Everyone’s language learning experience is different. My daughter was recently surprised to discover that until the age of eleven, I was completely monolingual. She is bilingual herself but often envies me for being able to speak more than two languages. I had to explain that she is far more advanced than I used to be at her age. My only language of communication was my native Polish; I couldn’t even imagine how enriching it would be to speak and understand another language.
From monolingual to bilingual
My language learning journey only started when I moved with my family from Poland to West Germany in 1985. To say that this was a life-changing experience would be an understatement. It was however far from unusual – millions of children and adults made the same transition from behind the iron curtain. We moved to the city of Düsseldorf in the west of the country, not far from the Dutch border. I was thrown into the deep end in terms of my language learning journey. On my first day at school, I barely knew ten words of German. But as every immigrant will know, it’s a sink or swim situation, I had no other choice but to adapt and immerse myself in the new environment. After a while, I started feeling encouraged by my gradual progress and thus hopeful and motivated. Learning a new language was proving to be not only achievable but also thoroughly enjoyable.
From bilingual to multilingual
At school, I always liked foreign languages best and throughout secondary school, I studied Latin, English, French and Spanish. After secondary school, I figured that since I have already emigrated once, I might as well do it again. The decision to go to university in London was a real gut decision – one of the best of my life. I’m sure it was the right one because I still live here and call London home.
When I first moved to the UK, I had no trouble following lectures. What I struggled with in day-to-day conversations were regional accents, such as Glaswegian, Northern Irish and Brummie. The students at my London university hailed from all over the country and were a diverse bunch. Cultural references were another difficulty. I wasn’t able to talk about my A-level results or telly programmes and some jokes were lost on me. It took some time to feel comfortable holding a casual conversation. Formal occasions were by far more predictable and easier.
From multilingual to professional
After graduating, I spent the next ten years working in a number of office jobs. Most of them involved using languages as part of my daily work. I enjoyed this aspect but it took me a while to settle on a career path. With time it has become clear that what I enjoy most is working with words. First, I trained as a translator, working with the written word, and began translating part-time as a side-hustle. I negotiated to work a four-day week and had Fridays to develop my new career. Later, I trained as a public service interpreter before returning to university to pursue a conference interpreting degree.
It’s been tough and exhilarating but like my move to London, definitely one of the better choices in my life. Until the Covid crisis, my job as a simultaneous interpreter often involved visiting a different European city every week. Now, this has changed and I work mostly online, from my home office. But in a nutshell, the task at hand remains the same. I actively listen to the speaker, analyse the message and communicate it simultaneously (at the same time). It’s as hard as it sounds and stressful, I’m still learning but I wouldn’t miss a thing.
On language learning for pleasure
My strongest languages and hence the languages I use professionally are English, German and Polish and I’m also improving my French. I spent my year abroad in Paris as part of my studies but since then my French has become rusty. In addition, I also work on my weakest language, Spanish, by including a daily Duolingo session into my routine. I practice regularly after breakfast whilst enjoying my morning coffee. My goal is to build this practice into a habit. I have a consistent, yet relaxed approach to improving my French and Spanish. Although I might never become perfectly fluent, I derive a lot of pleasure by improving in small steps.
On language learning from pleasure to routine
Apart from learning languages, I’m at my happiest when on the road. Although my present travel activities consist of local trips and bucket lists, it’s fairly easy to connect with friends abroad. During the March 2020 lockdown, I started an English-French language exchange with a Rome-based colleague and friend. We meet twice a week for an hour, our work schedules permitting, to practise on Skype. Sometimes we prepare a specific topic but more often than not, we simply talk about whatever is on our minds. This allows for the conversation to flow naturally and with time we have become more comfortable expressing ourselves freely. When our schedules allow, I’m also doing a German-Spanish exchange with another friend. This is more challenging for me because I struggle to communicate freely in Spanish and my vocabulary is more limited than in French.
As already mentioned, I use Duolingo for my daily Spanish practice. Another application I tried and enjoyed is MossaLingua. Both applications are free of charge for their most basic functions. In addition, I am building my vocabulary in English, German and Polish by exploring a new word per day and adding it to my trilingual glossary in a desktop tool for interpreters called InterpretBank.
I also can’t imagine a day without listening to podcasts. I have a selected list of multilingual podcasts on my phone and listen to them whilst cooking or doing some boring chores that don’t take up my full attention. My list of favourite podcasts is dynamic and changes frequently.
This is the most up to date snapshot of what I currently listen to:
- Amateur Traveler Travel Podcast – weekly tips on travel destinations
- Mark Manson Audio Articles – no-nonsense advice on life
- SlatorPod – news from the language industry
- The Big Travel Podcast – inspiring interviews with travellers
- The Curious Climber podcast – on climbing and much more
- The Documentary Podcast BBC – documentaries from around the world
- Unfolding Maps – adventure inspirations from interesting personalities
- This City – voices from the streets of London
- Affaires étrangères – foreign affairs in French
- impolyglot – French language podcast on language learning
- La Vérité éclate toujours – an online course aimed at advance learners
- Les pieds sur terre – real stories and documentaries
- Trump 2020 – a French take on news from across the Atlantic
- Parler comme jamais – all things language
- Dział zagraniczny – unusual news stories from around the world
- Owsiana podcast – on healthy eating and well-being
- Oczytana – book recommendations
- Weltwach – interviews with inspiring travellers
- Reisen Reisen – travel tips and stories
- Kanackische Welle – on what it means to be German today
- Duolingo podcast Spanish – stories in easy-to-understand Spanish
I’m always curious to discover new podcasts. I mostly enjoy themes relating to current affairs, travel, language learning and personal development. Please drop me a line if you have some interesting recommendations.