Experience: I can speak 50 languages

‘I’m often asked what the secret is. The truth is it’s mostly down to endless hours of reading, studying and practising grammar’

I’ve been obsessed with languages for as long as I can remember. My family travelled a lot when I was young and my dad, a self-taught polyglot, would talk to everyone we met with apparent ease, confidently switching between languages. His abilities made a big impression on me, but I was intimidated by him, and he didn’t encourage me to follow his lead.

I wasn’t a natural language learner. Aged 11, I made slow progress with French at school and almost gave it up. But things felt different when I took on German at university – loving many German writers in translation, I wanted to read them in their native tongue, and that’s been my main motivation for learning new ones since. It can be a real revelation when you start to get it. Once I got German, I was hooked; French, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit quickly followed. The idea of having an encyclopedic mind – a comprehensive overview of the world – has always fascinated me, and acquiring languages seemed a good way of achieving that. By my 20s, I’d set my heart on devoting the rest of my life to learning as many as I could.

I’m often asked what the secret is, and whether some people have an aptitude for absorbing words and phrases. The truth is, predictably, it’s down to endless hours of concentration – reading, studying and practising grammar, as well as my own technique called «shadowing», which involves walking briskly outdoors while listening to a recorded language and repeating it out loud. For five or six years, before I married and had children, I would study for 16 hours a day. I’d transcribe Irish,

Persian, Hindi, Turkish, Swahili. Gradually, all these wonderful languages started to swim into focus, and ever increasing numbers of great works became accessible.

It’s hard, but the rewards can be thrilling. When I started studying Spanish, for example, there was a moment when the living language – which I’d heard spoken around me when I was growing up – suddenly revealed itself to me, as if the wax was falling from my ears. That’s the moment I crave – it comes to me quickly with European, Germanic or Romance languages – and it’s very addictive. Something similar happened when I first went to Sweden – I’d never studied Swedish, but when I heard it spoken around me, it seemed to combine elements of languages I was familiar with. All it took was three weeks and I was able to hold my own in complex conversations. That’s as much as most people would want, but as far as I’m concerned, at that stage I’m still in the foothills. Climbing the mountain – achieving native fluency – is always going to take years.

Now, I can read about three dozen languages and speak most of them fluently, and I’ve studied many more. The more of them you know, the more you see how inter-related they are.

Exotic languages can be more of a challenge. I worked as a professor in Korea for eight years and it took almost a decade to get my Korean skills close to native level. We live in Singapore now, and at home I speak French with my sons, unless my Korean wife is there, in which case we’ll use English. If we don’t want the kids to understand everything we’re saying, we use Korean.

I’m not a naturally forthcoming person and I used to be wary of talking to native speakers in their mother tongue. But to have the language come alive you have to speak it, to live it. Now, I find when I’m immersed in a language, I have another, more garrulous persona.

I think I’m much richer for that – it makes me more confident. If I were kidnapped tomorrow and dropped in an unknown region, I think there are only a few very remote areas I’d struggle to make myself understood.

I’m increasingly drawn to dead and endangered languages, and want to set up a polyglot academy where people with similar interests to mine can flourish. I’ve studied Esperanto, and although I can see the benefits of a world language, I do think the loss of so many quirks and colours would leave the world a less intriguing place. It would be like visiting a botanic garden where there was only one type of plant – that thought horrifies me.

• As told to Chris Broughton.

How Freelance Magazine Writing Works


Write a query letter. This is the most important part of the process — actually contacting the editor you’d like to work for. The query letter should have four parts:

  • Start off the letter by grabbing the reader’s attention. All magazine articles begin with a compelling sentence or paragraph, and your query should do the same thing. Do not say, «My name is ______ and I want to write for your magazine.»
  • Show the editor why your article idea is important for readers. This paragraph can discuss current issues surrounding your subject, give a quote from an expert, and mention other significant reasons the magazine must publish your story ASAP.
  • Give the editor the nuts and bolts of how you will write the story. How many words? What will it include? What experts will you be contacting for their input? Will you provide sidebars, photos, etc.? Reveal exactly how you will approach the piece.
  • Finally, list your qualifications as a writer. This is where you’ll want to mention previous work and experiences that make you uniquely suited to write the piece. Don’t hold back, you must brag! Tell the editor everything you think will help your case. If your previous (or current) career is linked to the pitch, mention it.

