A world of languages

Alumnus Michael Eckford has travelled all over the world using the languages he first learnt at Reading. From learning Cantonese swearwords to being faced by an armed North Vietnamese army he has been fortunate to have some amazing experiences.

IMG_2633In September 1963 I moved into St Patrick’s Hall straight from a public school education.  The move was also a profound cultural upheaval, but in a positive way.  My peers were all from a very different background.  We got to know each other over many cups of coffee and endless friendly debates, where a search for truth was more important than proving oneself right.  It was a discovery to feel accepted just as I was.

For the first two years I struggled somewhat at the Faculty of Letters where I studied mainly French and a little German.  Much of the course content involved literature and I had little sympathy for some of the tragic characters.  My immature attitudes attracted some mediocre grades. The year in France proved to be a turning point.  While there I avoided English speakers as far as possible and involved myself with the French.  To me they were delightful.  And I spoke nothing but French. On my return to Reading for Year Four everything began to make sense. I enjoyed the literature and the rest of the course.

Then one has to earn a living and I had never really given the matter serious thought.  Dreamy thought, yes, but never any real planning.  They say that if you don’t know where you are going, you end up somewhere else! But that’s no bad thing.

My first full time job was VSO in Laos.  It was an exciting place to be in 1967.  My job was to teach English at Dong Dok teachers’ training college outside Vientiane.  Everyone spoke French, so I was not forced to learn much Lao. People wanted to learn English, so this brought me into contact with French, Germans and Russians. I began to learn some Russian.

We were not allowed to go to Viet Nam, but then I did get to drive someone’s car into Cambodia heading for Angkor Wat.  About 50 km from Saigon my picnic lunch was disturbed by about 30 scruffy men in black armed to the teeth with a variety of weapons.  They were not interested in me – fortunately.  A long time later I realised I was lucky to have been spared by the North Vietnamese army en route to the Tet Offensive.

Back in the UK I spent three years with Rolls Royce in Bristol but as time went by, it became evident that this was not what I wanted. By chance someone gave me some addresses in Rhodesia.  Yes, the rebel state!  Schools there were very interested.  I chose a place at Marondera 50 miles from Harare.  There followed three fascinating years.  Of course there was a demand for French. Travels took me to South Africa, Mozambique and even camping on an island off Mozambique.  I went to Mauritius and Madagascar, where they speak French.  Back in Rhodesia a few words of Shona always helped when meeting the locals.

By 1974 there was a growing need for teachers to be qualified, so I did a PGCE at Oxford. St Bartholomews in Newbury, where I did teaching practice, offered me a job to teach French and German. In 1979 I moved to New Zealand, where I taught French and German. Foreign languages struggle in NZ.  I thought there might be a market for Mandarin Chinese, but this never eventuated.  In 1998 I did a Dip. TESOL to teach English to non-speakers of English.

From 1999 to 2007 I worked in several schools for special needs boys in Hong Kong. They had all been in trouble with the law.  The first thing I learnt at school was Cantonese swear words. Very colourful stuff! From the staff I picked up useful expressions in Cantonese. Later whenever I spoke to these lads in Cantonese, they always listened respectfully. Ah, the magic of language! While in HK there came an opportunity to give language courses in prisons.  We were given some very wise advice before starting our courses.  As always the reality was not what I had expected.  The inmates looked perfectly ordinary to me.  More than anything they seemed to appreciate the visits from outside.

Not wanting the Mandarin to go to waste I found a job at a teachers’ training college in Yangzhou just north of Nanjing.  The Mandarin accent was different.  Again language opens doors and a little goes a long way.  It even saved my life on one occasion, when a group of Chinese suddenly appeared and were closing in on me in Shenzhen.

In 2007 VSA (Volunteer Service Abroad, NZ) asked me if I would like to apply for a post in Quy Nhon.  Not having been to Viet Nam, it was a piece of unfinished business.  A three week intensive course in Vietnamese was a valuable addition. Some words are similar to Chinese, but I found Vietnamese harder than Chinese.

And this journey through the world began with what I learnt at Reading. I learnt about language, cultural awareness and how to learn a language. It is a very exciting world out there and I am grateful I have been able to see so much.