My ‘linguistic repertoire’

The notion of ‘linguistic repertoires’ is not a brand-new one, but it has become fairly central to Sociolinguistics in the last few years. I’d never heard of it until this month as I’d never studied Sociolinguistics before. Now I’m doing a master’s course which includes modules in Sociolinguistics, so terms such as ‘linguistic repertoire’ form part of my…’linguistic repertoire’. So…what’s a ‘linguistic repertoire’? Well, it’s defined in this article (written by some sociolinguists) as the “totality of linguistic resources” available to an individual, so it’s much more than the answer to the question “Which languages can you speak?”. In any case, the term ‘language’ is not all that useful when trying to understand the use of…language through the lens of Sociolinguistics, especially in a global context that is increasingly ‘conditioned by’ (yay!) linguistic superdiversity. It’s impossible to define the boundaries of an individual ‘language’ and designations such as ‘native speakers’, ‘dialect’ and ‘creole’ often serve to mystify rather than enlighten, while any given interaction or text (including this one, zum Beispiel) makes use of an often bewildering range of linguistic codes, styles, registers, varieties, etc. Ya get me? Begorrah.

I was given the task of posting a description of my own linguistic repertoire in the module’s discussion forum, and inevitably my account touched on a lot of the same issues that I’ve written about here, so I thought it might be of interest to regular visitors. (There’s a better-organised and better-informed account of someone’s LR towards the end of the article linked to just above.) Mine is a bit artless and plodding in places, but as they say in Cardiff, plus ça change…. I also forgot to mention that my main ‘foreign’ ‘language’ is…Europanto.

My linguistic repertoire

One’s linguistic repertoire indexes one’s biography, argue Blommaert and Backus (2011). Well, like any biography mine starts before I was born, in that my father left his hometown in Northern Germany at the age of 17 and eventually moved to Sheffield, England with my mum, who somehow came from both Dorchester and Leicester. Thus while most people in Sheffield have a distinctive way of speaking (familiar to anyone who’s seen ‘The Full Monty’), my family didn’t share it, although we did speak (ahem) ‘English’ rather than ‘German’. I was raised with quite a conservative set of values in relation to accent*, in that it was a family trope that pronouncing words like local people did was ‘common’. I rebelled against this to a certain extent, developing a lifelong affinity for what B & B call ‘dirty words’ as part of a far more demotic form of speech outside the house, but ended up speaking with a broadly non-regional accent, although I’ve always pronounced the short vowel in ‘baeth’ and would feel distinctly silly saying ‘ba:th’. I was exposed to German and French at school but the teaching approach wasn’t conducive to learning more than the odd fixed expression and some basic grammar.

At 18 I moved to Norwich (or, as the locals say, up Naarge) to study philosophy and literature, so acquired a fledgling command of academic discourses around post-colonialism, post-modernism and existentialism, etc. I then lived in Dublin for six years, which left a seemingly permanent mark on my linguistic repertoire in that I adopted pronunciations like ‘filum’ and started saying ‘yer man’, ‘graaand’ and ‘yis’. I can still do a passable Roddy Doyle-esque Northside accent, having felt an affinity with that part of Dublin. I later, via work, developed a command of areas of discourse including IT jargon and discourse patterns particular to software corporations.

Living in the north of Portugal I discovered an appetite (and, I thought at the time, an aptitude) for learning ‘foreign’ languages. I quickly acquired a strong regional accent, which didn’t stand me in good stead later in life. Having self-taught myself (well, it was really friends and newspapers that taught me…), I decided to try German, French, and Spanish while I was at it, in what in retrospect was an attempt to expand my range of identities, building up my linguistic capital. I remember a conversation around that time with an English colleague of mine who, having mastered those languages and more while living in ‘target language’ environments, expressed bemusement at my desire to acquire so many languages which she regarded as redundant tools since I was unlikely to need to use them any time soon. That principle hadn’t occurred to me but nonetheless struck me as a mature attitude that I nonetheless couldn’t identify with – what I’d learnt was precious and I was precious about it in turn. I moved to Lisbon and was delighted to meet someone who told me I spoke Portuguese with ‘no accent’. It’s possible they were joking – I’d only been in the country for a year at that point. I realised much later that my command of Portuguese was inevitably limited to vernacular forms in that I wasn’t ever going to be working in the language. I probably also spoke like a newspaper as that was where a lot of my vocabulary came from, and the same goes (it probably is still true) for the other languages I speak. I slowly acquired a command of ELT lingo as member of the very broad ELT ‘community’.

