Paddy Ashdown: ‘Learning six languages has changed my life’

Lord Ashdown

Lord Ashdown. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

From speaking Malay as a young marine, to offending his Chinese teacher with unfortunate translations, Paddy shares the twists and turns of his language adventures

When people ask how many languages I speak, I reply I have forgotten six. That’s the problem with languages: if you don’t use them you lose them. But a little practice soon brings them back and you can once again enjoy the magic of talking to others in their own language and on their own terms.

Human beings are, above all, communicating animals. That’s what we do best and its what we do first with our brains. Language is, quite literally the stuff of life. The more you can speak of other people’s languages, the more you can be part of their lives and enrich your own.

I was a disaster at languages at school. I obtained 5 out of 200 in O level French – an all time record. I was badly taught and I could never see the point. But then as a young Royal Marine to Singapore in the early 1960s (a bachelor I should stress) I heard that in Malay there was one word for “let’s take off our clothes and tell dirty stories”. Suddenly I saw the point. I never found the word, but in the process learnt my first language.

Then came in the little jungle war in Borneo in the mid-60s. As the only person in Commando who could speak the local language, I was sent to the deep jungle among the Dayak people. In their long-houses there were dried human heads hanging from the rafters. I decided I would feel altogether more comfortable, if I knew their language too. […]

(From The Guardian, Paddy Ashdown, 14.10.2014)

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