The ones that got away
To complete my series on the languages I’ve come into contact with during my life, I want to talk about two which, one way or another, have narrowly escaped me: Russian and Italian.
I started learning Russian when I was 13. It was 1976, the Cold War was at its height and Russian was considered to be an important language, either so we could join the Secret Service or because the school thought it would come in handy when Moscow took over the world, we were never told which. When I went to Upper School the pupils who were best at languages were encouraged to take Russian, while the middle ability groups did German, a language which in retrospect would probably have been much more useful to me. But I was seduced, whether by the exoticism of the Cyrillic alphabet or Bond girl fantasies I couldn’t say, and Russian it was.
The alphabet, although initially strange, was no more of a problem than the unfulfilled dreams of scantily clad Katyas and Natashas. Once learned, it’s never forgotten. But Russian does have major difficulties for the learner. The first is the number of case endings, which change words depending on what’s happening to the thing you’re talking about: whether you’re going to it or from it or whether you’re in it or on it and so on. For an English person, used to a language with little inflection, this takes a lot of getting used to. And then there are the verbs. As you gradually learn, Russian has not one but two verbs for everything, and which one you use depends on something called “aspect” which is related to whether the action you are talking about is completed or not. So before you open your mouth there is an awful lot to think about. Perhaps that’s why, despite three years of study and actually managing to pass an O-level exam (just), almost all I can manage to say in Russian now is “Maxim goes for a walk in the park”.
So was it all a waste of time? Maybe. But then again, had I not studied Russian I wouldn’t have gone on the school trip, and not everyone can say they’ve been on a school trip to Moscow and Leningrad (yes, that’s what St Petersburg was called then – this was 1979 and Brezhnev was still alive). It’s true that, at the age of 16, we were far more interested in finding beer (cheaper than Coca Cola in those Communist days), Georgian champagne and vodka, not to mention chasing after convent girls from Congleton who happened to be sharing the trip with us, than we were in the cultural activities planned for us. It’s true, too, that the food was quite simply abysmal, apparently cooked by someone who was working from pictures of Western food without any idea of how it was actually made. This was before the days when you could pop down the road and get a McDonalds if you wanted to remind yourself that Western food can be pretty dreadful too.
But the week was a fabulous experience and one I’ll never forget: Red Square, the Kremlin, an overnight train trip, the Leningrad war cemetery, the Hermitage, and meeting Russian schoolchildren only to find out that, specially selected or not, they were not so different from ourselves. “They teach us here that in England the rich are all right but the poor are slaving in the slums,” one of them said to me. What could I tell her? “Well, it isn’t quite like that…” A month later, Mrs. Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. But having met real Russians I could never buy into all that “evil empire” nonsense she and her friend Reagan were so fond of. And if that’s not an advantage of having learned a language, I don’t know what is, even if precious little of the language has actually stuck.
The other language that’s got away from me is Italian. I’ve been going to learn it several times but somehow never got round to it. Shortly after my divorce I was looking for new interests to get me out of the house and I remember seeing a card in a newsagent’s window advertising Italian classes. “I’ll look into that when I get back from holiday,” I remember thinking, and off I went to Rome for a short break. But, those of you who’ve read the “How I got here” series in my blog will know that on that holiday I met Marta, who is now my wife, and my life took a whole new direction, with new languages – Catalan and Spanish – to learn. Italian had to wait – and it’s still waiting.
In fact, both Marta and I, and our son Pol (although in his case I think it’s largely for the pasta and the pizza) are Italophiles. We love going to Italy (Pol’s only seven and he’s been at least five times) and, if we had more time, I think we’d also all love to learn Italian. Perhaps it’s the sound and rhythm of it that’s so attractive. Perhaps also it’s the fact that, if you know Catalan and Spanish (and, in my case, French) Italian’s not actually so hard to understand. In fact I can understand many Italian speakers reasonably well. But that’s also a disincentive because it makes me lazy. If I go to Italy, I can say one or two words, I can listen to people or read the paper and know more or less what’s being said – so why would I need to learn grammar and verbs and vocabulary? One day, though, I will get round to it…