Although my English accent was distinctly non-specific I was astonished to one day meet a particularly perceptive Chicago cab driver on vacation who after I’d said about three words asked me what part of Sheffield I was from. I started to make friends with Brazilians who found my Portuguese Portuguese dialect hilarious and so I tried to start sounding more Brazilian; on trips to Spain I tried to sound like I was from Andalucia (erm…). I began to notice that on visits back to the UK, I felt a refreshing confidence in my ‘voice’. I felt like what Bourdieu calls a ‘legitimate speaker’ rather than someone winging it in a clearly foreign tongue. Living in China, I took pride in my speedily-acquired Mandarin, which was a bit absurd as I regularly met other foreigners who had clearly invested much more in the language. Although I inevitably left most of what I’d learned behind me, I still have an ability to recognise when people are speaking standard Mandarin. I then spent a few months in Madrid, and my Spanish developed much as my Portuguese had: good at speaking informally, advanced reading skills, little else. I’d started to realise at this point that I was depending on other languages as a source of self-esteem and to try to fulfil my lifelong dream of being from elsewhere –when I moved back to London at the start of 2006 I occasionally found myself referring to ‘other (as in fellow) foreigners’. I started a master’s course (in KCL) and developed my command of Academic Portuguese and, for that matter, English. In London through mixing a lot with Latin Americans, my Spanish and Portuguese changed. Thanks to where I was living, I developed an ability to recognise Bengali and Turkish. As for my own accent, I found it remarkable when a long-standing work colleague expressed surprise that I was from the north. Through examining I developed a knowledge of the IELTS register. Outside work my online Twitter interactions had a positive impact on my ability to express abuse and sarcasm in short written form. I visited Brazil and had to make a huge amount of effort to demediavelise my Portuguese – the Brazilians regard the European variety as atavistic and I struggled to fit in.

Through friendships with students I slowly started learning Italian, starting with certain regional swearwords, which as B & B point out can be a shortcut means of acquiring a familiarity with the vernacular. When I met my now-wife (who is Italian) I went through a period of being simultaneously impressed and intimidated by her and her colleagues’ ability to mix languages, code switching effortlessly and endlessly between English, French and Spanish. Getting my brain to think in Italian and my speech organs to not produce Spanish proved a constant struggle. Her job took us to Mexico and I experienced the same struggle in reverse. I also had to master a whole new area of place names, slang, and cultural information and had to work hard to try to Mexicanise my pronunciation. After a year there we spent a couple of months in a university in Thailand where I made a pointed attempt to fail to learn some of the language. I’d put my knowledge of Thai at about the same level as the few dozen words of Greek and Finnish I picked up on various holidays**. (My French and German have been comfortably stuck near the bottom of League 1 for at least 15 seasons.)

