There was much more to the star of Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s than her movie career. Audrey Hepburn was well known for her charity work with UNICEF, and after spending her childhood in Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands, she was also fluent in English, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish and German.
Rita Ora was born in Kosovo (then called Yugoslavia) to Kosovar-Albanian parents, moving to London when she was a year old. The pop star, model and X Factor judge speaks Albanian fluently and is proud of her heritage; last year she was named an honorary ambassador for the Republic of Kosovo.
Former yachtswoman Dame Ellen Macarthur learnt to speak French when she was 21 and living in a French boatyard while she prepared for a solo transatlantic race. She’s now fluent and says she would never have been so successful in her career without knowing the language, which helped her build relationships with other sailors and gain sponsorship.
Comedian (and record-breaking marathon runner) Eddie Izzard is currently touring with his stand-up show Force Majeure, which he performs three times a night, in three languages: French, German and English. In 2014, he was named the Guardian’s public language champion, and told the newspaper: “There’s a political basis for me to learning other languages, because if we don’t come together in the world then the world’s not going to make it.”
JK Rowling studied French and Classics at university, and when she came up with the idea for the Harry Potter series in 1990, she was working as a bilingual secretary for Amnesty International. She later moved to Portugal and split her time between teaching English as a foreign language and writing the best-selling books.
The Facebook founder surprised everyone in 2014 when, during a visit to Tsinghua University in Beijing, he started speaking Mandarin – and continued for half an hour. Though his efforts got a mixed reception from the press, the audience seemed delighted – and we were pretty impressed, too.
The star of Napoleon Dynamite is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and served a two-year religious mission to Japan after high school, where he became fluent in the language. And though he now describes himself as “a little rusty”, he still sounds pretty good to us.
Tim Peake is the first British astronaut to go to the International Space Station – but before leaving Earth he had to learn Russian (the language of the controls in the Soyuz capsule used to get to the ISS), and has described this as the hardest part of his 14 months’ training.
Okay so we already mentioned Tom Hiddleston in our last post, but frankly, we never get bored of listening to him speaking loads of languages – among them French, Spanish, Greek and Italian, plus some Mandarin, Russian and Korean. And he studied Latin at university…
The Lord of the Rings star was born in New York, but spent his childhood in Venezuela, Denmark and Argentina, leaving him fluent in English, Spanish and Danish. He also speaks some French and Italian, and understands Norwegian and Swedish.
Does your favourite celebrity make the list?
Isobel Eason from Hartlepool qualified for the Junior Language Challenge final two years in a row, and came third last year, with her proud family cheering her on. Here her mum Vickie shares their experience of the competition…
If you’re a parent or teacher of children aged 10 and under in the UK, visit juniorlanguagechallenge.com to find out more about our annual competition, which is now open! Entry costs just £5, which is all donated to our fantastic charity, onebillion.
The Junior Language Challenge has been an amazing experience from start to finish. My daughter Isobel thoroughly embraced the challenges and new languages that it offered.
Isobel qualified for the final in each of the last two years. The first year was a daunting experience but being one of the youngest to qualify that year did not put her off. As a family we all learnt along with her, even creating songs and rhymes to help her learn some of the trickier phrases. We sometimes still all sing them on the way to school on a morning whenever something reminds us of the languages she studied. She did really well in the final that year, finishing just outside the top 15.
The following year was a different story for Isobel. We noticed a real difference in the way she approached learning the new languages and every spare minute she had she spent practising. Mandarin has to have been one of her favorites. The final was very different as we all knew what to expect. I was dreading the leaderboard the most, it’s horrible to see the children moving up and down and I don’t know how Isobel managed to block it out. We were overjoyed when she made the final round, though we spent the entire final on the edge of our seats! I was so nervous for her but she was amazing, and her face when she had finished and looked at the scoreboard was an absolute joy. She had finished third! All of her hard work and determination had paid off.
I was amazed throughout at how quickly she picked up the different languages. The JLC and their fantastic team of people has provided Isobel with an invaluable experience, learning six languages over the last two years whilst also supporting the very worthy onebillion charity. It’s been an adventure that none of us will ever forget and one that we can’t recommend highly enough.
In the spirit of ‘Linguists Anonymous’, I am Felicity Jones, 45, and I am mildly addicted to learning other languages. I speak French, German, Spanish, Italian and some Mandarin. I have used uTalk to learn some Danish, and my January challenge is Greek.
