Our love of languages is so much more than words on a page. It is about the journey language facilitates for us, and the people that join us on that journey. The most special of these people become our language heroes, for one reason or another. And with this post, I mark the memory of a very, very special language hero of mine: my Nan, Phyllis Soley.
Nan was a sharp and witty lady. Although she didn’t learn languages herself, she was a dab hand at general knowledge rounds on TV quizzes. But she saw something in my love of languages that she appreciated and wanted to nurture.
Books, books and more books
She spotted early on that my fascination for language was tightly bound with a love of books. My very first language book – Teach Yourself French (the lovely old 80’s blue cover version!) – was bought with my couple of pounds of pocket money on one of our many family trips to Burnham-on-Sea. Barely even 10 years old, those early days rummaging around the tiny language section set off a journey of exploration that had no end.
When I was a bit older, I graduated from the little seaside bookshop to “the big Waterstones” in Birmingham. After the half-hour train journey from our home town, Nan would wisely ask the staff for a chair. She knew I’d need lots of time looking at the language books. Nan never complained, but sat there patiently, watching me pick out countless courses and grammars. It was a passion she was happy to indulge.
Years later, when her legs failed her, she’d still sate my hunger for books, insisting that I buy a new tome from her to me on birthdays and at Christmas. My shelves are still full of books she gifted me.
In 1995, when I won a place to study languages at the University of Oxford, she was my chief cheerleader. My whole time there, she would send care parcels and pocket money to ease the bumps. To my student shame, she would even take in my laundry with Mum on my home visits. In a hundred ways, Nan typified my family’s love and encouragement for the path I’d chosen to follow in languages.
One certain language-based memory I have is particularly special. A fervent fan of the Eurovision Song Contest in the 1990s, I tended to travel back home from uni to watch it each year. Naturally, I would insist on all members of my family watching it too. Back then, of course, the songs were in the national language of each country – a bit of a linguist’s dream-come-true in those pre-Internet days, when foreign-language TV was something you needed a special satellite dish for.
In May of 1997, I travelled home for the weekend, and watched it at her house. It was just Nan and me, that night – and the UK won. She sat patiently with me through all of those songs in Norwegian, Estonian, Polish and more – and was rewarded with a win.
Nan didn’t mind watching at all – or at least, never admitted to it. She knew I loved music and knew I loved languages, and joined in the fun with me. (I’m sure it could get annoying, years later, when I’d call after the show and request the lowdown on all her favourites, in detail!)
Celebrate your everyday heroes
Language heroes don’t need to be amazing linguists themselves. They are more often than not the loving people around us, who encourage and nurture. As much as the teachers and inspirational figures that guide us, they help us to achieve our goals. Maybe it’s that person who bought your first language book, or took you on your first holiday abroad where you spoke a foreign language. It might even just be someone who kept you going with kind words. Whatever they did, we are lucky to have them in our lives, and perhaps, one day, we can do the same for others.
As a linguist, it feels fitting that I created a tribute to her through language – in fact, in her own words. Some years ago, I gave Nan a dictaphone and said she could record whatever she liked, in order to relieve some of the boredom of being wheelchair-bound. The result was a collection of recordings of Nan retelling her early life story. It’s a wonderful, precious thing that we’ll cherish forever. (And, incidentally, it permanently preserves her lovely Stourbridge accent – something of interest if you like exploring British dialects!)
We said goodbye to my wonderful Nan only very recently, which is my reason for celebrating her in this post. It’s important to find a hero like Nan for your journey. Someone who will always believe in you; someone who will be your greatest fan. She will always be with me, by my side, proud of me and egging me on. She will always be my hero.