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How A Little Language Has Taken An Actor A Long Way

An English actor divulges his favored approach to language learning and how he’s wielded words in foreign countries.

“Je ne comprends pas…”

The fifteen year old student standing in front of me is smiling, but also clearly confused. This makes two of us. It is a Tuesday morning and I am in a school in Toulouse working for the Quorum Theatre Company, a group set up in 1998 that tours English language plays to French lycees and colleges with the aim of giving the students an entertaining hour of theatre and allowing them to practice their English before they sit their Baccalaureate Exams later in the year. There is often an accompanying workshop, which is where this particular linguistic impasse is currently occurring.

“I don’t understand”, she clarifies in English for my benefit, already making a slight mockery of our supposed teacher - student relationship. I am trying to explain to her why, in the scene on the page she is holding, a character has just pulled Van Gogh’s Sunflowers out of his bag.

“He is a thief”, I offer, “… a robber. He has stolen the painting.”

The student and her friend exchange a perplexed glance and a few words of rapid French before bursting into laughter. I assume this due to my frantic waving and feeble hand gestures. Clearly there is no universal sign language for “International Art Thief”.

“Il est…..Il est…un thief”, I venture forward with an empty, upward inflexion. More perplexed glances. Nope. That’s not it. Try again. I plead with my A-level French teacher in the corner of my mind’s eye, but she isn’t helping. Is this revenge?

“Il est… un… voleur!”

Ah oui, d’accord, we understand, thank you!” They run off to carry on rehearsing and I congratulate myself.

Later on, they present the scene with a level of spoken English that puts my success into perspective. The class seems to follow every word when we present the play that afternoon; they laugh in all the right places.

The students are given a further opportunity to practice after the show with a Q&A in English. One asks, “What is your favourite thing about being an actor?”

“The chance to travel”, I answer. There are reasons I like my job and reasons I don’t. I never make enough money to go on holiday, but then again my job has taken me to a lot of places which I would never have had a chance to visit; a horror film in Sofia, a mobile phone commercial in Bucharest, a Shakespeare play in Dubrovnik and, most recently, a tour in the south of France.

Acting and its relationship to language usually conjures up (in terms of the English at least) thoughts of Shakespeare, The Globe Theatre, Simon Callow and the long-standing romance between actor and spoken word. I absolutely understand this. After all, it is immensely satisfying to stand on a stage, look someone in the eye and unleash, “Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of Nile.”

The near infinite ways in which one can explore the depth and breadth of a language with it’s intricacies, quirks and inconsistencies is a source of joy and a huge attraction to the linguistically inclined, but it can also be a deterrent when it comes to learning a foreign tongue. There is perhaps a feeling that in order to make learning a new language worthwhile then it must be learnt to near-fluency and the necessary commitment of this can be off-putting for some. This is why I’m waving the flag for temporary, small-scale language learning! My job has afforded me the chance to travel for a few days here and there and I’ve definitely benefited from this approach. Less of a traditional marriage and more of a series of sexy language affairs. Amid all this flitting between languages, I can well imagine finding and settling for one I like, but not all languages are going to be enjoyable for everyone; I spent 6 months on tour in Austria and all I had to show for it afterwards was a handful of basic phrases and a hangover. German, it seems, is just not my type.

Taking the pressure of perfection away can make languages great fun to dip in and out of. I got talking to a group of Swedes in a pub and was able to drop in, “Varifran kommer du?” (the result of a few weeks trying to learn Swedish after a casting director told me I could play Scandinavian and I mentally cast myself in the next series of The Bridge). Of course, like much of Europe, their grasp of English was always going to be superior to my efforts, but one mustn’t let feelings of linguistic inferiority and shame about national language education drive one under a word rock. I accept I’m never going to be the king of languages (that title is reserved for the Dutch) and have determined to go instead for a “Jack-of-all-trades” approach. Whether it’s understanding what an irate Romanian director is yelling at you, ordering a cup of coffee or attempting to help a room of bemused French teenagers improve their English, a little goes a long way. And I am more than happy to have been “at a great feast of languages and stol’n the scraps”. (Love’s Labour’s Lost. Act V. Sc.I.)

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