Part 1  (11 mins.)

The deepest learning experiences change us. To experience life as something or someone different always fascinated me. Indeed, who never longed to be different? It’s a bit like applying to join the club that won’t have you as a member, but somehow still getting in. This is the story of my trying to become a Frenchman in my late teens and where that led me. It was an impossible undertaking but also an adventure that taught me so much. As well as accelerating my learning of many other languages, it has affected how I learnt everything else since.

I spent my first 18 years stuck in a small rural village in West Yorkshire called Badsworth. We lived in a crumbling 18th century sandstone rectory that had belonged to the 12th century church down the road where I was christened. Badsworth is even in the Doomsday book of the year 1086 when an earlier version of that church stood there. After a thousand years of growth, it had only reached 500 inhabitants in the 1980’s and has not grown much since. It wasn’t what you would call a cosmopolitan hub. To speak any foreign language fluently was exotic.

The first foreign language I remember hearing was Hindi. My first nursery school friend since age 2, Saket Shrivastava had parents from Bombay (we didn’t call it Mumbai in 1980’s Yorkshire).  I remember feeling puzzled when Saket chatted to his parents with an unrepeatable alien sound.

Another nursery school friend, David Spencer, had a French mother. For the first 4 years I knew him I didn’t hear much French, but when he was 6 they sent him to France for some months. When he returned I was fascinated – he seemed to have forgotten his English and become French. He even spoke back to me in French, a language I had learnt a couple of words of on holiday. I could say ‘Oui’, ‘Non’ and Merci, but David’s brain seemed to have transformed into a French brain, a different David.

At age 12 in a history class I came across the word ‘Polyglot’. I scrawled out in blue fountain pen the definition: ‘A person who can read and write many languages’. It struck me as the most incredible thing, like David or Saket times five. I didn’t expect I would ever try to do it. Unfortunately my teachers thought I was terrible at languages.

I was the kind of pupil teachers found hard to engage. ‘Must try harder’ said my school report. ‘Instead of listening he stares out of the window’. When I was 16 I managed to score a B for French GCSE. This was a big surprise to my teachers but I was still discouraged from continuing to AS level. In spite of the hard looks from the department head, I insisted. He didn’t like me probably because he feared I would lower the grade average for his department and he was right: I failed a year later.

Academia was telling me to give up French but I still had to find out what it would be like to think in another language. I secretly planned a gap year in France to become fluent before starting university. It was secret because my Father didn’t want me to go to university, even though he had. He asked me why I would want to go. I thought this was an odd question. I defended my future education saying that I really wanted to be educated to a high level. I felt my answer was lame and unconvincing. He thought university was procrastination from starting a career. “The people who make the real money start work age 16,” he advised.

For the final round of school exams I studied ‘how’ to answer as well as ‘what’ to answer and did much better than my doubting teachers predicted. With good grades my father finally gave into the idea of my going to university to study Biology, and even to my spending a gap year in France. I wrote on my university application form that I wanted to learn French and then specialise in biotechnology to genetically engineer new beings.

At last I arrived in Caen, Normandy the following autumn, ready to devote myself to becoming French. There my mission was to shed my Englishness and become French.

I wanted to go native like ‘Dances with Wolves’ becoming an American Indian.

Even more, I hoped to perfect my accent to the extent the French would believe I was one of them, like a spy undetected. There was something about the sound of French that I loved and wanted to capture. I was drawn to experience what it might be like to have a French brain, to see the world as a Frenchman. The English way was everything I had ever known and that was good enough reason to try and step beyond it.  I wasn’t sure where my desire to step beyond all that I knew came from, but I can say that moving to Caen was the first time in my life I had a fresh start. I needed to get away. Was I reinventing myself in a new world?

Trying to perfect my French pronunciation was a challenge. Not only did I have to learn endless French words and grammar quirks that made little sense to my monolingual brain. I had to retrain my mouth and mouth muscles to move in entirely new ways. I noticed there were many different French ‘r’s but they were all labelled the same in phonetics. Some I could pronounce and others I could not. I would practice some of the harder ‘r’ sounds in the mirror. I had to work hard to get my mouth and tongue French-like. Little by little I got better.

A French phonetic dictionary doesn’t tell you that the sounds preceding and following a sound alter how you should physically produce that sound. For example the ‘r’ in ‘vrai’ is different to the ‘r’ in ‘grand’ simply because ‘v’s and ‘g’s are very different. One is at the front of the mouth, the other at the back.  These were some of the sounds I would repeat in front of the mirror, doing my best to loosen the constraints of my English mouth, strengthening my French muscles.