Regularly visiting Chiara’s family near Napoli meant my Italian features a few expressions in dialect, and then same goes for Rome, where we spent a year and a half. (Now it was Spanish that got in the way of Italian again.) Through working in a university I acquired (not without difficulty) a knowledge of the formal register of university bureaucracy, and (with a lot of assistance from others) developed my writing in a way I never really had with Portuguese or Spanish. I also had to acquire a command of the discourses around pregnancy, childbirth and parenting. Now here living in London I’ve started to think of my accent as a bit of a ‘Remainer’ accent, specially when I step outside the M25. I’ve also started using the word ‘index’ as a verb, and phrases like ‘orders of discourse’, ‘dividing practices’ and ‘kurtosis’. I’m no longer as dependent on knowing foreign languages to bolster my self-esteem, and I’m also no longer sure if and where a line can be drawn between knowledge of the world and knowledge of language, between knowing a few Greek expressions and knowing where Athens is in relation to Thessaloniki, remembering who the Prime Minister of France is and being able to identify a Colombian accent, or having the command of the necessary discourses to fake it in the world of Applied Linguistics. I can now appreciate that language competence is, as Blommaert and Backus point out, dynamic rather than fixed, and that it’s not a case of acquiring and owning a number of discrete languages but rather of using different forms of language with varying degrees of competence while inhabiting specific roles in diverse situations. Here endeth my linguistic repertoire***.

*And vocabulary – my mum, who we, despite not being officially posh (and absolutely not being rich), kept addressing for far too long as ‘Mummy’, insisted on prohibiting the word ‘wee’ and imposed ‘wee wee’ as a euphemistic alternative, which is…odd because (as any expert in linguistics will happily confirm) the term ‘wee wee’ consists of nothing but the word ‘wee’, twice. This single fact more than any other explains why I still find it I important use so much bad fucking language. N.B. I didn’t include this bit in the module discussion forum post.

**As I’ve mentioned here before I happen to know some staggeringly offensive things to say in Finnish. I once offered to share them with anyone who contacted me via the Contact link. Two people did so, I sent them the expressions complete with fully idiomatic transactions, but oddly enough neither of them ever thanked me. Kuradi pärast!

***Here I drew upon a Biblical register. Thank God I didn’t follow it with ‘Amen’. Amen to that.

I’m more German than the scheiß-AFD

The above statement might seem odd in the light of the following facts: I wasn’t born in Germany, I’ve never lived there and one of my parents can’t speak a word of the language. Nonetheless, I do have a German surname and look slightly teutonic, to the extent I can get away with being a local whenever I visit. After all, Germany is literally mein Vaterland. My dad was born in Verden an der Aller in the auspicious year of 1933. His father was a local politician, but unlike the newly-ausgeschissen Alternative für Deutschland MPs, he was by no means a Nazi.

Sadly my dad didn’t make much effort to pass on his language to me, so every few years I go through a phase of gamely trying to verbessern mein Deutsch. This has usually taken the form of drilling myself on hilarious but grammatically perfect utterances which I could trot out when speaking to German speakers in order to buy myself credit to subsequently make shitloads of mistakes. For various reasons I’m starting, as we/they say in German, to have a goat to start making an effort again, maybe because trying to teach 28 iGCSE students at a time reminds me of the time I myself spent in a GCSE German class in eine Industriestadt in dem Nordengland bored out of my Kopf. It wasn’t because of that particular class that one teacher in our school took their own life (such was the level of resistance to learning); our class was disciplined by being forced to copy out verb tables and doggedly repeat stolid conversational dialogues. Dafür ist mein Gramamtik viel besser al meiner Vokabeln. I have no idea ob I passed the GCSE or not, but I did learn enough to acquire my first ever proper foreign girlfriend an der Universität with the outright haplessness of my attempts to communicate in her language.

