In 1991, as I applied to be a trainee in news and current affairs at the BBC, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my knowledge of German was instrumental in my acceptance. It’s possible that my language proficiency made me stand out amongst the candidates. Undoubtedly, it was my familiarity with German that helped me land my first gig as a foreign correspondent: a stringer position in Berlin.
Truthfully, without my command of the German language, I would never have been able to fulfill the demands of that job. A vast majority of the population in Eastern Germany had learned Russian as their second language, thanks to the Iron Curtain, and it would have been impossible for me to work there as a correspondent without fluency in German.
Similarly, I would not have been chosen to be the BBC Paris correspondent without my ability to speak functional French. During my interview, I was asked to give a live obituary in French about a significant politician and reflect on how he would be remembered. Those interviewers truly put our language skills to the test. I found it challenging, but I was relieved once I delivered my response.
For over a decade, I utilized French and German daily while covering news in Europe. My knowledge of these languages proved to be incredibly useful. It allowed me to make friends, book interviews, read newspapers and literature, and watch TV and movies with ease. Most importantly, it granted me invaluable insight into various cultures and the way people communicate and interact. Language and culture are about not only what is said but also what isn’t. Being fluent in a language means knowing how to be polite and avoid causing offense, particularly in precarious situations like riots or conflicts where misunderstandings can be dangerous.
My familiarity with languages is the result of serendipity; my adoptive mother hails from Switzerland, and my father was a British diplomat, which explains why I grew up speaking English and Swiss-German. This gave me an advantage when studying German at school and university. Nonetheless, my father remains critical of my German grammar skills, which admittedly do require polish.
After spending several years in Germany with the BBC, my proficiency in the language improved, and I began to dream and think in German throughout the day. Dating a German fellow and working at an elderly home in Munich for a year, both of which meant speaking German all evening and on weekends with my friends, immensely aided my language acquisition.
As for French, it’s a gorgeous language, and I attempted to speak it daily while in France much to the amusement of polite Parisians and the irritation of the less respectful ones. Though I only completed my O-levels in French, I was able to read newspapers and comprehend the radio and television before arriving in France. After about six months, I felt confident enough to converse at a reasonable level regarding politics, farm subsidies, the European Union, and, of course, food and wine. Yet, the quick pace of French conversations, particularly in noisy bistros, was continually challenging. Whenever I thought of an exciting response and had worked out the right grammar and polished phrasing, everyone had left.
Unfortunately, my knowledge of Russian remains very limited. In 2000, my boss instructed me to go to Moscow, telling me that since I spoke German and presumed Russian was analogous, I shouldn’t have any difficulties. I assumed she was joking. Prior to my trip, the BBC provided me with three weeks of morning Russian language training, which I found amusing since it takes significantly longer to learn a language correctly. Consequently, my proficiency with the Russian language is limited to the basics: calling a taxi, ordering a meal, asking for directions, and inquiring if somebody has been raped and can speak English, as Edward Behr emphasized, a must-have skill for journalists reporting from certain regions.
I feel particularly vulnerable when covering events in areas where I’m unfamiliar with the language. Relying on a translator or interpreter requires a great deal of trust as your reporting approach is influenced by their perspective. Ultimately, you comprehend that country or interviewee through their eyes and ears, processed through their words, which may not correctly capture the speaker’s intention.
Introducing your child to different languages is a priceless gift; it opens a new window to the world. In hindsight, I regret not commencing my French education at a tender age, say four or five years old, because it would have significantly reduced my unease about my accent and mistakes. Additionally, you may find yourself exhibiting diverse personalities when speaking different languages; personally, I tend to be more straightforward when conversing in German and more animated when expressing myself in French.
Looking back, I wish I had started learning Farsi/Dari and Arabic ages ago. However, I fear it may be too late to learn now. Despite my misgivings, I remain optimistic and keep buying grammar and vocabulary materials, which end up collecting dust until the day before I travel. Currently, I am stuck on taped Dari lesson number 2, which I have been on for several years. Not to mention, for the past six years, I have been learning MOD-speak, the British Army, Royal Navy, and RAF languages, all of which are primarily composed of acronyms. It does not end there, dealing with the Royal Marines warrants overcoming their incomprehensible slang.