I spent some 15 months in Spanish-speaking countries, mostly among locals, which works out at 3,000 hours or more of doing and discussing all sorts of things in Spanish.

I’m doing the maths while writing, and I’m surprised to find that these three things alone already take the total beyond 10,000. And there is more. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours studying Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Esperanto, Russian, Czech, Dutch Sign Language and other languages (another eccentricity, granted) are bound to have added to my general linguistic competence and confidence, even though my skills in any one of these languages range from laughably poor to practically non-existent. On top of that, I’ve concentrated for a great many thousands of hours on – mostly – English-language conversations, books, audiobooks, magazines, films and songs. My mind may well have been buzzing away in one of my non-mother tongues for a grand total of more than 10 percent of my waking hours since the age of 12 (and occasionally in my dreams as well).

So while I think I’m right to say that that I don’t speak all that many languages, perhaps I ought to add that I have developed pretty good language skills. Given the amount of practice, I would have to be pretty thick not to.

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