This is the third in my series of missives about how I used to do more stuff than I do right now. This one is about languages. I got quite carried away when I wrote this and even by last week’s standards, (which was a marathon post about marathons) this part was threatening to be too long. So I’ve cleverly split it into two posts, except that, as it was already meant to be the third part of a much longer series, splitting it into two parts and calling them parts 1 and 2 wasn’t going to work. So I’ve adopted the ‘maths textbook’ method of classification and I’m calling this part ‘3a’ and the second part will be ‘3b’. I hope that’s clear enough. I could just learn to self-edit and then I wouldn’t have these problems, but for now this system will have to do.
And so without further ado, let us begin…
In many ways I have all of the hallmarks of a secret agent and international man of mystery.
If nothing else I have the correct initials. For, and this may come as something of a surprise to long-time readers, my name is not James Proclaims. That is a pseudonym I use for the purposes of sharing my inconsequential ideas, meaningless meanderings and witless witterings with the literally tens of readers who visit this blog on a daily basis.
Indeed, my first name isn’t actually James. But lest you abandon this blog in disgust at my fraudulent forename, I should point out that ‘James’ does appear on my birth certificate as my given middle name. And, perhaps more pertinently, ‘James’ is the name most people call me. So it really is my name to all intents and purposes.
But I do have a different legal first name that I never use. It is a name of Indian origin. That fact is possibly pertinent to this post, but more of it later. Its only relevance now is that, like ‘James’ it begins with a ‘J’. And my actual surname begins with a ‘B’.
So my initials are JB. Well JJB if we’re going to be pedantic.
But much as I enjoy a bit of pedantry, now is not the time.
So we’ll dispense with the middle initial and state that my initials are JB.
And, in the world of fictitious spies, having the initials ‘JB’ is qualification enough to join the club.
A club which includes luminaries such as James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer.
Need I go on?
Obviously I can’t actually go on, those three are all I can think of.
But still, it’s pretty conclusive proof, if proof were needed, that having the initials ‘JB’ is absolutely a reason that I should have been a spy.
But I’ve got other qualifications too.
I’m highly intelligent. Well, I can solve a Rubik’s cube, given enough time (and a quick peek at the solution), I’ve read at least two novels by Charles Dickens and I get the odd question right when I watch University Challenge (in fact I should get ‘intelligence’ bonus points for the fact that I watch University Challenge at all, even though it is Mrs Proclaims who is the fan and indeed it is she who makes me watch it).
I’m skilled in hand-to-hand combat. Or I go to a martial arts class twice a week when I can be bothered to. After almost three years I’m no longer the worst in the class. However, I’m really not sure if I’d be any good in a fight. I suspect if a fight broke out in my vicinity, I’d be notable by my sudden absence and the James-shaped hole in the nearest wall.
Women adore me. Well a woman adores me. At any rate the signs seem to be that Mrs Proclaims is still relatively fond of me…
I drive fast cars. Or I drive cars fast. I mean I once got a speeding ticket for driving at 47mph in a 40mph zone. In a Ford Ka of all things. I took the speed awareness course rather than the points on my licence. On reflection, I’m not really proud of that at all. It was a bit regrettable actually…
I can speak multiple languages fluently. Who am I kidding? I can barely speak English fluently some days. At least not until I’ve had my first coffee of the day…
But that does bring us to the point of part 3 of ‘Stuff I Used To Do But Don’t Do Anymore (Or How I’ve Become A Less Interesting Person Over Time)’
Because an ever-present lie on my CV is my stated love of learning languages.
I do quite like learning new languages, but to include it on my CV suggests that I am something of a proficient linguist and that is, frankly, not the case.
It is true is that I would like to be able to speak multiple languages well. Even back when I was a hormone-fuelled mix of lust, rage and confusion, otherwise known as a teenager, I always thought it would be pretty cool to speak lots of languages.
And not just so I could chat up girls of an international disposition.
Although it was a little bit so I could chat up foreign girls.
Which was actually an odd motivation, because I was never very good at chatting up girls in my native tongue, so why I thought I’d be any good at it in another language is anyone’s guess.
But teenage lust aside, I’ve always seen the relevance and importance of learning other languages.
In reality, however, I’ve mastered none particularly well.
I can speak French to a reasonable standard, but when you take into account the fact that I lived in Paris for three years and my degree is in French Studies, my actual ability to communicate with francophones is not all that impressive.
Perhaps I do myself an injustice. The trouble is that I’m married to Mrs Proclaims who also has a degree in French Studies and a master’s degree in eighteenth century French literature. She is quite a lot better than me at French but to be fair she is also better than some actual French people.
