A correspondent - in this case, the author of several well-known books on bilingualism, François Grosjean, has sent me a link to his latest blog post. (Incidentally, his blog, 'Life as a Bilingual: the reality of living with two (or more) languages', is a splendid resource on this subject.)
The film Julie and Julia made him think of other people who had fallen in love with a culture and a language. I'm intrigued by the reasons for doing so. Sometimes it's the culture that provides the initial attraction; sometimes it's the language. In my case, I've experienced both.
I can still remember my first French lessons in secondary school, and falling in love with nasalized vowels. It was only much later, on my first visit to France, where I worked with a youth group (called Concordia) building a bridge in the mountains in Haute Savoie, that I realized there was a culture behind the language. Or rather, cultures. At the camp were several Algerians, and they lost no time putting me right about French, much to the disgust of the Parisians who were also there. It took some time for me to realize that I needed to supplement my Algerian colloquialisms with a different variety if I wasn't going to attract funny looks along the Left Bank.
Soon after, I saw an English-language film documentary about France, voiced by Orson Welles. I remember just one line from it. He said: 'Everyone has two homes; his own, and France'. I felt that way too.
The opposite situation took place when I first visited Brazil, for the British Council, in the 1960s, to teach on a summer school. It was February (think about it) and just before Carnival in Rio. I've talked about it in my Just a Phrase I'm Going Through, so I won't go into it here, except to say that in this case I arrived in Brazil with no knowledge of Portuguese at all. However, after a period of immersion in samba schools and the hit songs of the day, and meeting some wonderful people, I became virtually a native-speaker of musical Portuguese in three weeks. I still have a fine collection of vinyl records from that decade, and some of the songs have stayed with me. It was my primary motivation to get to grips with Brazilian Portuguese. I find the intonation patterns of the language, and especially of the Carioca dialect, hugely appealing. And the nasalization. (What is it about nasalization?)
So now I was in love with two languages. At the same time. The metaphor doesn't quite work in such cases. This was a new love-affair - but that metaphor doesn't seem right either, for I hadn't fallen out of love with my previous amour. I was equally in love with both.
And actually, now I think about it, both would in any case have been jealous of an even earlier love-affair - with Welsh, a language I had left behind when moving to Liverpool in the 1950s, but with which I was becoming intimate again after getting a job at Bangor in Wales.
It has been like that ever since. I guess being a linguist means one falls in love with every new language one has the opportunity to explore. They're all beautiful. I can't conceive of an unattractive language. I fell in love with Shona, on my first visit to Zimbabwe. And here the encounter with language and culture was pretty simultaneous. I suppose, if anything, the culture had come first, as I was there as a result of editing John Bradburne's poetry. (I tell that story here.) But that was an introduction to the culture through someone else's eyes. It's a very different experience when you visit yourself.
One's mother-tongue (or tongues) is an interesting case in point. I spend most of my life working on English. Am I in love with English? Yes, but it's different, in some indefinable way, from the feelings I have towards other languages. Maybe that's natural. Can one retain the same level of passion for the language(s) one lives with longest?
It's a commonplace to say that linguists love languages. But what kind of love is it? The analogy is not so much with married or unmarried love, it seems to me, for the associated terminology of flirtations and love-affairs doesn't fit very well. Rather, it's more like the love of a parent towards a child. Somehow, new additions to the linguistic family don't diminish the affection already felt towards the other members.
Then there's the other side of the coin. No wonder people can get so upset when a language dies.