After a while it felt like I had two mouths, then two sets of mannerisms, even two personalities.

When you are trying to assimilate a whole other way of communicating, it is likely you will absorb the gestures, the facial expressions, even the attitudes of that culture. Many French expressions come with a French attitude. You are constantly learning from examples imbued with those mannerisms and attitudes. It amounts to another way of being. Lawrence of Arabia was judgmental about the ‘going native’ process: “They imitate the native as far as possible, and so avoid friction in their daily life. However, they cannot avoid the consequences of imitation, a hollow and worthless thing.”

Known to the Arabs as Lawrence the Arab, who betrayed the Arabs

I believe I was exploring more than imitation, but even imitation is not a hollow and worthless thing if it expands your learning capacities and knowledge of others. What is more, seeing through the eyes of another, even my clumsy approximation of another, is not limiting. It can be mind-expanding, instructive and empathy building. In fact to continually inhabit any fixed identity is a pretence, even a prison that will not serve you in the long run.

Aldous Huxley describes ‘self transcendence’ as the primary appetite of the soul.

To experience yourself becoming someone different, someone stronger is one of the most life-affirming experiences we have, whether we do it through education, relationships, or psychotherapy. Perhaps this would have been a better answer to my father’s question:  “I want to go to university to transcend myself and become a better person.”

So what did learning French teach me about learning?

The intensity of learning a language fast made two types of learning stand out to me:

1) Conditioning: Any action we repeat enough will become automatic. We can do this consciously to ‘programme’ our minds, thus converting complex multiple actions into what feels like a single effortless action. Even though neuroscientists have only recently pinpointed how the brain creates automatic habits from new behaviours, the shift from labourious thinking to automatic effortless skill is apparent to anyone who has practised a skill repetitively. A chess grandmaster can play 20 chess games at once, and win them all, not because her brain is 20 times the size of her opponents’, but because she has seen it all before and knows the shortcuts to evaluating all the complexities. Learning another language forces us to assimilate complex linguistic patterns to the extent that we can speak them without thinking. Much like learning to drive a car, to begin with you will stall the car even though you know how not to. In French you will make a particular mistake even though you recall how not to.  After a few days practice you could pass your driving test, after a few weeks’ practice the car seems to drive itself and you can think about other things while you drive. My Father used to compose letters on his Dictaphone while driving me to school. Both tasks quite automatic.

2) Unconditioning: We do so much automatically, and unconsciously. To stop doing something we need to become fully aware of what it is. In undoing our previous conditioning we make room for new ‘programming’. ‘Unconditioning’ has a lot to do with mindfulness. The conditioning that we have makes life easier in that we don’t have to feel like a beginner all the time. Most of us can walk, run, talk, without having to think about it. We have ‘programmes’ that run most of it for us. However, if you want to do something truly new, you need to humble yourself and feel like a beginner again. If I decided I needed to talk like John Wayne all the time, I would go through an awkward phase of talking neither like myself nor John Wayne. To make my English mouth move and sound like a French one, I need to slow down, focus, fumble, get it wrong and listen as intently as possible so that I might glimpse what I need to do differently with my mouth. I have to accustom my ear to French sounds so that I can better perceive the subtle nuances I never noticed before. With practice, little by little I can push my mouth closer and closer towards the French sound, comparing the native sound to my copy. This is NOT automatic or effortless. It is arduous hard work.  It is not running a familiar pattern you have stored in your mind.

It is about switching off old patterns, tuning into our sensory awareness so that we can perceive something beyond what we already know.

In language learning the sheer number of words, grammar formations and new sound combinations that need to be automated in your mind, ear and tongue dwarf most skill sets. Many professional training courses cover most of the key points in 2-4 weeks. Longer courses at university usually lack hands on skill building and people forget most of what they learn when they rarely use it. Language learning is therefore a great way to stretch your learning capacities generally, and a useful metaphor for learning any skillset. Difficult skills like advanced mathematics or improvised jazz piano are easy to consider as languages in their own right. They consist of multiple complex patterns that are combined and expressed in infinite ways. They have many skills that stand on top of other skills, like a multi-storey building. The platform of one skill enables you to reach a previously unattainable one. A classical piano teacher will expect many students to take ten years to pass their final Grade 8 amateur musician exam, with daily practice.

