LibLink: Paddy Ashdown: Learning six languages changed my life

rally paddy 01The Guardian is hosting an exhibition called “The Languages that changed my life” at its office in London. This interests me as I was both good at and fascinated by languages at school and I now have a teenager who almost obsessively studies language, learning Swahili, French and a bit of Mandarin Chinese for fun.

Paddy Ashdown has written a piece for the Guardian’s exhibition  about how his language learning has enhanced his life. There are a couple of quite funny anecdotes. Just be thankful he didn’t make one of them at a diplomatic reception or there might have been an international incident:

Human beings are, above all, communicating animals. That’s what we do best and its what we do first with our brains. Language is, quite literally the stuff of life. The more you can speak of other people’s languages, the more you can be part of their lives and enrich your own.

I was a disaster at languages at school. I obtained 5 out of 200 in O level French – an all time record. I was badly taught and I could never see the point. But then as a young Royal Marine to Singapore in the early 1960s (a bachelor I should stress) I heard that in Malay there was one word for “let’s take off our clothes and tell dirty stories”. Suddenly I saw the point. I never found the word, but in the process learnt my first language.

Then came in the little jungle war in Borneo in the mid-60s. As the only person in Commando who could speak the local language, I was sent to the deep jungle among the Dayak people. In their long-houses there were dried human heads hanging from the rafters. I decided I would feel altogether more comfortable, if I knew their language too.

Then I spent two years learning Mandarin Chinese in Hong Kong. One day, at a banquet with fellow students and teachers I tried to make small talk with my female Chinese teacher. “Have you ever flown in an aircraft?,” I asked. Or that was what I thought I asked. In fact, muddling my Chinese tones, what came out of my mouth was “Have you by any chance sat upon a flying penis?”

You can read the whole article here.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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9 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Oct '14 - 10:31am

    I was thinking about writing an article on languages one day. There’s something liberal about learning another language. Not everyone has the time, but I’d certainly recommend those that do try it. It’s good for work and good for life.

    I don’t think I could manage more than one, but sometimes the situation makes it advantageous, as Paddy demonstrates above. 🙂

  • Paddy Ashdown —
    “…Human beings are, above all, communicating animals. That’s what we do best and its what we do first with our brains. Language is, quite literally the stuff of life. The more you can speak of other people’s languages, the more you can be part of their lives and enrich your own.”

    An essentially Liberal view.
    Which is why I remain a fan of Paddy Ashdown.

  • Bill Chapman 17th Oct '14 - 3:12pm

    My view is that learning any language is worth doing, although life is simply too short to learn them all. We need to ask ourselves which language we are teaching and why. Learn Mandarin, and you’re tongue –tied in Japan. Learn Portuguese and you can’t even ask for a loaf of bread in Germany. Learn Arabic and you are reduced to miming in Russia. The obvious solution would be to make wider use of Esperanto. Perhaps Esperanto is a step too far for readers of Lib Dem Voice?

  • Malcolm Todd 17th Oct '14 - 10:58pm

    I loved the Mandarin anecdote. A friend of mine had a similar experience, in a Chinese area of Malaysia , when a waitress brought him a beer and he asked her (he thought) “Is it cold?” To which she replied, “Sure, have you got balls?” and marched off. When his (Chinese) friend arrived and he recounted, in wounded tones, the tale, he learned that what he had actually asked the waitress was “Have you got tits?”
    Tone, as they say, is everything.

    Bill Chapman
    The trouble with esperanto is that it’s an artificial language, with no native speakers, no literature, no culture. It’s a language that arrived deader than Latin. The ideal behind it was noble but based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what language is and what it’s for: it’s not a code or a tool; it’s a fundamental expression of who and what we are, and it can’t be manufactured from stock. We have to learn to speak each other’s languages, not invent new ones that have no real roots for anyone.

  • Bill Chapman
    In the real world English is a pretty useful lingua franca and is “understood” sufficiently to discuss football in the most unlikely of places. Far better than Esperanto.
    During the 2006 world cup my son was on a small island in the Mekong Delta watching the football in a bar where english was not the local language.
    He was able to understand people and make himself understood to people who came from a number of different countries who would normally speak something other than English.
    Even the Australians present were able to speak some English.

  • Surely a major change for the worse is that being considered middle class is now entirely economic and does not include cultural aspects. It used to be said ” A gentleman knew Latin and a scholar and gentleman knew Latin and Greek”. From the 16C , the middle classes of Europe communicated in French. Ladies sent to finishing school learnt French and sometimes German. Anyone entering the Indian Civil Service had to speak at least 4 Indian languages: Burton spoke 12 . Civil servants and army officers serving in colonies often had to speak several languages as well
    People working in civil, mining or petroleum engineering had to speak the local languages. If one reads the book ” The Great Game” describes how British officers disguised themselves and travelled through Central Asia. When Sandhurst was a 1.5 year course , cadets were taught French and German.

    I would suggest the rise of social sciences, politcs and degrees such as PPE has led to the decline of arts graduates knowing Latin, Greek, French and German.

    I would suggest that the decline in language skills by the middle classes and especially those who influence government has resulted in many mistakes.

  • Neil Blonstein 26th Oct '14 - 3:25am

    For 42 years I’ve anwered the question ” Which Second Language” thousands of times in face to face conversation: Esperanto, the one language whose history is linked to a another word: Peace. Most great languages are linked to another word: War. Make an educated choice. Of cause 90% of the present Esperanto speakers tend to be trilingual, whereas 90% of USA Americans that I know are functionally monolingual.

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