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Interview with a Polyglot

Charlie Bodsworth

Monday, 10 June 2024

Ever wondered how someone can manage learning and speaking multiple languages at once? Our Language & Linguistics editor, Charlie, got talking to UoN alum, Emily, to figure out just that.

Whether you’re monolingual or bilingual, I’m sure you’ve wondered, like I have, how polyglots can fit so many languages into just one brain! To get some insight into the world of the most avid language learners, I chatted with Emily Ridyard, a UoN Modern Languages alum who speaks three languages and has been learning two more on top of that!


Charlie: Can you introduce yourself, please?


Emily: Yeah! I'm Emily. I speak English as my first language, but I've also learnt French, Spanish, and Russian. During my degree, I did a bit of Serbian. And I'm currently learning Ukrainian.


C: How does that tie in with your current work?


E: I work with refugees. I work a day and a half per week at St Nic's Church, leading English classes for refugees who are looking to learn English as a way to get involved in British society. Two and a half days a week, I'm at a charity called Refugee Roots, where I support refugees and asylum seekers with their practical needs.


C: How did you learn each of your languages?


E: My family moved to Belgium when I was three. We ended up staying for five years. I went to an international school, so my schooling was done in English, but we had French classes almost every day so I had a decent grasp of French by the time I left Belgium. At secondary school, I continued French and also picked up Spanish. It happened that my French teacher had a degree in French and Russian, so she asked the school whether she could teach GCSE Russian classes after school and the school agreed! I already knew that I loved languages, so I was like: “yes please!”


C: Was there anything in particular that gave you that spark to learn languages?


E: In Belgium, going to an international school, all my peers spoke multiple languages. I remember being like “I want to speak all these really cool languages!” So, I would take a little notebook out at play time, and make my friends tell me words in their languages, and write them down. I was committed! Having that appreciation of other cultures and languages really young is what made me want to stick with it.


C: I feel like a lot of people in the UK don't lean into that. Why do you think there are so many people that never learn a second language or have a lot of difficulty with it?


E: In other countries across the world, being good at language learning is the only way to access the wider world. And because so many other people speak English, it can lead to either intentional or unintentional laziness. I also think that the school system in the UK isn't set up for language learning. It's not presented as very appealing. When I was on my year abroad as an English teaching assistant, one of their topics was superheroes, and they were watching clips from Marvel films! That contrasts so sharply with the topics I did in school, such as health.


C: How would you say your languages interact in your head? Do you think or talk to yourself in any of your languages? Do you get them muddled up?


E: When I was in France, I was speaking French at work and at home. That was when I was probably the most absorbed in it. I could find myself thinking and dreaming and living life in French. When I left university, I would’ve said that French was my strongest language, but in my work, I speak with a lot of Latin American asylum seekers, so I now have much better Spanish. I definitely get Spanish and French mixed up because they're just very similar. When I try to speak French, sometimes just random words come out in Spanish!


C: What do you think is one of the biggest language mix ups you've ever had, between languages or just in one?


E: Well, both Russian and Spanish use the sound “ee” for “and”, but it's written very differently. So, “ee” is written in Russian a bit like a capital N backwards. And in Spanish, it's written with a “y”, which is also a letter in the Russian alphabet, but a different sound. I once wrote an entire essay in Russian but accidentally wrote “and” in Spanish every time!


C: What would you say are some of the difficulties with some of your weaker languages, Serbian and Ukrainian? Do you struggle to keep them up?


E: I've always said, and I think it's true: if you don't use it, you lose it. That's what I’ve found with my Serbian. While I was by no means fluent, I could hold a decent conversation. Now I think I'd really struggle  because I haven't used it. Also, I think it's easier when there's lots of media readily available in the target language. Even though I don't speak very much French, I still watch quite a bit of French TV. Whereas for things like Russian or Ukrainian, it's perhaps a little bit harder to access media.


C: That makes a lot of sense. Do you have any advice for others who want to learn multiple second languages?


E: Just go for it! There is sometimes this natural hesitation about it, but once you've learnt one language, it only gets easier. Even if you’re learning something completely different to a language you already know, you've got that discipline and those rhythms in place. It's not as scary as sometimes people paint it to be. I also just encourage people to do things in a way that is fun and engaging!


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Interview with a Polyglot

Charlie Bodsworth

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