Lost in Translation – Interpreter and translator ALICE TOZER considers which language a
word-thirsty Mayfairian would be best advised to turn his or her tongue to…
Mayfair Consultants featured in ‘The Mayfair Magazine’
IT’S DIFFICULT BEING an English adult when it comes to learning another language. Not only are we notoriously lazy about it, we’re also left with the task of cherry-picking a lesser-spoken tongue. For foreigners the option is pretty clear: English – that language which vies with Spanish and Chinese as the world’s most widely spoken. But where do we, lucky natural harbourers of this tricky and versatile tongue, invest our energies once we are keen to shed our reputation for linguistic lethargy or, worse still, arrogance?
The language chosen must surely go hand-in-hand with the reasons why: business or pleasure? Given economic growth, many might assume that Mandarin is the best place for a professional to start. All well and good, until the initial otherness found in the exotic tones has worn off; there are some four thousand characters to commit to memory even before you can add subtleties of communication conveyed by even more. A significant drawback is Mandarin’s inability to transfer into a universal computer friendly language, and this is a factor which might deter a real linguistic world dominance. However, learning Mandarin would be the ultimate in self-confidence boosting.
Let’s keep it exotic for a moment; is Japanese a little easier, perhaps? No. And regardless, despite Japan being the third-largest economy in the world, it’s not a particularly useful language to learn given the confines of where it is spoken (essentially Japan with some over bubbling of the borders). It would be a good investment from the point of view that few Japanese grasp English well. But all things considered, it might make more business sense to learn some cultural etiquette instead and grin and bear your pidgin Japanese efforts. Remember, never pour a drink yourself (always allow someone else to do it for you) and go heavy on the noodle slurping (this exhibits your enjoyment of them; not doing so rudely suggests they were inedible).
German seems increasingly in demand on the translation circuit. However, a large cross-section of Germans are spectacularly good at English, so unless you reach a high level of competency in their language your efforts will likely be embarrassing. Enter French. It doubles as an official UN and EU language (alongside English and Spanish), thus carrying a certain political kudos and there are some fifty countries with French-speaking heritage worldwide, comprising almost a third of the world. And, whilst you might not be a regular business traveller to Vanuatu, you might well have business or skiing ties in Switzerland where French speaking comes into its own. Most of the population in business hub Geneva do speak French (72.3%), with English being second-most common (but a big equivalent at 4.2%).
Belgium, particularly Brussels, is another business honeypot where French is a Francophone minority but has influence. Whilst English flows freely in both locations, true penetration of either of these business worlds would be far superior if served with a smattering of the Gallic tongue. After all, it might be possible to close a deal with a motley collection of business English but what if you want to take business to a deeper level? In the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.’
Where passions are involved, Spanish isn’t far away. It has the second greatest number of speakers on the planet; some 329 million, second behind Mandarin which has a whopping four times the amount. Spanish would be an excellent bet from the point of view of ease, given its logical (to the English eye) grammatical structure and phonetic nature. Business men and women wishing to invest and trade with Latin America’s natural resource piles will definitely increase their chances of success if they speak Spanish, given most people don’t speak English in that neck of the woods. Back in Iberia, the Spanish aren’t renowned for their English-speaking prowess either, so you’ll feel useful as a minimum.
A UNESCO list of the world’s most widely spoken languages by number of native speakers also flags up Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian and Portuguese. There is a definite element of sense to learning one of these black swan languages; it gives you a niche market to thrive in. ‘In the last four years we have noticed a real shift away from the traditional French, Spanish, German linguistic portfolio in favour of Arabic, Hindi and Polish,’ says Hamid Hashemi, Director of Mayfair Consultants’ Tuition Services. The company welcomes clients from the Royal College of Music to the Department for the Environment; from top publishers to hedge funds. ‘The latter type of clients will take up Spanish and French, yes, but there has been a clear reduction in conventional languages. Brazilian Portuguese is on the up, though, tending to be because of people moving there.’ The company provides expert one-to-one tuition at workplaces or home.
If you’re starting from scratch, little and often is the key so you might benefit from several of these. Or, if you’re more seasoned in your language, top-up with one blast to blow away the cobwebs. Though practical, online language courses are a false ticket to success in many cases and at best offer refreshment for the more experienced speaker. Aside from rigidity, isolation and eye-stinging from the screen factor, they rid language of everything it symbolises: communication with people. The fourth and final option is to up sticks and turn a mundane week at home into a full-on linguistic immersion abroad.
Learning a language is many people’s bête noire. Immersion may make for a more natural grasp of the lingo but, still, follow recent professional advice for adult language learners and don’t obsess with getting the accent perfect. It probably won’t happen, it distracts you from the content element (the key here) and it lowers morale. Face up to the fact that the ability to mimic accents is a true property of childhood neuroplasticity. And instead embark gently on a language journey which – even for the hyperpolyglots out there – becomes a lifelong challenge and your most faithful companion too.