Certainly if I met a French person who couldn’t speak English, I’d be more than confident that I could communicate with them quite well.
But being able to speak French, when you’ve got a degree in French, is hardly proof of a ‘love of learning languages’.
I think, though, that when that particular sentiment first made the cut for my CV, it was sort of true. I did like learning new languages, and more pertinently, I intended on learning as many as I possibly could.
It’s just that that hasn’t really transpired in the way I’d hoped.
I suppose my linguistic journey began right at the beginning of my life. I was born of an Indian Father and an English mother and exposed therefore to both English and Punjabi from my earliest days.
Except that I wasn’t really, because my father is Indian in the sense that he was born in India to Indian parents. However, he moved to the UK when he was four years old and his main language is English. He can speak Punjabi, although he claims he can’t speak it well, but he never used it at home or taught me or my sisters to speak it.
But I was still exposed to it as a child, because lots of people in my extended family do speak Punjabi and if nothing else I must have heard my father using it on the phone quite a lot. Certainly whenever we visited my grandparents it was spoken a lot.
It’s a shame that I never learned to speak it. I often think about rectifying that fact, but it wasn’t something that was taught in either primary or secondary school so I’m not sure how I was ever supposed to learn it as a child.
Maybe my dad could have taught me, but that would be supposing that I ever showed any interest, which I probably didn’t, and that he was able to. He’s not overly confident with the language himself, although he’s probably much better than he thinks. He taught me plenty of other things – he’s probably the main reason I’m good at maths. I’m certainly not crediting the UK education system with that.
Anyway, I was exposed to Punjabi but I can’t really speak it, and then, because I grew up in Wales, I was also exposed to Welsh. I never knew anyone who spoke Welsh particularly, but you see the language everywhere, on street signs and buildings, and there’s a Welsh language TV channel. Plus, they do teach Welsh in schools so I studied Welsh from the age of four until the age of sixteen. I even have a GCSE in Welsh. And I got a B so I can’t have been that bad at it.
But I had no-one to practise with. Everyone in the bit of Wales that I grew up in speaks English. So I was never hugely motivated by the language and I never really got very good at it.
I just didn’t see the point of it.
Years later I would realise that lots of people in other parts of Wales do speak Welsh and I wish I had tried a bit harder. Like Punjabi, I often think that I would like to have an opportunity to rediscover Welsh.
Still I learned enough to be able to pronounce some of the more obscure place names and to be able to sing the national anthem so that’s something.
But it would be fair to say that I was still monolingual when I made the transition from primary to secondary school and began learning French.
However, it is apparently a theory that being exposed to multiple languages in your early years, even if you never learn to speak them, can make you more able to pick up languages later in life. An educational psychologist told me that.
I’m not sure how true that is, but it would explain why I always found French easy in school.
I had been exposed to French for the first time two years prior to secondary school when my parents took me and my sisters abroad for the first time in our lives. Until then family holidays had always been in the UK. I didn’t mind, I didn’t know any better. Some of my friends were travelling to more exotic places and I would listen with awe as they told me about their experiences on aeroplanes and ferries. Mostly though, their families seemed just to be seeking warmer climes and even as a young child I wasn’t overly impressed by tales of hotels and resorts with swimming pools and waterslides.
And our holidays in the United Kingdom were always pretty exciting. My sister and I still fondly recall a place we frequented in Cornwall called ‘Merlin’s Magic Land’. My parents assure me that it was a tacky little place that they discovered by accident and which they took us back to more than once simply because it kept us quiet for a few hours. To us, though, it was genuinely magical.
So really, when my parents were finally able to take us abroad for the first time, it probably coincided with me being of an age where I could appreciate the experience properly.
Two week in a Gite with a leaky roof might not have been the most luxurious of accommodations, but my first exposure to the French culture, eating croissants and baguettes, seeing people driving on the wrong side of the road, and speaking in a strange, exotic language struck a chord deep inside me.
And my parents, though not fluent in French (my mum can speak it reasonably well, though lacks confidence, my dad can’t speak it that well, but lacks no confidence) were always equipped with a phrase book and always insisted on having a go. Plus, we travelled with another family who also had a French speaker of sorts in their midst. To me, the father of that family (for it was he who was the linguist) and my mother took on superhero status through their ability to communicate with the natives. Admittedly many of the natives spoke perfectly good English, but not all of them could. I knew from that holiday onwards that speaking French was something I wanted to be able to do.
