It’s winter here in Toulouse, the semester is in full swing, and not much is happening. I spent a lot of time inside last month, studying but also quarantining. Covid finally got me, and the title image is a document of the time spent in my room (taken by my roommate who was also positive). Therefore, I thought this month I’d talk about something else – English.
I firmly believe that everybody in the world should be given the opportunity to develop good English. Even though it’s historically highly questionable how exactly English became the lingua franca of today, the fact remains that it is the language that connects the world. This development cannot be overstated – when I moved to France, my mother told me nobody spoke English there, in fact I would insult people if I tried to do so. This is an opinion she formed some 30 years ago as an exchange student here, and it certainly was right back then.
Here in Toulouse, it’s definitely wrong. Almost all the locals speak English, which is surprising and wonderful – but also takes the pressure out of having to learn French, which is bad. Now, in my second semester, my French has finally picked up - but English remains the language I speak 90% of the day.
I’m happy with speaking English all day, it is the language I feel at home in. Obviously, my mother tongue remains German, and there are some nuances of a language that are very hard to pick up if you didn’t get an intuition for them as a child. Then again, I often find it easier to be more open in English, and to communicate emotions better. While German has a lot of highly specific words for certain concepts, English seems to be more effective at producing meaningful or just beautiful ideas with simple phrases.
It's taken a long while for my English to get where it is now, and there are some key elements that have shaped the learning process. Of course, I had English at school, but Bavarian teachers have a thick accent, and in a class of 30 people you might learn a language well enough to pass an exam, but not more. I dropped out of English class in year 11, because I wasn’t learning anything. It was then when I explored other ways of approaching the language. I started reading photography blogs, and they taught me written language and how to deal with technical terms. I started watching sitcoms without subtitles, and they helped me to converse in everyday situations. From there, I went to novels, movies, cookbooks, and many more things.
There is one thing, however, that has taken my English to the next level, and that’s comedy. Telling a joke in a language different from your requires a sensitivity to words, a creativity to make something out of them, and most importantly a certain fluidity in speaking so you can get the timing right. I absolutely adore stand-up as an art form, and I similarly like British comedy panel shows. The quick wit and the genius puns on these programs are very addictive and satisfying to me. As I watched more and more of them, I started to think in the same way, even started to write my own jokes. This is something that very much defines me, and I’m making people cringe and sometimes laugh every day.
If you want to master English, you have to come at it from many different angles. The IELTS test provides a good assessment of all of these different skills. My worst test was the writing exam (I’m sorry if you made it this far), and my best the speaking test. I’m fine with this result – for me, English is about real life communication, about connecting to my friends and being able to voice my opinions, my emotions, and my jokes. Wherever you feel you want to take your English, do it. It’s a gorgeous language.
February 2022 | Peter Kamal