Where were you born?

My father’s family lived in the same valley for at least 300 years until my grandfather, the youngest of seven brothers, realised there wasn’t much of a future for him on a small farm, and set off for the big city more than a century ago.

My neighbour’s family have lived in the same village since 1718.

But times are changing.  I don’t live in the same country as my ancestors and in fact I have lived in 4 countries so far,  and my husband can add a couple more to that, as well as having visited several more, both in Europe and elsewhere.   As for my neighbour her only son emigrated to New Zealand and in a few weeks her grandchild will be born there.

The fact is, the world is on the move.

I went shopping this week  – the milk was labelled in Arabic, the chocolate from northern Europe  (from somewhere in Scandinavia I think) and the soup I could not even begin to identify – possibly Hungarian?  A new Ukrainian shop has opened a mile away and if I go into town I will see people from many countries  – eastern Europe , Korea, Japan, the Philippines and lots of other places.   This in a town where, until  quite recently, people thought those from Rotherham or Barnsley, towns less than 20 miles away, as being ‘furriners’.  

What is all this doing to the English language?  Well, I think it makes it more interesting.  My grandfather translated in his head before he spoke and so he never spoke about going up stairs but instead went ‘up the wooden hill’. Other members of my family, native Welsh speakers, when speaking English, have certain ways of expressing themselves  – ending statements of facts for instance with ‘Isn’t it’.  I can still remember the first time I noticed this  I heard ‘I’ve been working all the morning , isn’t it?’. There are virtually no Welsh people who cannot speak English, and in fact they often slip English words into their Welsh sentences just as speakers of Urdu do.

Do you do that in your language or do you stick closely to the language you learnt at home?

Or maybe your language is based on another one  – German, Russian or Latin perhaps?  When we went to Romania I found I could quite easily get the gist of conversations because of my knowledge of French, Latin, Italian and  Spanish. Even in Greece I could pick out a few things.  In Malta they use a mixture of Italian and Arabic – which makes perfect sense when one considers its geographical position. This I could cope with quite quickly because I knew some Italian and Urdu, which is related to Arabic.

So don’t think that because English is not your first language you won’t be able to understand another tongue. You may not be fluent, but that will improve.

It is sometimes harder  to separate the languages. When someone once addressed me on a street on the Indian border, my brain registered foreign, rather than Hindi, and it was a few minutes before he, knowing I had recently arrived from England, asked me ‘Why are you talking to me in Spanish?’

A friend recently had a similar experience in Israel when addressed in Syrian Arabic. She answered in Greek, because her brain just heard the speech as ‘foreign’. You feel foolish when these things happen, but there are rare occasions.  Make use of all your language skills and knowledge  – although I did hear this week of a Gujarati speaker learning Spanish through the medium of Japanese and then using Spanish to learn English.  Her English is excellent and not to be faulted, but she must be a very clever lady and it is not a route I would recommend for most of us mere mortals.