Put these four paragraphs on a one-page letter with your letterhead containing contact information. Enclose three or four appropriate clips and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Mail the whole package, and then be patient. Editors often take up to three months to respond to query letters.

If you want to get an editor’s attention … here’s how! Learning how to write a perfect query letter can open doors that you never dreamed of.

You have the power of life and death in your hands. Or should I say at your finger tips?

You can open the door to a bright new future or put a nail in your own coffin! I’m talking of course, about your query letter. Your query letter is an editors first impression of your writing (and we all know how important first impressions are). It is actually the first piece of work that you will submit to them. An editor will get a glimpse of your ability as a writer as they read your query letter. You may be saying to yourself

that I am over reacting. This isn’t the important part. The article is the place where you must concentrate all of your efforts. This is just a query, right? Wrong! Editors see it much differently. They take query letters very seriously and so should you. Your query is your way of getting your foot in the door. A door that will either be flung wide open or perhaps shut and locked! You may be cheating yourself out of great writing assignments. Assignments that you would actually be perfect for, all because of a poor query letter.I have received assignments solely on the content of my query. I have had editors tell me that they enjoyed reading my query letter so much that they could hardly wait to get to the actual article! Some have also shared with me experiences where the queries were so boring that they said they could not even imagine having to read anything more. While it is important to keep it professional, it is also possible to still be interesting as well. Editors are people too (no matter how hard we find that to believe), and they love a good letter just as much as the rest of us. You can get a feel for the type of editor that you are dealing with by reading several issues of the publication that you would like to write for.

By doing this you will get to know the types of articles that this editor finds appealing. Often there is a certain niche that needs to be filled. If you notice a large amount of comical or easy going pieces, then you may want to be slightly humorous in your query. Show your lighter side. If the stories seem to be cut and dry. And filled with facts and figures, your best bet is to be strictly business in this case. There is a good chance that this editor is the no nonsense type. Finding favor with an editor will not only increase your chance of being published, but will also help you to get the honest unbiased feedback that you need to succeed. Even if the editor is not completely taken with the idea that you submit, if he feels you have talent and likes your style … he may point you in the right direction and give you the advice that you need to help you create the type of work that he is in need of. Possibly an avenue for future assignments as well as an opportunity for future publication.

Your query is your chance to grab them by their tails. It is the free sample, or taste if you will, that will cause them to desire more! Give them something that will cause their mouths to water. Your query can be that aroma that reminds them that they are hungry. This is the time when you have their undivided attention. They are reading and examining your work intently. They are concentrating on you and you alone. Spark their curiosity. Cause them to raise an eyebrow at you. Think of your query letter as a personal interview. Put your best face forward. What makes you interesting? What areas do you shine in? Why are you the perfect man (or woman) for the job? What you lack in experience can be made up by what you possess in talent. This is your chance to

wow em! Remember, you’ve got their attention … don’t lose it.

This also applies to publications that ask you to contact them for more information. I once got an assignment immediately because the editor said that she found my inquiry so fascinating that she knew the story must be even better! Put as much effort into your queries and inquiries as you do the actual article. Sell yourself. Do what you do best to help you get what you want. You’re a writer, so write a query that is as interesting and exciting as that thriller you are working on. Be as passionate about getting assignments as you are when you are lost in the pages of your most recent love story. Remember, a successful query is the first step to being a successful writer. It’s as simple this … if the sample is good they’ll want more.

HOW STUFF WORKS http://www.essortment.com/write-perfect-query-letter-34661.html

Why there’s no point in dressing up for Paris fashion week

What to wear at the catwalk shows? Stick with your pyjamas – and avoid at all costs anything designed by Rachel Zoe

I’m going to Paris fashion week for the first time. What should I wear?

Maria, London

Ah, Paris fashion week. Dieu bless you, mademoiselle, with your way of forcing people to wait for hours in the freezing fricking cold until Alexa Chung, Kate Moss and other luminaries take their seats and shine their gilded light upon some designer. Oui, Paris fashion week, I know thee well.