Then, in 2000, having survived the Millennium-Bug, sort-of mastered Portuguese and got to grips with Spanish, and having realised in the process that learning languages was ENORMOUS! FUN! I decided to get my German up to speed. This was purely a matter of choice rather than necessity, of course; I very rarely met any German-speakers whose English didn’t far outmatch my German. I certainly didn’t need to laern foreign languages to find a job – after all, es ist geil, ein Inselaffe zu sein. I made friends with the German teachers in my school (in Lisbon), who firmed up my command of the grammar by helping me remember syntactically and morphologically instructive phrases like Ich habe gerade den Pimmel meines Lehrers im Spiegel gesehen (the toilet door was awkwardly placed in relation to the men’s bathroom). That, along with an steady stream of German-speaking friends and an occasional succession of deutschsprachige girlfriends, gave me confidence to embark on a solo trip to northern Germany to connect with my German relatives, who’d I’d only fleetingly met as a child. My sort-of stepgrandmother, bewailing the unfortunate series of personal and historical circumstances that had led the family to separate, sighed and repeatedly exclaimed ‘Mensch!’. (Thankfully she was long dead before that ridiculous bloody woman started abusing social media. If only she was just called Louise Troll.) I spent a week or so only speaking German, as ever relying on my tried-und-trusted method of just using English words in a German accent when I was short of vocab; people either got the point or were too polite to point out that they didn’t have a verdammte Idee what I was on about. As on subsequent visits, people rarely switched into English and just let me witter on. I rarely had anything other than a positive reception and good impressions on my travels, and felt an affinity with the sometimes morbid humour of the locals. I also felt quite at home around New Germans and appreciated the absolutely positive impact they have had on the national culture, especially in terms of cuisine and music (such as this classic early 2000s Berlin tune). I picked up useful new chunks of language: es ist gefuckt, das flascht. That last bit of street argo came from a video I saw one starry night amongst other shorts in a courtyard in Berlin. It consisted of a monologue from a local guy out of his head outside a metro station enthusing about various aspects of his fettes Leben, breaking off suddenly in full flow only to exclaim with consternation the immortal phrase Ach scheiße, ich habe den Baby im U-Bahn verlassen!. Being able to get to grip with the jokes meant that I started to identify and, to slip briefly into German English, feel myself quite a deutschophile. In a curious inversion, I attempted to read a book in German about what a bunch of weirdos the British are. The proudest moment of my German-speaking life was when, in response to a question from my flatmate about how difficult the book was to get through, I replied that it was Ein Kampf. Or maybe my proudest moment was that time in Costa Rica I was able to impress my then-girlfriend-now-wife, who had previously been sceptical of my claim to speak better German than, erm, Goethe, by giving some monolingual Austrians detailed instructions as to where they might be able to see eben mehr monkeys.  

Stolz kommt befor einen Fall. Or, in this case, afterwards. In a bar in Munich in 2010 or so, struggling through that day’s Bild newspaper (I would like to try TAZ or FZW but…) I came across a report of a survey into alcohol consumption in Europe. Litauen (Lithuania) was number 3, Rumänien (Romania) number 2, but in first place was…Iren. Some mistake, I thought, and took a sip of Löwenbräu*. Iran is not even in Europe, and in any case they’re mostly Muslims, so they don’t…soon enough my friend turned up, having steeled herself for several days of really annoying question about her language, and thus it was that I learnt with an equal mix of relief and embarrassment how you say ‘Irish’ in German.

On the same trip, surrounded by southern Germany’s ubiquitous BMWs and other dazzling symbols of conspicuous consumption, I read up on Konsumterror: Ulrike Meinhof’s word to describe the perpetual existential crisis caused by the insane and insatiable desire to consume more. Thoughts of consumerism, ultraviolence and nazifascism playing on my mind, and with a spare afternoon in Nuremberg ahead, I happened to notice in the guidebook that Dachau is not all that far away. Ich war noch niemals in einem…Konzentrationslager, I mentioned to my companion. She wasn’t keen on the idea, I gathered, as she ranted spectacularly for a full ten minutes on the subject of bloody foreigners and their bloody obsession with the bloody Holocaust and all they ever bloody think about when they think of Germany is the bloody war, which was 65 bloody years ago fffs. Fair enough, I thought, and we talked instead about more innocuous subjects, such as…music, which was fine, but then it turned out that she liked the group Queen, so I embarked on a tortuous Zunge in der Wange explanation of how, for me, Queen were like the Japanese in the popular Chinese expression ‘worse than the Japanese’**, in that I simply can’t conceive of anything I disliked more. What, I asked her, was ‘worse than the Japanese’ for her? Well, she said, a lot of her friends (mostly in their early 20s) would say ‘schlimmer als die Juden’ – worse than the Jews. Would you say that?, I asked, horrified, recalling with confusion what she’d said about the bloody Holocaust a few minutes earlier. Of course not, she answered. But loads of people hate Jews. Wie furchtbar; vielleicht ändert sich etwas, I thought, several years later, with the help of Google Translate.

