July 1969 was the month for a momentous journey of discovery. No, not the voyage of Apollo XI, whose crew landed on the moon 50 years ago. Without wishing to rain on the lunar parade of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, my venture into the unknown that very month involved a challenge the astronauts did not face.
When I landed abroad for the first time, everyone spoke French.
I was part of a cargo of Crawley schoolchildren transported for the day across a not-very-tranquil English Channel from Newhaven to Dieppe.
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When the maritime cacophony of clanking and creaking aboard the Villandry finally subsided, dozens of us were set loose for their first contact with Abroad.
Crossing the frontier into France was easy; the teachers had a group passport with our names handwritten on it. But the language barrier was formidable.
My school had interestingly chosen Russian, rather than French, as the first foreign language – apparently for reasons of international solidarity with the Soviet Union.
With farsighted idealism they imagined we would be grateful for the opportunity to converse in Novosibirsk, even though Normandy was considerably closer. After all, by the 21st century the UK and USSR would surely be the very best of pals. That went well, then.
So without even schoolboy French I stepped ashore, armed only with the lyrics from that summer’s Francophone gramophone hits.
Thanks to Fairport Convention’s novel treatment of a Bob Dylan song, “If you’ve gotta go,” I could manage “Si tu dois partir”. I realise now that tu signifies an often-inappropriate degree of intimacy.
At least I didn’t test out the other French-language top 20 success that summer: the smoochy, adults-only “Je t’aime … moi non plus”. They didn’t write that sort of thing in Russia.
Had Google Translate only been invented a few decades earlier, I could have discovered the title of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s adults-only hit means “I love you… neither do I”, yet still been none the wiser.
Whether crooned, spoken or written, language is a code: a series of sounds or shapes that moves a proposal, a request or a thought from my brain into yours.
Computers can now help travellers crack the code, instantly translating foreign menus at the tap of a smartphone app. Yet they are no substitute for the shared humanity of conversation. Speaking to someone in their own language enriches a journey and unlocks a culture.
Starting with the Polyglots Convention, held last autumn in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, I have spent the past eight months meeting “superlinguists” – people who speak many languages.
The purpose: to make a radio series for BBC World Service about polyglots, seeking the qualities they share and discovering how they master 10, 20 or even 50 languages. And crucially for the traveller, to find out if it requires superpowers?
No, the superlinguists chorus in a dozen tongues: anyone can master another language.
A polyglot named Thomas Jayes told me eloquently: “Learning the language of another culture is the first step towards being able to understand that culture properly. And if you understand another culture properly it’s more difficult to have conflict with that country.”
Thomas works an interpreter. His current job: seeking to improve levels of understanding at, unenviably, the European Parliament.
That school trip included inhaling clouds of Gauloises cigarette smoke and battling with Gallic plumbing of the kind that would terrify the bravest astronaut. Yet I sailed back to Newhaven enriched and enthralled by the exotic world beyond.
Since my debut in Dieppe, I have acquired enough French to start to comprehend our neighbours and their foibles, as well as stumbling by in Spanish and German. And thanks to the free lesson in the local language at the Polyglots Conference, I have made a start in Slovene. (“Don’t worry about your accent,” I was told. “Some people may even find it cute.”)
At a time when the British, or at least some of them, are literally turning their backs on Europe, the empathy that speaking a foreign language bestows is more important than ever.
The Superlinguists is currently being broadcast on BBC World Service. The next programme, to be broadcast on 9 July, is about how to learn a language
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