Even as a child I would listen under the bed cover to a transistor radio beaming in words I could not understand from across Europe when I was meant to be asleep, and tried to make sense of the country names on foreign stamps. I then had the deeply unusual benefit of inspirational language teachers at school. Now, I travel a lot for my work and for fun, and as I always need to know how to say I am vegetarian – in Korean gogi bego is the most effective way to be clear about that – I have an excuse to learn at least a few words. Being able to say ‘thank you’ or ‘good morning’ makes travelling much more human.
What would I say to someone thinking about learning another language? Stop thinking about it and get going! The longer you think about it, the bigger the mountain seems. And don’t be afraid to communicate right from the off, even if you can only say hello or thank you – that’s why I love uTalk as it’s not just flat lists of words; you have to think, hear, speak even with your first words. And the Recall is an evil but effective section, the most like real life you can get to by yourself.
The most inspiring approach I have ever seen is Fluent in 3 Months by Benny Lewis. He uses ‘language hacks’ to accelerate confidence to SPEAK, an approach which transformed him from someone who thought they could not learn languages after school to fluency in seven languages and dabbling in more. Think like a child, open your ears, let yourself sound silly when you shape your mouth to make an unfamiliar sounds, ask someone how you say something in their language. Listen to the radio, read a children’s book, look at the signs in the airport and in shops, skype with native speakers and exchange your skills, go to a bar. Above all, speaking another language is only ever about connecting with someone else, with a different culture, a different way of being, however fleetingly and enjoying it. And if you have any doubt, apparently language learning stimulates the same part of the brain as other pleasurable activity!
So, we’re a week into the uTalk Challenge… Thank you to everyone who’s thrown themselves so enthusiastically into learning a new language this month – we’ve been really impressed with your commitment and fantastic scores.
You may remember that we EuroTalkers are also joining in, learning a variety of languages for lots of different reasons. And because we’re a competitive bunch, we’ve set up a scoreboard in the office – right now, Liz and Nat (both learning Welsh) are in the lead, but that could all change over the weekend…
Each week, we’ll be sharing a video update in which a few of us will share what we’ve been learning. For week 1, we’ve got Safia (learning Mandarin Chinese), Ioana (learning Argentinian Spanish) and Liz (learning Welsh). How did we do?
If you’d like to share your own progress, please drop us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or – even better – send us your own video, like this brilliant one from Patricia!
Good luck, enjoy and have a great weekend
Nancy Reynolds is a freelance writer from the USA, who’s currently working on a novel. In her spare time she studies Persian and has vocabulary contests with her teenaged daughter who has studied Latin, German, Mandarin and Ancient Greek. Here’s her language story…
For some people, learning a foreign language is good for business, a school requirement or a necessity because of a move. For me, it started in eighth grade with French, but more recently, it was to understand some Iranian friends I made on the Internet. Although my friends all know English, when they wrote posts in Persian, I felt left out. Although the different alphabet seemed daunting, I had studied Cyrillic for Russian and had done well, so I figured I could learn another alphabet. One reason I keep at it is to be able to read more and understand more of the Persian in movies.
A rewarding aspect of learning any foreign language is to understand another person. Values and concepts can be a direct result of the kind of language a person uses. Persian past tenses can distinguish between whether the life of a person in the past is still relevant today or not. We don’t have that in English. The term for a double bed in Italian is “letto matrimoniale,” implying that a person shouldn’t be sleeping in such a bed if not married. Which verb for “to be” you use in Spanish to tell someone she looks good will reveal whether you mean all the time or just today.
One of my greatest challenges in learning Persian is having to do it outside of a classroom. My friends are very busy or want me to help them with English, so I get little practice with spoken Persian. EuroTalk has made a difference because it is fun and I can use it whenever I want. The promotional assertion that it is good for five minutes or for hours of learning is quite true.
Ioana at EuroTalk asked me what my favorite word in my favorite language is, but I don’t think she was expecting the answer I have. It is “love” in English. To choose my favorite word in Persian is a challenge! I guess it would have to be “salam”, which means “hello”. Why? I have learned hello in many languages.
It is a thrill to greet someone in his or her language, get a stunned expression and then a broad smile. Such a simple word says I care about communication enough to step outside of my comfort zone.
Sometimes a funny, weird or awkward situation has occurred when I used a foreign language with a native or another speaker. In French I unintentionally propositioned a friend! Fortunately, he knew what I meant. Two delightful moments speaking Persian with natives were when I asked “Khoobi?” It is the casual way to say “How are you?” They were quite impressed.
A fun triumph, though, was reading the Persian on a soda can in a friend’s photo. Even though some of the letters were obscured, I still could read the well-known brand name: Fanta. I’ll drink to that.