The thought that antisemitism could ever make a comeback amongst young Germans would have horrified the two previous generations. Just like white supremacists in the US and the lifelong fascist activist Farage in the UK, the heirs of the Nazi tradition are having some success appealing to young people’s sense of alienation and their need for a role and an identity in a society which, like Zygmunt Bauman wrote of the London rioters of 2011, pressures them to consume but denies them the means of doing so. Of course, nowadays it’s Muslims who, even more than the traditional scapegoats, are vilified and set up for (we really can’t afford to pretend we don’t know what the AFD, Pegida etc have in their diseased minds) explusion and extermination. Nonetheless, I have to be grateful to the neonazis of a German town . It’s thanks to their protests against a concert by a left-wing singer that I was able to track down via Google a song I’d heard and loved many years ago during one of my German-learning stints but subsequently forgotten the title of: ‘Vaterland’, by Konstantin Wecker. It’s a song about an awkard conversation between a son and his father, uncomfortable questions being addressed about history, compromise and commitment.

I barely knew my grandfather. My dad left Germany at the age of 17 or so when his mum ran off with a British serviceman. Except for a period stationed in the Rhine as part of his British military service, he rarely went back and they were never really reconciled. My opa was a stern and intimidating figure whose life history was hard for my father to live up to. He had been a soldier in the First World War and then ran, amongst other things, a chemist’s, a shop and a travel agency. Already in his 40s during the Second World War, he was drafted as a fireman. In the wake of the war, the fact that he had saved several Jewish families by facilitating their escape was a factor in his being appointed head of the town’s anti-nazification committee. He subsequently became Bürgermeister (mayor) and was elected member of the regional parliament. He thus became a minor figure in post-war German history. Although the family schism meant his relationship with his son more or less ended very early***, he did pass on a distinct set of values particular to post-war Europe. 

This is what I learnt from my own father and from my encounters with Germany and its people: to be German in the wake of the Third Reich was to be committed to a European project based on peace and mutual cooperation****. That encompassed a welcoming attitudes towards non-Germans, including immigrants. I’ve never lived in Germany nor held a German passport, but its my affinity with those values which makes me more German than the – to coin a phrase – falsche Deutschen who are currently taking up their seats in the Bundestag.

* Which, at the risk of sounding smug, I know how to pronounce very properly.

** This phrase recalls the treatment of the locals by the Japanese occupying army in the 1930s.

*** I wrote about my own father’s history here.

**** On reading this a German friend introduced me to this concept, apparently very influential in the development of the EU.

O português dos outros


In the documentary ‘Citizenfour‘ (2014) we see the campaigning journalist Glenn Greenwald speak at a senate hearing in Brasília to draw attention to the British authorities’ treatment of his partner, David Miranda, who had been detained  for nine hours upon arrival in the UK on jumped-up counterterrorism charges. (The hearing starts at 1h26m.) Having made his home in Brazil, Greenwald made his statement and responded to questions in Portuguese. Although the theme of the hearing was deadly serious, I found it hard to hold back my laughter and difficult to imagine that the assembled journalists were not doing the same. Glenn Greenwald is an extremely brave and principled journalist and the way his partner was treated was outrageous, but his Portuguese was (at least at the time) a bit shit.