The following summer we went to Italy, this time we camped via the magic of Eurocamp (which is camping without the hassle of having to pitch your own tent and with semi-decent facilities available). On the way, because we drove, we went through lots of other countries. We drove through France, Luxembourg, Switzerland and we spent a night in Germany on the way down. We were with the same family as the year before but this time no-one really spoke Italian. Nonetheless, equipped with a phrasebook we all had a go. I learned a few key phrases that I used more and more as we discovered that our assumptions that, as in France, most people would speak English were woefully misplaced. It was fine in the campsite and when we had a day trip to Rome, but other, smaller towns we visited, were not so accommodating to the Anglophone and we were force to communicate with what little Italian we had managed to pick up and a lot of gesticulating.
I loved it. Without my parents’ linguistic skills to rely on it was a proper challenge and it stimulated me in ways I can’t describe.
But the thing that made me want to be multilinguistic more than anything was when I was hanging out in the campsite play park, sitting on the swings and I heard some other children talking. They were not British, I couldn’t quite work out what nationality they were, but they were counting to ten. In lots of different languages. They were having a competition to see how many languages each of them could count in. English, French, Italian, German, were all accounted for, but others too, languages I couldn’t even begin to guess at.
They were younger than me. I felt inadequate. I did my own mini audit. Obviously by this stage I could count to ten in English, I was eleven years old. I had mastered that skill some years earlier. At this point counting to ten in Welsh was also in my repertoire. French and Italian too I had under my belt thanks to my family’s recent holiday destinations. But I could offer no more than that. To be fair I was probably two languages ahead of most of my peers at that point. Because, aside from Welsh, we didn’t learn languages in primary school, but I wanted to be able to speak more and to do more than count to ten.
By the following September, when I moved into secondary school and French was on the curriculum for the first time, I was a fully motivated student.
And I was good.
Perhaps the previous two years of holidaying had given me an advantage over my classmates, or perhaps I had discovered something that I was actually talented at, but I was top of that class for most of that year.
The summer following on from my first year of secondary school and we holidayed in France again. And you could not stop me from speaking French, at every available opportunity.
I would pay for things in shops, order things in cafes. I got stuck a few times of course, but I was having a brilliant time.
More holidays to France came and went in the years that followed. On one trip my mum reconnected with her French pen pal, the girl she had met during her own school days as part of an exchange trip.
An exchange was arranged for me. Well, first we accommodated the eldest boy from that family and then I went and spent a week in the Loire valley with them. It was terrifying but my confidence grew even more.
I sat my GCSEs. Alongside my ‘B’ in Welsh I managed to get an ‘A’ in French. I got some others as well. Ten in all. They weren’t bad. I almost certainly underachieved a little in quite a few subjects, but my GCSEs were certainly creditable.
I wanted to continue studying French, but ‘post-16’ education in the UK is not as flexible as some other systems. Traditionally you choose three subjects to specialise in at A-level. In recent years there has been a tendency to choose four subjects in the first year of A-levels and then to drop down to your best three in the second year, but back in the mid-nineties it was more commonplace to just start with three subjects. My choices were Maths, Physics and Chemistry. I say they were my choices, although I don’t recall there being much of a choice at the time. There were a lot of factors influencing me and lots of people telling me what I should take..
To be honest I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life so picking my best three subjects at GCSE seemed like an obvious choice. Maths was a no-brainer – I’ve always been good at Maths, Chemistry was another one I did well in, although I’m not entirely sure why I did well, I didn’t especially love Chemistry, but I got a good grade so it went on the list. Physics was a less obvious choice, I didn’t do quite as well in that at GCSE, but I had been really ill on the day of the exam and I still came out with a ‘B’ so perhaps an ‘A’ would have been achievable in other circumstances. Mainly I chose Physics because it seemed like a good fit with the other two.
I should have chosen French. I did try and take French as a fourth choice, but I was never a particularly motivated student. I always relied on talent to get me through and hard work was something of an anathema to me. I was a 16-year-old boy for goodness sake. More to the point I was a 16-year-old boy who was trying and failing to get noticed by his female classmates and, furthermore, I’d also started to discover the joys of underage drinking.
There was a lot going on and studying four subjects when all of my friends were studying three meant that French was soon discarded.
Then things went horribly wrong.
I’ll blog about how and why things went horribly wrong in a future post. It’s a good story (not a happy story but a compelling narrative I think) but to cut a long story short, in order to not render this already overly long post even longer, I ended up dropping out of school, two weeks before my eighteenth birthday with no A-levels at all.
