Life after languages


When I finished university in July 2017, I was dead set on getting a job that used my languages. I jumped into a graduate job exactly because it gave me the chance to use the skills I’d been developing for four years. To do something that didn’t involve German and Chinese seemed like a great waste.

After a brief stint in that job, and then striking out for a short while as a translator, I’m now studying for a degree that has no language requirements and work a couple of hospitality jobs, which also do not require a Bachelor’s in modern foreign languages. People often ask: “so, are you making the most of your languages?”

Often I can’t help but think, “not really”. It’s true that you use it or you lose it, and while my comprehension and polite conversation skills are alive and well (for German, at least), my expression is hardly precise any more. I’m not the verbal gymnast I was when I popped out of uni looking for work.

I never regretted studying two languages at the time, and I’m still glad I did it that way. It’s easy to think I could have made it as an architect or a chemist, but at heart I’m a linguist. As I have had to clarify on many occasions to many different people, my degree was about much more than formal language learning, in any case. Within the scope of my course were fields of visual culture, anthropology, ethnicity, cultural studies, history, literature.

There is much more to studying a language than the ability to converse and communicate. Language, as much as a tool for ordering two beers or asking the location of the toilets, is about perspective. Especially as a white Brit, it is the norm to grow up monolingual. You slip into believing that the world is on your wavelength, that because “everyone speaks English” they’ll understand everything else you’re saying as well.

More than improving my German or my Chinese, learning foreign languages gets you out of your own cultural bubble into another. It doesn’t matter which cultural bubble you jump into, just one that isn’t your own. You have to enter into a new system without (m)any of the usual referents. A language is a collection of signs, all pointing to each other, which cannot be understood in constant reference to what you already know.

At some point, the “translation in your head” has to stop. Then you’re afloat in a new cultural system. You deal with it on its own terms and give up the need to hang on to the similarities with your native language, because your native language is no help here. Foreign language learning de-centres you. It makes you realise that there are many equally valid systems for making meaning: you just happen to have grown up with a specific system, with all its many invisible limitations.

A language appears whole and complete to its speakers. The vocabulary is sufficient, we have all the words we need and we can always add a few ore if necessary. But words are not as absolute as we like to think they are. They are not islands that ground us in a shifting world; words are more like the sea itself, subject to constant change.

All language is abstraction that we overlay on top of a complicated and messy reality. We use words as if they just mean what they mean, and we have to, otherwise nothing would make sense. But when there is only one language available, you will believe that there is only a single language of reality.

In truth, my English is one way among many of comprehending experience and environment. And as competent as my English may be, it too never quite expresses what I intend. I may struggle to articulate myself in German or Chinese, but now that I see the world from those perspectives, I realise that English is not the perfect linguistic system I was led to believe. Languages are full of gaps, and none of them can perfectly capture what we experience.

As basic as it may sound, a foreign language teaches you that not everyone thinks like you do. The global reach of English lulls you into a sense of sharing a perspective with speakers across the world. Even within “English” are mutually unintelligible varieties and standards that we in the UK would not recognise as “our” English.

After finding myself adrift in unfamiliar languages, I have a much greater appreciation for those who struggle their way through life in Britain. There is nothing quite like the humiliation of having complex and nuanced thoughts, and yet lacking the language to actually express oneself. All of us native speakers should be patient in listening to the foreigner: it is much more awkward and frustrating to be on the other side, without the power to articulate.

Although I may not speak German every day or make use of Chinese in my work, I’ll always be glad of the perspective that these languages have given me. I may have lost much of my fluency and vocabulary, the value of the learning is still there and informs who I am today in my life after languages.