Before I could hope to pass for a Frenchman with an accent that didn’t reveal my foreignness, I had to learn to not to make obvious grammatical errors.  This alone was daunting, especially with my time limit of 11 months in Normandy before starting University in London.

The most daunting thing was the sheer quantity of words that I needed to add to my active vocabulary. I didn’t know how many I needed to learn. It just felt endless. There are moments when you feel you’ve had a breakthrough – a phrase or a paragraph where you know every word, then defeating moments where I suddenly understood nothing in a whole sentence. There are sentences where you understand every word but they make no sense as a phrase, or have nuances that communicate something you didn’t intend, even its opposite. For example ‘C’est pas terrible’ doesn’t mean ‘It’s not terrible’. It means ‘it’s not great’ even though the dictionary translates french ‘terrible’ as ‘terrible’ in English. I came across hundreds of confusing things like this that I had to retain, get used to and make automatic.  As I went through this with friends on the same path, we often agreed it was a process of hitting plateaus then moving beyond them until the next. Even though we were constantly learning, our fluency didn’t feel like it was continuously growing. Between periods of subtle change it occasionally lunged forward to then stagnate again.

When I arrived in Caen I had some conversational French. I would probably understand 50-60% of the words in magazine, fewer in a highbrow newspaper. My French ear was also weak in that I often didn’t recognise words I heard, even though I knew them on paper. I wasn’t used to hearing them pronounced so quickly. A particular difficulty in French are the ‘liaisons’, the way silent consonants become voiced when followed by a word beginning with a vowel. For example ‘too drunk’ in French can be expressed: ‘trop ivre’. If you know these two words they are easy to follow. However, ‘trop’ is usually pronounced without the ‘p’: ‘tro’. The combination of words ‘trop ivre’, the ‘p’ IS pronounced, resulting in what sounds like tro(p) Pivre. I remember asking someone what ‘pivre’ meant.  This is a trickiness in French I have not experienced in the six other languages I have studied since. As well as making thousands of words automatically understood without having to think (there isn’t time for that when someone speaks in haste) you need to become familiar with the combinations of silent consonants and vowel-beginning words that cause surprise pronunciations. If you are trying to perfect your French then you need to know the exceptions to the rules of the ‘liaisons’. Some consonants that look silent aren’t silent, or unexpectedly become silent when you didn’t expect them to. For example ‘six’ (in French)  is pronounced like /sees/ when said alone, but the second ‘s’ is dropped when followed by a consonant such as in six juin (/see-juin/ – sixth June). The final ‘s’ in Jadis and Fleur de Lys is always pronounced even though such an ‘s’ isn’t usually pronounced (/jadees/ /lees/).

Learning French was a memory workout for me in that it required me to memorise and automate thousands of words and grammar pattern variations. It certainly enhanced my ability to learn other languages as I have more words and patterns in my head to compare the new words to. Memory enhancement and even insight itself have a lot to do with the ability to spot patterns. Latin language verb conjugations are a feast of patterns and exceptions. You can notice the patterns in the exceptions and invent your own rules/guidelines, then notice the exceptions to those guidelines.  The seventeen French verb tenses, most with six forms each are daunting to a monolingual native English speaker. That means any verb may be written around 90 different ways. Pattern spotting makes them much easier to digest and you can get away with only knowing about ten tenses. Spotting patterns makes things much easier to remember. For example if I ask you to memorise the number 123, you will likely remember it better than the number 296. 123 is easier because it is a sequence you are already familiar with. This simple fact holds a secret to how you can boost your memory generally. The more patterns you know, the more connections you make, the faster you can learn.

After about 3 months in Caen I made a new friend who was with me through much of my learning. Gery didn’t speak much English, and lived in the back of a Renault 4L (pronounced ‘Katrel’ (my spelling) as in quatre-L – the liaison makes it sound like one word rather than a letter and a number). The French are fond of French cars. Everyone knew (at least in the 90’s) what a ‘Katrel’ was. Gery was a daring character. He provoked his middle class parents to throw him out of the house and to live independent of any financial support. His father had told him to take the ‘Katrel’ and go. Gery said this was good for him and that he needed to stop being spoilt by his mother. He was 23, living off Les allocs short for Les allocations or ‘benefits’ as we call them in the UK. The French love to shorten their words to more punchy versions. D’accord becomes D’acc!  Bon appétit becomes Bon ap! We met on the University campus and bonded through playing the pianos there together. We both knew how to play Scott Joplin’s Maple leaf rag by heart, though he said he played it better than me. He wasn’t afraid to say what he really thought. I found his brave honesty, alluring. As I tried to pronounce French the best I could, he would say “Tu vas jamais arriver Henri!” ‘To arrive’ in French can also mean to succeed or manage to do something. He was predicting I would never ‘arrive’ at the goal of speaking French the way I wanted.  Language learning also exercises your capacity for metaphor. It is easy to understand how ‘to arrive’ could closely relate to succeeding. An awareness of how all words are abstracted from something else grows the more you learn. To ‘arrive’ comes from ‘rive’ as in Rive Gauche – the bank of a river, or the shore of a sea. As you hit the shore you ‘a-rrive’ – a verb abstracted from a noun. Language learning stretches our ability to abstract like this, which in turn stretches our ability to understand the unfamiliar.

