If you’ve been following me recently, you’ve probably digested my instructions on how to become a fully-fledged traveller. Now I want to focus on the next stage: the day when you decide to settle somewhere for a year or two. This is the time when you reach another plateau, when you become that curious species known as the ‘expat’. This odd term conjures up images of lobster-skinned young males in rope-soled sandals and Hawaiian shirts guffawing together in a beach bar erected between two coconut trees. Sounds like fun? Well, I’m still looking for that bar, though I lost the fag packet with the address scribbled on the back years ago.
Once you are firmly established as an expat, you have a big decision to make, especially if you are a native English speaker. How much of the lingo do you bother to learn? After all, you can get by in most countries with English and a smattering of the local language. So much so, that English speakers have become hopelessly lazy at learning other langauges. Many expats I have met socialize mostly with fellow English speakers and refrain from making inroads into their adopted culture and its native language. Why should they? These types exist in a kind of bubble, craning their necks to hear the Hartlepool football result every Saturday whilst crying over their cackhanded attempts to make toad-in-the-hole.
But some of us like a challenge, and there is something magical about submerging yourself in another language and losing your clumsily conventional Britishness. So we try our damnedest to learn the native tongue, patting ourselves on the back every time we buy a pair of flip-flops without hitting a brick wall of incomprehension. Then comes the dreadfully painful day when we realise our so-called ‘fluency’ is mangled by a heavy accent you could cut with cheese wire. Curses! Why do I have to sound so foreign? Why can everybody tell a mile away that I’m from Doncaster? What do I have to do to sound like Rafael? Eat more garlic or put a snail under my tongue?
No, but you have to face the fact that every language learning attempt reaches a glass ceiling beyond which you may only venture if you are prepared to split your personality. To take that final leap into the unknown means leaving your former self behind. To crack the native accent, you have to reinvent yourself, to adopt a new persona. To copy all those tricky sounds you have to become a mimic, a barefaced ventriloquist who can fool a native for at least a couple of minutes. Believe me, this is so difficult it makes nuclear physics look like Candy Crush.
As an illustration, I will compare two Brazilian speakers of English I met a few years back in Rio. One was a young woman who had just returned to Brazil after spending 5 years in England. She came to me for lessons, but only 2 minutes into the first lesson I stopped her short and said: “Your English is so good you sound like a native. You don’t need me.” But as the lesson continued I began to notice how many little errors she was making – I had been fooled completely by the accent. She was the exception that proves the rule. The other case was a Brazilian teacher of English who, in a higher teaching diploma exam, gained the highest score for that year in the whole of South America. Her English was exceptional, virtually error-free, except for one thing: her accent was as heavy as a wheelbarrow full of church lead. You always knew when she was coming down the corridor of the school because the cockroaches jumped out of the window en-masse.
So, unfortunately, unless you have an ear for mimicry and are prepared to contort your precious voice into myriad new-fangled sounds, forget mastering the accent. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is another intimidating barrier you come up against as a language learner. Teaching yourself to say a few things and be understood is all well and good. But how the hell are you supposed to catch the flow when people are rabbiting nineteen to the dozen? In other words, understanding is always more difficult than being understood: you can speak the new language at your nice, slow pace, but native speakers expect you to follow their rapid delivery, with different accents, registers and slang thrown in. Often you feel like shouting SLOW DOWN!, but that would only expose your incompetence. So instead you stand there grinning from ear to ear praying that the speaker hasn’t asked you a question and you’ve missed it.
I once had an extraordinary phone conversation with a tele-sales girl in São Paulo (phone calls are mostly nightmare in another language). She called me to discuss a new phone plan and before I could stop her, she had launched into a quick-fire spiel about the new services I should expect to receive . When she stopped there was a crackly pause and she asked if I was still there. I said yes (sim), and then tried ineptly to produce a summary of what she had just told me, missing out loads. This gave her a fit of the giggles. When I did get something right she said (I’m translating): “Yes, that’s it, Mr Martin!”, obviously trying not to laugh. Then the inevitable happened and she asked me where I was from (a sure sign you don’t fool anybody). I nearly said Bradford but thought better of it.
Based on the above, it always makes me cringe when somebody says they have a friend whose cousin speaks 5 languages fluently. “Really!”, I say, burning inside. “How nice for them!” Except I don’t believe it. Why? The key word here is “fluently”. Mastering a language is not like riding a bike or memorising the chapter of a book. To speak a language fluently you need constant, daily interaction with native speakers, reaching into all those distant idiomatic and colloquial spaces that all languages contain. Doing this in one other language would take up all your time, so how could you possibly do it with 5? Being able to get by in 5 languages is something completely different, though even that is commendable in my book.
So, if you just can’t be bothered with all this language learning malarkey, I have the perfect solution: get yourself a ‘sleeping dictionary’ – a boyfriend (or girlfriend) who is a native speaker of the language you want to learn. Geddit? A word of warning, however. Make sure your new, exotic love doesn’t speak a word of English or you could end up with a freeloading student on your hands. As usual, I speak from experience.