Polyglots I have known…

13 05 2022

As I sit here in what was once “the play room”, I reflect on how my three wonderful offspring beat several shades of shit out of each other in this very room and in so doing learnt the finer points of tolerance and overcoming sibling rivalry. Politics as we adults call it. We were not smothering parents and largely let them find their own paths through life as long as it was unlikely to involve the Police. All three bear physical scars from some of those lessons (concussions from rugby, leg scars from careless interactions with ice skates, gaps in eyebrows due to childhood face plants), but they are amongst the finest human beings I am privileged to know.

Also – they all speak at least one other language fluently. The middle one speaks at least three in addition to English to my knowledge. Possibly four – not quite sure about the Spanish.

As I type, I can hear Mrs. E. adding Portuguese to her own repertoire via Duolingo in the other room. We joke it is in preparation for our next trip to Madeira. Last time we made do with “thank-you” and “bus-stop”. Paltry fare indeed.

Embracing other cultures and the way they speak to one another is important to the fam jam. We’ve always enjoyed travelling and learning. One of the offspring lives in MontrĂ©al, another in Salzburg, Austria, where they both speak fluently in other languages in their everyday lives.

Myself, I have a smattering of schoolboy French and German. I can remember very little of the Latin I studied though it unexpectedly emerges from my hind brain and helps when I’m reading menus in exciting unfamiliar countries. My greatest achievement is learning “thank-you” in a dozen or so countries though. Not much I admit, but it’s better than nothing, and likely more appreciated than fluently conversing about the spot price of fugu and the location of the nearest emergency hospital.

But the point of this posting is the terrible events currently occurring in Ukraine. We “cut the cord” a few months ago and no longer get broadcast TV. It works very well for us (and my wallet), but sometimes I miss the current news and sadly the Canadian news outlets (CBC – looking at you) have largely moved on and barely mention the continuing atrocities being meted out on a sovereign European state. There’s lots of ice hockey being broadcast though – got to get one’s priorities right!

But then we discovered DW (Deutsche Welle) on our Roku, and hit pay-dirt. DW is a German government funded news outlet, but it doesn’t broadcast within Germany. They offer many foreign language programmes, and our particular interest is that they do a daily 25 minute precis of the world’s news in English. It’s produced in Berlin and is Europe-centric though with a global reach. It’s similar in style to the BBC, but unlike the BBC is readily available without fees from here in Canada via our lovely Roku. Their web site even offers German language courses for free.

And the polyglots? Ah – that is the real point of my posting. Here is a German government-funded news outlet, typically hosted by American or occasionally English talking heads interviewing people from all over the world (currently about Ukraine and EU politics, gas pipelines, etc.) in English. And these interviewees all speak flawless English, frequently with complex idioms and quirky turns of phrase illustrating complete comfort with the language. Some are professional journalists or national politicians who no doubt often present in English, but others are academics, analysts or simply people impacted by the events being discussed.

I realise they would only invite people with good English skills, given the medium, but I am humbled by the number of languages many people have at their command. It is so sad that many English-speakers don’t see the need or attraction in learning other languages. There is a theory that THINKING in another language can open you up to new ideas, as your brain strings thoughts together in a slightly different way. Intriguing concept.

I am far too impatient to formally learn another language (a common excuse I’m sure), but I am grateful for the basic command I have of French and German, and am totally open to carrying around a phrase book and stumbling my way through interactions in foreign countries rather than simply “talking louder in English” until I get what I want. Saying thank-you isn’t much, but whenever I go somewhere new, it is the first thing I acquire – before even leaving the airport.

So, with that said, I’m off to see what Brent Goff has to tell me tonight, and no doubt be humbled once more by someone speaking better English than me with a slight accent.