As I passed through my eleven months frantically learning as quickly as I could – I enjoyed reading my four-inch-thick Harraps French-English dictionary as though it were fascinating non-fiction, lugging it around in a 65litre camping rucksack.

I avoided English people as though they were ghosts from my past.

After around 9 months I was on a camping trip for 5 days alone with Gery without a tent in la Forêt des Cinglais. We laughed at the name because Cinglais has the same pronunciation as cinglé which means ‘crazy’. The crazy forest was good for picking les champignons but was difficult to sleep in with wild animals creeping around you in the dark. During that time the biggest ever lunge forward in my French happened, like I killed off something that needed to die. On day 3 we looked at the overcast sky and decided to build a shelter in case it rained. Before the shelter was complete the rain was coming hard. I didn’t like the heavy goutes (drips) of water dribbling through our wooden and polythene roof. I was pleased that I knew the word goute. I then noticed that I rarely asked Gery for help with my vocabulary. Gery, who had put up with months of my incessant questions to the tune of ‘What does X mean’? X usually being a word he had just used, was now hearing me tell him “I think I know most of the everyday French words now”. “Henri, l‘orgueil!” He was annoyed at me for blowing my own trumpet.  I even knew French words that he didn’t know but something still stopped my French from fully flowing. By the end of the fifth day this had changed. As well as having to ‘loosen’ the resistance of my English mouth pronouncing French words, those five days of constant one on one French conversation was what it took for my English mind to finally let go. My French finally came into its own. Like a barrier had been broken, French could finally flow out of me uninhibited. It no longer seemed dependant on any English thinking habits. For the first time I had a bi-lingual brain that could feel at home in the new language and forget about the old one.  I experienced something similar on a two week holiday with an Italian girfriend’s family. At the end of a year in Italy I had 2 weeks without a word of English, just Italian. In that case however, it was more letting go of my French as my inner guide to Italian (French is much closer to Italian than English). Some psychological barriers seem to require a sustained ‘force’ to break through them. Like to saw through a tree branch the blade needs to rest in the same groove to cut deep. Otherwise the saw merely jumps around scratching the surface. In the forest I found my focus.

Part 2 (10 mins.)

Can I pass for a Frenchman?

Captain Richard F. Burton 1821-1890

To convince a native of another land that you are from his country is a challenging feat – there are endless cultural nuances to know and perform seemlessly. An impressive 19th century example of a polyglot risking his  life on this ability was Englishman Captain Richard F. Burton. Passing for a native speaker of Arabic from the Arabian peninsular, he succeeded in entering Mecca as a pilgrim. The trip lasted months, much of which he was under close scrutiny. To be detected as a non-Arab would have cost him his life. Mastering 23 languages and 40 dialects, Captain Burton is one of the most impressive polyglots ever recorded. He grew up speaking fluent Italian and French before even chosing to study languages. However, even a linguist of his calibre doubted his Arabic would be flawless 24/7, so he came up with a clever explanation for any imperfections: he also spoke fluent Afghan and Farsi, both spoken on the Arabian peninsular (a non-Arabian born pilgrim would attract too much suspicion). He explained these were the languages of his parents. If he said something that sounded odd, he could blame it on his mixed upbringing.  During my year in Caen I watched the movie, Mountains of the Moon, about Richard’s life and his search for the source of the Nile. I was smitten. At age 18 I had no idea such adventurers ever existed. I added Arabic to the list of languages I had to learn.