Mas quem sou eu para rir? – But who am I to laugh? Well, I lived in Portugal for several years and take an interest in other people’s (particularly English speakers’) command of the language. It’s not entirely a healthy interest, containing elements of snobbery and jealousy, but it is hard not to be competitive, and to try to resolve anxieties about one’s own abilities by means of judging others’ over-harshly. One of the first proper sentences I taught myself to say was ‘My ultimate ambition is to speak better Portuguese than Bobby Robson’, the football manager whose struggles with the language were the source of much mirth and affection:

It became a running joke with friends to take the piss out of British people who spoke Portuguese with no attempt whatsoever to mimic the way local people spoke. Although (adopts very strong English accent) EU NÃO CONSIGO ENCONTRAR BONS EXEMPLOS DISSO ONLINE, anyone who is able to distinguish Portuguese from Spanish will find this clip of the Portuguese writer José Saramago (who exiled himself in Lanzarote and married a Spanish woman) speaking the latter similarly amusing. He simply never made the slightest effort to modify his voice to the sounds of the neighbouring language. I met countless compatriots whose attempts to speak with Portuguese grammar and words but with the sounds of Hemel Hempstead were probably endearing to someone but grated on my ear. 

Ridiculing others was one way of addressing my own anxieties about my pronunciation, and thus about my own legitimacy as a Portuguese speaker – of course, my own command of the language was never by any means perfect, despite my very best attempts to delude myself otherwise. When it came to visiting Brazil, I felt a large chip missing from my shoulder, given that it took a conscious and constant effort for me to speak the jollier version of the language rather than the more slavic-sounding European variety. I envied those foreigners who had learned the more gregarious Brazilian language first, accompanied by that physical volubility natural to Brazilians. As it happened, most other gringo tourists I met there spoke portuñol, but when I was hanging out with Brazilians for prolonged periods and my energy (not, like theirs, inexaustible) started to run down I eventually reverted to my most relaxed version, which is strongly luso-accented and, to Brazilian ears, sounds sometimes cute but mostly sort of backward.

The resulting resentment is probably an ingredient in my wanting to find fault with the esforços of someone like Greenwald, who, after all, succeeded where I failed. Of course, it’s only fair to acknowledge that in the hearing he was under immense pressure. Even Manu Chao, interviewed here before a live audience in Goiás, gets visibly and audibly nervous when obliged to address a roomfull of highly attentive native speakers. I’ve never had to do anything similar, and if I did the results would be atrocious. As the New York Times reported, in his interview with the then-Brazilian President, Greenwald performed extremely well, and he has given numerous interviews and reports which demonstrate that he was having a bad day. Perhaps the fact that his partner had been arrested for terrorism put him off his concordâncias nominais and made him keep forgetting to roll his erres appropriately.

Comedy aside, I’m opposed to language shaming per se. It’s particularly unpleasant and unfair (although very prevalent, particularly when it comes to public figures) in the case of foreigners speaking English, a language few truly choose to learn. There should be a camaraderie among foreign speakers of a language. It takes courage to put one’s aspirations and identity on the line in such a way, and being mocked for doing so is often traumatic.

My Portuguese is now officially enferrujado – rusty, at least when speaking. Fortunately Brazilian music is so rich and enjoyable that I am regularly exposed to new and old vocabulary. In the last couple of years in Mexico and Italy I’ve managed to overcome some of my preciousness about Getting It Right when speaking other languages. I’m not from either place, but I get by, in the sense that I can do what I need to do and I don’t get nervous when interacting with strangers. I think that a lot of my prior anxiety came from trying too hard to fit in, to step outside my own skin and discard my own identity. In such a situation it’s inevitable that you will feel like you’re in a No Man’s Land when trying to reach the other bank of the linguistic shore. As you can see from that poorly-assembled sentence, even my own command of my ‘own’ language isn’t always up to scratch. As for Glenn Greenwald, he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist rather than an academic linguist or a language freak, and he uses his experience and skills in both English and Portuguese to expose injustice and hold power accountable at every turn*. If he were ever to see this website, he’d probably partir-se a rir: piss himself laughing. And if he heard me speaking Portuguese, he’d likely switch to English quicker than you could say “cê é gringo, né?!”.

