The Five Year Plan: How Did It Go?

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Lucy Whitehouse has spent the past five years living, working or at times just visiting countries in Europe in a bid to learn four languages in five years. We discover how she got on.

The quest to reach a passable level of linguistic prowess continues. It’s not proving quite the unadulterated four-languages-in-five-years triumph that I initially promised both myself and, through the relentless ego sharing of social media, the rest of the world. But it bumbles on.

The mission I set myself was to live in France, Germany, Italy and Spain and learn each of the corresponding languages, all within a five year timeframe. It’s been five years since kickoff, and I do not speak four languages and have not lived in Germany, so in a sense (that is, by the basic metrics of the arbitrary task I set myself), I’ve completely failed. But in other ways, now hear me out on this, I’m doing jolly well.

I’ve scrabbled together quite chunky experiences in three of the four countries, having survived (we’re talking tooth and nail) a year in France, swanned about in Spain for a month, and clocked up several solid months in Italy (Pope Frankie is, I can confirm, a Catholic). That’s a respectable three countries in which I’ve at least nestled for longer than your average holiday. And I can make myself understood and understand others with ease in French and Italian, and I can boisterously shout disjointed phrases in Spanish. As such, like all good neoliberal institutions, I’ll just move the goalposts to massage my achievements and suggest successes where there aren’t any. So heck, forget the first paragraph, false start that, this is going splendidly. I mean, only about 24% of it has been any fun, but we’re all in the same millennial-stress-ridden boat here right, who has fun anymore anyway? Also, that’s a big enough percentage of the total population to win a UK general election, so we’re good. We must be good.

Yes, even though I’ve only graced the countries in question for what a harsh taskmaster might call pitifully unsubstantial lengths of time (he’s wrong, that guy, and mean spirited), the central point was gathering experiences and getting better at languages, so, how’s all that gone?

Success!

Fluency is a fickle bitch, to paraphase niche-yet-cult YSTV film, Checkmate. (Please follow this shuddering wreck of an article with a viewing of Checkmate, this is an era of self-care after all and you owe yourself that.) You really have to throw yourself, hook, line and sinker, into a culture to come anywhere near mastering its tongue, because language is always changing and evolving, the hydra-headed minx. A language speaks to, about, and with the people who use it. Words grow and shrink and shift and even sometimes slink off for a bit, to get a bit of down time. This is an era of self-care, after all.

As a result, I shot myself in the foot with my original and very, very naive goal, because I’ll never be fluent under the terms of my five year plan. Upping sticks relentlessly to throw yourself from one language to the next just isn’t compatible with meaningful linguistic mastery – and can actually be a bit of a disruptive and exhausting way to live, surprisingly enough. What, then, can we call my goal? Well, I think we’re gunning for communication. A fairly noble aim – and also, helpfully enough, a very achievable one. Even silence is able to speak volumes, after all. A picture paints a thousand words. And frantic hand gestures towards your preferred pastry in the counter usually gets you where you want to go (pain au chocolat town, baby).

Boy, at communication, am I succeeding.

All together now

Ordering apparently limitless baked goods when feeling a bit lonely in Paris, for example, was something I cracked early on. And, after a few awkward moments of silence, I managed to realise that the nice Spanish cycle hire man was not inexplicably offering me a bomb that lazy Sunday morning, but a pump. And with just a few mumbled Italian pleasantries and a whole lot of smiles to go on between us, I made a Japanese friend for life in Rome.

Also in Rome, a close-knit gaggle of German-speakers took me firmly under their collective wing – we visited aqueducts, made bruschetta and laughed heartily at my regurgitations of a half-remembered GCSE. I secured an Irish spirit guide, confidant and hero in Montpellier (that’s Jen). I shared a love of Disney and distaste for truculent French toddlers with a co-worker (and much needed emotional prop) in Paris. In that same city of dog poo, piss and rotisserie chicken, I built a friendship with my sister.

So. While I will keep plugging away at them, probably for the rest of my life, I’ll never be fully fluent in any of the four languages. Non. But I’ve now got Spanish friends living in Brighton who I helped pass their English language tests to be nurses here, Iranian friends in Turin and Bologna to visit whenever I head back to northern Italy, English friends in Ealing with whom I’m pencilled in to share a paella soon – a dish we learnt to cook in Granada together. Juntos, zusammen, ensemble, insieme. (Those are all words for ‘together’ in my four languages, in case you haven’t been keeping up with this carnival of an article.)

And that’s it really, where I lay my success. I’ll never be fully fluent in any of the languages, but in all of them, I’ve learned and lived the words for together. This certainly wasn’t supposed to slip into EU propaganda, but since we’re speaking of flawed neoliberal projects (and we were), none of this would have been possible without freedom to move and live and work abroad. And while the political and economic manoeuvres of the EU are often unacceptable, there is perhaps something to be said for that.

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