Captain Burton’s example shows that no-one ever manages to achieve true perfection in ‘going native’ but it is possible to get very close. I knew I was progressing when foreigners thought I must be French, then natives started to ask about my French connections even though I always introduced myself as English. As I improved I noticed I could go for longer and longer before they noticed any imperfection. To begin with It would be just the first 2minutes of the conversation “But you are French aren’t you?” “Mais non.” I replied earnestly with secret joy behind my French mouth muscles. “Are your parents French?” they search for an alternative explanation. It was a feat I could only perform for so long. I couldn’t keep it up constantly with people who knew me well – they would hear my accent fluctuate in and out, from good to not so good pronunciation. I would push on though to the end of my eleven months, ironing out more creases and pass for a French man for longer and longer.

Trying to pass a test as a French native makes me think of the Turing test. I like to spot parallels and I think there is one here between Englishmen passing as Frenchmen and computers passing as human. The parallel is that one will never truly be the other but he, she or it might convince for a time. During formal Turing tests, the computers pretending to be human only had to keep up their pretence for up to 25minutes. In my most memorable moment of passing as a Frenchman during my stay in Caen, I definitely lasted longer than that.

I was on a night out a couple of weeks before my return to England. A little beer was involved. Outside a well known pub called the Mayflower surrounded by crowds of summer drinkers, I chatted with two locals I had just met. After 5minutes I got that predictable question regarding where I came from. They were surprised to learn I was English. My French flowed effortlessly, my new ‘French mouth’ felt naturally me. I felt a love for that unique sound that is French, especially those diphthong vowels like in the name Françoise. I savoured the physical feeling of that sound coming out of me. In that moment I felt truly chez moi. Perhaps the beer helped me believe I was French. Being a natural introvert I was particularly prone to over thinking and self consciousness. Was creating a new French self about overcoming that? That evening I let my French become me.

This conversation was extended because they could not go along with the idea that I was English. We spent at least 30mins debating whether this was true or not. I wasn’t trying to deceive them – I had told them I was English just after meeting them. Yet, I notice the irony in that last sentence – I had just spent 11months studying and practicing French obsessively and on a daily basis, all in the hope that they might think I was French. My two ‘judges’ – that’s what they call them in the Turing tests – viewed me with suspicion. They listened closely to every word and phrase I uttered, looking for evidence that I was not a native speaker. They couldn’t find any. This was a test much more rigorous than the ‘You are French, no?’ question after only hearing two sentences. I innocently protested, ‘Why would I pretend I was English if I wasn’t?’, they remained unconvinced. What would my French teachers think if they could hear me now? None of them could blend in in France like I could.

How did French prepare me for Italian?

I spent two further years abroad during my time as a student: one in Italy and the other in Damascus following in the footsteps of my hero Captain Burton.

Italian was easy as it has so much in common with French. but Arabic humbled me.

Diverse foreign languages usualy have more in common than you initially realise. Even as a monolingual Englishman, many French words were like learning ‘123’. Table becomes ‘table’ – demonstration becomes ‘démonstration’ in French, ‘dimostrazione’ in Italian. All I had to learn was the modified pronunciation which follows a pattern. French and English have very different grammars but share many words. Between French and Italian the ‘gap’ is much narrower.   It wasn’t quite ‘buy one get one’ free but it very much is a case of buy French, get Italian, Spanish, Portuguese for less than half price. Not only is the number of similar words huge, much of the grammar follows the same patterns. In France it was initially hard to automate my brain to say ‘au’ (to the) instead of ‘a le’, because it requires awareness of the gender (le or la?) before saying the word for ‘to’.  We don’t even have gender in English, so such a basic piece of French grammar requires extensive gender knowledge and practice. However, once the mental knack of this is well practised you will find it easier to learn other such constructions. Even when they were quite different, my mind was already used to ‘fusing’ of words like this. In Italian ‘con i’ (with the(plural)) becomes ‘coi’. As I studied, Italian through a French lens, I had the useful shortcut of labelling everything I learnt as either ‘same as French’ or ‘not the same as French’. I could expand the category of ‘same as French’ (or sometimes same as English) with conversion kits: words that are nearly the same but follow patterns of how they differ from French. For example: ‘To develop’ in French is développer (easy as 123) and in Italian it is ‘sviluppare’. As first glance sviluppare looks fairly different until you notice the pattern with words beginning ‘de’, the ‘de’ often ‘converts’ to ‘s’. ‘To take down’ Demonter in French becomes ‘smontare’ in Italian. Noticing that pattern, hundreds of other words became as easy to remember as 123. From English, ‘discount’  becomes ‘sconto’ in Italian. The more easily you can make associations between new information and old, the more easily you will remember it all.

