Travelling Light: Reflections on Learning a Language

 In Diary, News

Heathrow Airport, May 1973.

I make my way through the crowds, following scribbled notes about Tube stations, where to change lines, which exit to look for. My brother’s instructions are on a now-grubby piece of paper that has been folded many times, tucked away into the pocket of my jeans.

I am nineteen.

I’m coming to live in London for the first time. But I already feel like a seasoned traveller. I’ve just spent a year in Spain, teaching English, working as an au-pair, learning to speak the language before going to University.

Spain was at that time, still in the grip of Franco. Political dissent was invisible, repressed. Sometimes, I could feel its underground rumblings.

Newspapers – national and regional – reported only on the improvements in industrial production. Or they told of colourful local festivals, or of Catholic priests and bishops blessing new schools, officiating at baptisms, First Communions, or the weddings of the rich and influential.

Another Spain existed then, too, of course: the invisible one. The country that lived underneath the surface. The Spain of the poor and the disenfranchised. The Spain of fascism and cruelty.

One Catalán friend told me, very quietly one night over a coffee, that her father had died in prison. He’d been arrested and sentenced to several years for being in possession of a banned, radical newspaper. For daring to speak an unofficial language.

The early months in Valencia are exhilarating. Above all, I love the light: the blue shimmer of every morning, the cloudless skies, the lightness of spirit among the people who throng the pavement cafes of a city that always seems to be awake.

I also love the way I slip into a new language – it feels like putting on a new and daring dress, something I’d never wear at home in Ireland. A sense of freedom comes with it. I discover a different self – one that sometimes surprises me.

(It is something I observe in all the years that follow: the way that we display different facets of ourselves, depending on the language we choose to speak.)

When the year there draws to a close, I’m dreaming in Spanish. I’m counting in Spanish. I’m fluent, confident. And it feels as though I’ve left a lot of the old me behind.


I’ve shed a lot of fears, too, along with so many certainties. I’ve learned that people are a lot more complex than they might seem. And, however haltingly, I’ve begun to write.

Poetry at first, playing with my two languages. I begin to devour dictionaries. The pull of words grows stronger. I learn about nuance, about how words matter. How precision matters.


In London, I find temporary work at the library of the Australian High Commission. It’s the perfect atmosphere in which to plunge into reading English again. One of the perks of the job is that I can take as many books as I like out on loan, for as long as I like.


Patrick White wins the Nobel Prize for Literature that year, and I begin by reading ‘The Tree of Man’, then ‘Voss’, then ‘The Vivisector’ and, finally, ‘The Eye of the Storm’.

It’s probably more accurate to say that I inhale these novels. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and now that I’m ‘returning’ to English, I become more obsessed by books than ever before.

As I read, I keep wondering how a particular phrase, or description, or a character’s motivation, might be expressed in Spanish. In so many way, each language illuminates the other. Each of them helps me to understand the subtleties of writing.


And now, as my time in Tenerife comes to an end, I’ve loved living between the two languages again. It always takes perhaps 48 hours before my brain switches entirely into Spanish.

Tiresome, sometimes frustrating hours, where I realise I’m translating directly from one language to another, rather than speaking effortlessly, without searching, without stumbling.


I continue to discover how speaking another language is an exciting travelling companion for a writer. It takes me to a place where every word has its place, every nuance demands exploration, every sentence reflects the light.

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