Language Matters

Kathleen Stein Smith, Ph.D

Language as Superpower — A Guest Post by Amanda J. Haste, PhD

I am honored to have today as my guest my friend, and mentor to independent scholars everywhere, Amanda J. Haste.

Amanda Haste, PhD is an Anglo-French translator specializing in academic and musical texts, and teaches at Aix-Marseille University. As an independent researcher she has published widely on identity construction through music and language, and currently serves as President of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS). 

AJ la francaise

It’s fair to say that languages have always played a big part in my life, so I would like, if I may, to present quite a personal story of a(n accidental) life in languages.

Born in London, England, of a polyglot father and a mother who spoke genteel French, languages have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. My parents had met in Paris and, when they wanted to discuss something delicate, this would be preceded by meaningful looks and “pas devant les enfants” and they would proceed to speak in French. However I soon found I could get the gist, at which point they switched to Italian….the only problem there being that, while my father was fluent, my mother spoke very little Italian, and Dad’s gesticulations and non-verbal cues gave me as much context as I needed. They were soon forced to abandon Italian, resorting to sending me out of the room instead. So from my earliest years I had this notion of language as a code: if you understood it you were included; if you didn’t, you were left in the dark.

Always curious, my frequent questions about the meaning of various words inevitably led to my father launching into a long and complex explanation of the etymology. Unlike my siblings I was more fascinated than bored, and I loved that Dad would give me the classical origins of a word, and then go on to tell me how it had evolved in various modern languages. He read Greek and Latin, was fluent in French and Italian, and had a good working knowledge of German, Spanish and Portuguese. As a consequence of his mini-lectures, it became second nature for me to look to other languages – particularly the classics – to work things out for myself. When we were offered an enormous number of Sunday School team points if we came back the next week with “a word for the first five books of the Bible” I ran home to look in the dictionary, having already concluded that the word MUST begin with either quinta- or penta-. The first option drew a blank, but my hunch was right and I won the points with pentateuch. I also remember being particularly proud, aged about eight, to have worked out the meaning of ‘procrastinate’: if pro meant towards, and cras (L.) meant tomorrow, well…..

Unfortunately, my Dad was not a born teacher, and was frustrated by my amateurish attempts to speak and write other languages. One time I sent him a postcard from Italy, and when I asked if he’d received it he showed it to me, complete with all my mistakes circled in red.

I pursued languages at school, taking French, Latin and Greek, but when it was suggested that I make a career in languages my mother could only come up with the idea of my becoming a bilingual secretary, and that sounded dreadfully dull. Odd, then, that I later found out that during the war my father’s language skills had led to his being deployed as an interpreter at the highest level; he later joined the diplomatic corps, serving as Vice-Consul in Milan and Turin. But nobody mentioned interpreting or translation as a career choice – maybe I never asked him, as he was so critical of my nascent skills.  However, music was also a great love and I became a professional musician (yep, lots of Italian involved there…).

After thirty years of performing and teaching I met my (British) second husband and moved to Switzerland where he was working. Oh joy! A country with four languages: French, Italian, German and Romansch! My French was already reasonable, I had some Italian, but my German was non-existent; needless to say we lived near Zurich, in the German-speaking region. But in this multilingual country everything was written in at least three, if not all four official languages, so everywhere I went I was faced with parallel texts – a real Rosetta Stone moment! Unfortunately, despite the linguistic richness it was abundantly clear that my role was to support my husband in his career – these expectations of the role of women have been described as Kinder, Küche, Kirche [children, kitchen, church] – and my lack of fluency in German also presented an enormous block to finding work. Even my title of Frau Doktor Haste referred not to my own doctorate in musicology but to that of my husband!

After a few years in Switzerland, my husband was headhunted to France. I was reluctant: I was just coming to terms with life in Switzerland, my German was coming along, and I didn’t want to move. But in the end we went, and I’m so glad we did! Liberté, égalité, fraternité, but particularly égalité homme-femme. In France I could be myself and achieve my potential, but the biggest difference was that I had the necessary language skills on which to build, namely a solid grasp of French grammar. My written French was still reasonable, though I’d last studied or used it some thirty years before, and though I struggled with oral comprehension I avoided the English-speaking bubble of ex-pat clubs and cultivated only French-speaking friends. I listened to French radio, engaged bemused shopkeepers in conversation, and spent many hours at social occasions at which I understood very little and would come home exhausted from the effort. But after about six months I realized I was understanding more and more, and within a year I was reasonably fluent, and this enabled me to create a two-fold teaching practice, with students in both EFL and music; they were all Francophone, so I taught music in French and EFL bilingually.

My evolving fluency also allowed me to begin translating FR-EN, first pro bono and then professionally, and translation now provides my main source of income. And in a wonderful stroke of luck, a chance encounter at a research seminar led to an invitation to teach practical and literary translation for the DEMA [Département des etudes du monde anglophone] at a French university, and then for the Music Department at the same university. I have now devised and taught courses bilingually in several subjects at undergraduate and graduate level, but those that are closest to my heart are the ones that marry my two loves of music and language.

Eleven years after arriving in France, we are now totally integrated, and in October 2019 became French citizens. Language fluency has been absolutely key to my professional life, our personal social life, and our assimilation into – and absorption of – French culture. My experiences of the role of languages in our cultural understanding of a place and its people intrigue me and have informed my research: among my publications are several on personal identity through language – especially in music. Having moved from England, establishing a musical career in Switzerland was a non-starter because I simply didn’t have enough German to communicate effectively. On arriving in France, I naively assumed that music was an international, supralinguistic form of communication, and that the common Italian terms used in music would suffice for conveying tempo, mood, form of attack. But what I found was a French musical culture that was completely at odds with the way I was used to describing music, so in order to have a musical life here in France I have effectively had to learn “musical English” to arrive on the same wavelength as my fellow musicians. Result? Not only the joy of playing in a thriving French saxophone quartet but also a role teaching ESP (English for Specific Purposes) to undergraduate and postgraduate music students and musicologists for academic and professional purposes, and publishing on English as a Musicological Language. But that’s another story…

Multilingualism is without question a passport to new horizons: it allows us to explore new places, make and understand new friends from different cultures, and explore new opportunities in our personal and professional lives. But multilingualism is also a two-way street: even a basic knowledge of other languages does so much to enrich our understanding of our mother tongue. (It was only when we had some new guttering fitted to our house in France that the penny dropped: gutter = gouttière, the thing that collects the gouttes, or drops. How could I have lived in France for almost ten years without working that out?!) And yes, having bored my children with etymological derivations it’s now the turn of the grandchildren…except that in their eyes this has become my superpower, because I can almost always tell them what the spells in Harry Potter actually mean, and what the characters’ names (e.g. Lord Voldemort, Draco Malfoy) signify.

Language skills are indeed a superpower. The lack of them constricts and limits us, but with them we can fly.

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