Not only did I find it easier to memorise but also much easier to let speech flow. I had broken through the cage of my English mind in la forêt des Cinglais, and so it was much less daunting to step beyond French too. I already had two languages in my head that I could draw from and I was used to not needing one or the other to guide how I spoke. A fundamental, transferable skill that you learn as a bi/multilingual person is the ability to say the same thing in different words. Any monolingual person can say the same or similar thing using a different words: ‘I arrived as early as I could’ or ‘I travelled there as fast as possible’.  These two sentences convey equivalent information. A multilingual person is forced to use different words to convey the same point because word for word translation is usually impossible. This had the side effect of making me seem to know more Italian than I really knew. The sentences flowed out of me long before I was truly fluent. When I was monolingual I would have berated myself for not knowing the word for ‘early’ and got stuck in my tracks as I tried to convey earliness. My bilingual self thinks – no problem I’ll just say ‘as fast as’ instead. It feels a bit like looking through one of those pencil maze puzzles except there are multiple routes through the maze. With a view from above it’s not too difficult to spot a different route to the same exit – conveying the same idea.

I also now had an intuitive sense of the usefulness of certain words and grammar constructions, before I learnt them. Knowing how important certain constructions were – the simple phrase for linking phrases ‘and that’s why…’ ‘C’est pour ça que…’ ‘E per questo che…’ made me learn and absorb with a passion the stuff I knew I would get more mileage from. I have a more acute vision for the key parts of language learning.

How did French and Italian  prepare me for Arabic?

With fellow travellers during my first week in Damascus. We are staying in a Bayt Arabi –
Arab house with central courtyard.

My first week in Damascus was shockingly hard. I thought I was an accomplished linguist who could learn any language quickly. I was wrong. It took me a week to learn the word for ‘apple’: TafaaH. My previous learning experience still helped though I didn’t feel it to begin with. The lack of ‘123’ moments felt immense. Everything felt so alien, but that is what I sought. To truly travel in the metaphorical sense is to be able to leave behind all that you know. Learning Arabic taught me I had got much much more ‘for free’ than I’d realised with French and Italian. When I was learning French, overwhelmed at the sheer quantity words and grammar I had to absorb, a word still seemed like a word with syllables, prefixes and suffix endings. In Arabic, your very sense of what a word is, disappears. When I asked a Damascan how to say ‘apple’, my reaction was “what the hell was the strange noise?”, not “I see how that fits into my comparitive language memory bank”. Because the consonants were unfamiliar, it was much harder to  memorise words even when they were spoken clearly. The more alien something is, the harder it is to memorise. We could call it the ‘123-deficit’. Arabic taught me that this can happen at ever more fundamental levels. I struggled with the lack of basic words we use every day in European languages. It took me some time to cope with the fact they don’t have a word for ‘already’.

My father was no longer supporting me as a student. I had some meagre savings and hoped to teach English while I was there. In my first few weeks I lived off falafels. Falafels were the cheapest food, perfect for a newly poor me. I paid for my dinner and ate it in haste. The kebab seller asked me for ‘masari’ (money). I had ALREADY paid I wanted to protest but there was no word for ‘already’. It took weeks for the language habits of my brain to accept that it was enough to say ‘I paid’, without the need for ‘already’. The past tense conveys the same information as ‘already’. The three fluent languages in my head that were a liberation in Europe, were still a barrier in Damascus. Part of my brain was still monolingual – that substantial part that was the same in English, French and Italian. From the point of view of Arabic, European languages are more like dialects of Indo-Europeanish. A big reason I chose to learn Arabic was to embrace multilingualism more deeply. I certainly got what I paid for: really understanding how the language in my head limits me. I was frustrated at my slow progress. With time the alien structures of Arabic became familiar ‘123’s, but it was tough. Again I had only 11months to learn it. It was the opposite of the ease with which I could learn Italian. But I began to find patterns in Arabic that Latin languages helped me with, probably by chance rather than by etymology. Nous and NaHna (‘n’ = we). Inte and tu (t = you). The gerund ‘-ing’ of (going) in English, ‘ant’ (allant) in French, -ante (andante) in Italian, -iin (rayaHiin) in Levantine Arabic. All four languages have a vowel followed by an ‘N’ for the gerund. The thrill of pattern spotting, especially when no pattern is supposed to be there!. A cold humanless universe is not interested in patterns and (if it had a voice) might even say there aren’t any – they are just our human projections.

Yet, we love to spot patterns: we draw constellations in the sky and our names in the sand, and it is from our projected patterns we make sense of things, encode things, remember things, figure out things and plan our futures.