*This was written before Greenwald started publicly and repeatedly declaring that he is The Only Person In The World Who Is Aware That There Are Bad People In The World Besides Donald Trump, going to the extent of joining forces with Fox Fucking News in order to make this point as widely and stupidly as possible. I actually used to feel a bit guilty about having taken the piss out of his Portuguese; I don’t now. The man’s an asshole.

Something I apparently wrote for my students about learning languages

38I don’t remember using or even writing this but I obviously did at some point because it’s here in my My Documents folder on my computer and it’s exactly what I think about learning languages. Hopefully it will be of use to someone.

Up to a certain point, it’s easy to learn a language. Okay, of course you’re sometimes tongue-tied when you don’t know the word, and it can be very embarrassing when you use the wrong one, or completely miss the point of what someone has just said – plus obviously it’s frustrating when things you read and listen to are simply beyond your current level of understanding. However, in all these situations you can go away and think about what went wrong, and work hard on acquiring the words you need and learning how to put them in the right order when talking to the appropriate people at the appropriate time. Then, hey presto, you’ll be able to understand about 90% of what you read and hear, and people will be able to understand you pretty much all the time.

And then what? Your language skills are now good enough for you to be able to make friends with people, read what you want to read, do a job, study a new subject, and so on. You’ve finished! Except, er, you haven’t. Not even nearly. Slowly you discover that despite all your hard work and dedication, your careful acquisition of skills, knowledge and the confidence to put them to good use, despite all your careful study of grammar and your acquisition of all the vocabulary you could possibly need, there are still occasions on which you think: I don’t get this. Or: I wish I had exactly the right words in order to say what I want to say. You feel frustrated. Is there some secret classroom in which people are learning all this stuff, and if so how where do you sign up for the course?!

So what do you do? Well, if you’re lucky, you might find a job which stretches your skills and challenges you to learn new things. Or you might have a hobby which stimulates you to acquire lots of nuanced vocabulary expressing very specific things which you don’t need even know how to say in your own language, along with the complex grammar which allows you to express all sorts of very particular meanings. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to be living in a country in which the language is widely spoken, in which case you have the opportunity to engage with the local culture: hang out with the locals, follow the local news, become a fully-paid up member of this other society, which will mean learning all sorts of new things, many of which, as I mentioned earlier, you wouldn’t know how to express in your own language. You’ll make lots of friends with whom you never speak your own language, and discover new things with and through them. You’ll be using the language as a medium to explore and engage with the wider world, in addition to just your ‘target’ culture.

Does all of this mean that your language skills will inevitably improve? Well, yes, it does. Your vocabulary will expand immeasurably, meaning that you will be able to understand even more of what you see and hear. Some things may get stuck, of course. Most probably you will have developed your own grammar in the language, finding shortcuts which simply seem to make more sense than all those fiddly structural elements which you can never quite see the purpose of. You might be one of those people who finds it easier to use grammar accurately when you write rather than when you speak. In any case, given that you are using the language in order to carry out increasing number of complex and demanding tasks, whether at work or play, the only criticism that anyone might make of your language is that you ‘have a bit of an accent’, which is what people say when they encounter non-standard syntax and word grammar which, although it expresses things in a slightly different way, does the job pretty well pretty much all the time.

But what about that other accent, all those sounds that never come out quite like when the locals say them? What if people ever find out that you’re (shock horror) a foreigner?! Well, your accent might disappear eventually. It might not. Research has discovered countless times that the key issue here is identification with the target language community. If you happen to be learning English, then problem solved: the English language speaking community is one of which you are already a member. Depending on where you live and who you live with, you might end up speaking standard English with a Scottish accent, a South African one, or even a Brazilian accent. Which would clearly be no bad thing, especially if you yourself happen to be Brazilian. The most important thing is that you sound like yourself – after, wasn’t wanting to express yourself the very reason you started out learning a language in the first place?