Some ‘wilderness’ years followed. My friends all left for university and I did not. I drank a lot. I moved in and out of the parental home a few times. I lived in Nottingham for a few months doing charity work, then I moved back to Wales and specifically to Cardiff, where I attempted to gain my A-levels for the second time
This time I chose to focus on English, History and French. Clearly not the smartest move anyone ever made – it would have been easier and quicker to pick up where I left off with the A-levels I’d previously dropped. My reasons for dropping out of school were only slightly linked with the fact that I was underachieving in Maths, Physics and Chemistry. In fact, I’d have almost certainly got grades in all three (perhaps not the grades I wanted but grades nonetheless) had I finished and so it would have made much more sense to just go back and do those three subjects in college.
But, for various reasons I wanted a fresh start. English and French were not bad choices but I quickly discovered that, while I might find elements of History interesting, as an A-level subject it was not really my thing. After a few weeks I dropped it, in favour of Italian, because, unsurprisingly, French was going very well and the teacher who taught that also taught Italian and told me she thought I’d be able to cope with it quite well.
I did. Much better than I was coping with life at the time. I was still drinking heavily and, because I wasn’t living at home, I was having to hold down a part-time job to pay for my accommodation, which was mainly a series of house-shares with people who encouraged my love of beer rather than my need to study.
Two more years later, and a further A-level dropped (this time English despite the fact that I was, again, doing quite well) and I finally left college with two A-levels in French and Italian.
My wilderness years were to continue a little longer though, because I was equipped with A-levels which didn’t really demonstrate my true potential, a chip on my shoulder the size of a small continent and a fairly obvious commitment to studying languages, because, what else could I possibly do with those A-levels?
So I signed up to Cardiff University, as a mature student, to study Italian. I promptly dropped out within a term because I really wasn’t that mature yet and I also wasn’t really sure what I would do with a degree solely in Italian.
Another year of floundering followed. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Initially upon dropping out I secured a fulltime job working in the stock room of a major high street retailer for a laughably low wage (this was before minimum wage became the law I think) but then I did manage to secure a job working for a major insurance company. The job was boring, easy and utterly without challenge but I did notice that nearly everyone who started at the same time as me was my age and a recent graduate.
And actually being graduates seemed to help none of them progress within the organisation any quicker than me.
I almost, at this point, opted against going back into the world of academia. I wasn’t earning much, but I was earning enough to pay the rent on a small flat share, I was able to afford nights out with my friends. I’d started taekwondo and my social life was fuller and healthier than it had ever been. Through this job I got to go and deliver training to colleagues in Scotland, which meant spending weeks at a time in a very nice hotel, and there were definite career opportunities if the world of financial services was one I wanted to thrive in. I even managed to pass the first stage of the Financial Planning Certificate (no great shakes in reality – it was a multiple choice assessment – but some of my graduate colleagues managed to fail).
In short, life was reasonably good.
Still, I couldn’t shift the idea that I wanted to go to university out of my head, and more pertinently I wanted to further develop my skills in other languages. More than just Italian this time too.
The problem I had was that a language degree meant signing away four years of my life – and worse still it meant getting settled somewhere new for two years (I’d ruled out a return to Cardiff which would have been the local choice) and then moving abroad for a year. I loved the idea of moving abroad, but there was part of me that felt I was getting old (I was still only twenty-two – if only I’d had some sense of perspective…) and that I could ill-afford an extra year at university to accommodate the year abroad. Equally I could see that the notion of doing a language degree without going abroad would be slightly pointless.
I then discovered a course, run by the University of London, that would mean living for three years in Paris. The downside was that I could only study one language rather than two (which would have been an option in nearly every other university) but it would mean that I could avoid the disruption of the year abroad because all three years would be abroad.
I didn’t think through the financial implications of moving to Paris, I didn’t heed the fact that I in no way met the entry requirements for the course. Instead, and with blind faith, I applied.
And somehow, despite managing to turn up for the entry assessment without even remembering to bring a pen (I had to borrow one from one of the other candidates) I managed to get a place.
Talk about turning my life around.
I spent the rest of my twenties in poverty when most of my school friends went on to establish decent (and in many cases lucrative) professional careers.
But I didn’t care. I got to live in Paris.
Living in Paris was cool.
I still think it’s probably the best thing I ever did.
It wasn’t easy though. There were many pitfall on the way to me becoming the upstanding citizen that I am today.
You can read about all of that next week in part 3b of ‘Stuff I Used To Do But Don’t Do Anymore (Or How I’ve Become A Less Interesting Person Over Time)’.