So what can you do while you’re waiting for all these things to fall into place? Well, if you’re worried about your grammar, try to pay careful attention to how you speak and how your grammar is different from how other people around you express the same thoughts. The same goes for your vocabulary and pronunciation, obviously. Try to copy those around you, and see what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t copy everybody, of course, otherwise you might end up sounding like someone three times older and two times posher than you. Identify people who you want to speak more like, and copy them. If you’re mixing with people and using the language in a variety of situations this will happen naturally, of course. But it certainly helps to give it a bit of a push if you’re in a hurry.

Ni shuo zhongwen ma?

I’ve always found it a bit puzzling that people pay (often lots of) money to sit in a class and practise speaking foreign languages. Everyone on earth already has at least one language at their disposal and it’s not too hard to track down someone who wants to learn that language and in return will help you as your try your hardest to make yourself understood in their language. It’s just a case of tracking down that someone, which these days, what with the gumtree and whatnot, is not a very difficult task at all.

Of course occasionally you may, especially if you’re a woman, meet people with ulterior motives, or who are actually just really boring, or who laugh pitilessly every time you try and put a sentence together – or in the case of Mandarin Chinese, look at you with such puzzlement that you’d think you’d just told them there was something wrong with the Communist Party, whereas in fact you were simply trying to let them know that you come from Sheffield and you prefer broccoli to spinach. But on the whole it’s preferable to and a lot more effective than, say, paying €50 a month to some unscrupulous bastards who will continue fleecing your bank account long after the school has gone bankrupt and the teacher has fucked off back to London in poverty, or, if you’re Brazilian, will stick you in a tiny classroom on Oxford Street with eighteen of your compatriots so you end up speaking less English than you would back home.

Now I come to think of it, language teachers spend so much time trying to make their students pretend that they are not actually in a classroom at all that it really makes you question the point of being there in the first place.

Whateva. After I’d put an ad on the gumtree for people to practise my own rudimentary polygoticism with, I exchanged a couple of emails with someone who said they could help me with my Chinese, which would be nice, although somebody helping me with my Chinese is a bit like teaching my great-great German grandmother to speak Brazilian Portuguese, because my Chinese is hen bu hao. I was a bit busy at the time what with holidays, work and the problems on the Hammersmith & City Line to deal with, so I didn’t reply for ages, but when I did I realised that he must have been a very interesting guy to talk to, because he happened to mention that he had come to Britain to study in 1967.

Now obviously 1967 was the Summer of Love in the West, but in China, if anything I’ve ever read about that era is true, gangs of young people in uniforms roamed around the country kicking people to death simply because they had been known to wear glasses from time to time. Jung Chang, the writer of ‘Wild Swans’ and ‘Mao: The Untold Story’ was only allowed to leave in 1978 after extensive political preparation. Whoever this guy was, it was fairly clear that his eyesight, not to mention his devotion to the Party, must have impressed the Red Guards a hell of a lot in order to be allowed to escape the fate that befell millions of his contemporaries; sent away from the cities to harvest stones in the backwoods of absolutely nowhere for the greater glory of the Great Helmsman.

He must have had some experiences along the way which caused him to at least question Party rule. One of the guys I live with is I think quite typical of more recent generations of overseas Chinese in that he doesn’t particularly want to live in China but doesn’t think the Party is doing a bad job and sees Mao as generally one of the good guys. I haven’t met anyone who dissents from this point of view, or at least if I have they’ve had no good reason to tell me about it – although I did once have a short conversation with Harry Wu about teddy bears, and I mentioned my first shameful encounter with a Chinese political dissident here. I would really like to have the opportunity to meet some Chinese people who are explicitly not happy about how their country is run, and am wondering how to go about it.

I don’t want to just march up to the protestors outside the Chinese Embassy and offer my services to the Falun Gong, which seems to be the most prominent organised political opposition outside China. I have no great wish to set myself on fire in Tiananmen Square. But I guess if I can’t make contact with Chinese dissidents in London, then where can I? Does anyone have Wei Jingsheng’s email address?