As such, what to wear for it is my Mastermind specialist subject. To start, pyjamas are de rigueur. Layer on top of that your duvet, bien sûr. And pour the final pièce de résistance, accessorise your look with your hotel bed and stay there for the duration thereof. Alternatively, if you’re looking to vary your look (and every look needs a bit of variety to keep it fresh!) alternate the bed with your sofa and give the whole thing a flash of colour by placing your TV set nearby, finding a station that’s not in sodding French and turning it on. Et voilà!

I don’t mean to be the wet blanket on your flame of excitement about fashion week, Maria. You will, I am sure, have a good time. You will perhaps have less of a good time if you go every season for eight years running. So go forth and enjoy, and don’t – not for a New York minute – let a shadow of insecurity darken your current sunshine of anticipation about it. Revel in that sunshine while ye may, Maria, before it is clouded over with irritation about having your foot stepped on by Lou Doillon’s best friend for the third time in one day.

Here’s what people are looking at when they go to fashion shows: what the models are wearing, who the celebrities are. Here is what people are not looking at when they go to a fashion show: what anyone in the audience is wearing. Literally, no one is looking at that. Not even your

seat neighbour who you’ll be stuck sitting next to while you wait for a former member of All Saints to turn up. And anyway, chances are it will be so freezing inside the show venue that you won’t take off your coat anyway and all of your wardrobe planning will be for naught.

So let us return to my original advice. When going to Paris fashion week, wear your pyjamas. Sling a coat instead of a duvet over them and finish the look off with a pair of flat shoes (comfort is paramount for busy days!). That way, when the show finally finishes you can just crawl back into your hotel bed without any further clothing-based exertions.

I heard that stylist Rachel Zoe is getting paid well into six figures to dress Anne Hathaway for the Oscars. How on earth can this be justified?

Mike, New York

Are you bananas, Mike! I die for Rachel Zoe’s style! Seriously, the girl is sick. Sick! Die! Bananas!

As you have hopefully realised from the above paragraph, Mike, I am not speaking English – I am speaking Zoeish. Zoeish is the entirely new language that Zoe has crafted herself, one as unfathomable as Finnish and as intricate as Chinese. It takes old words and makes them over with wholly new meanings. For example, «sick» means «good» and «die» means «happy». Currently, linguistic scholars are trying to fathom what «bananas» now means but whatever it is, there is no doubt it will be amazing. It’s basically like vintage, yeah? Recycling old things and making them new? So purely for services to language students everywhere, Zoe deserves eight-, 10-, no, 30-figure salaries!

Or so I thought, she says, whirling around to the camera as it zooms in on close-up with threatening music in the background.

Rachel Zoe? She can pick out a dress, I guess. Personally, I had little truck with the robot-like look she chose for Anne Hathaway for last month’s Golden Globes but I appeared to be in the minority on that one so I’m willing to shrug my shoulders and say, like the professional I am, «meh».

But then images from her first collection were released. Yes, she has (inevitably) taken the celebrity fashion designer nickel and she is certainly more qualified to design a clothing collection than most others offered the nickel. Oddly, though, her clothes are so much more hideous than the offerings from pretty much any other celebrity on the planet, ever, and you are talking to someone who actually saw Madonna’s collection for H&M in person.

So in short, yes, Rachel Zoe is worth six figures for services to language but that is counteracted by the fact that she should pay anyone who wears her fugly clothes a billion dollars in advertising fees. Bananas!

The Guardian, Sunday 20 February 2011

Apollo dismayed as Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time moves house

National Theatre executive warns of losses running into millions following decision to move play to Gielgud next door after ceiling collapse

The National Theatre has pulled its award-winning production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time out of the West Endtheatre where the ceiling fell in last month as the organisation warned that it could lose «millions of pounds».

The National announced it would not return to the Apollo after the incident in December which resulted in nearly 80 injuries and scenes of frightened, traumatised theatregoers. Instead, the play will reopen next door at the Gielgud theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in June.

The news was an unexpected blow for the Apollo’s owner, Nimax Theatres, and its chief executive, Nica Burns, said to be «blindsided» by the decision.

But the NT said the decision was economic. It is understood a protection deck is being installed under the Edwardian theatre’s ceiling. This would mean the closure of the uppermost balcony seats – about 150 seats that sell for £15 each.

A spokesperson for the NT said the current situation would be «a significant blow to us financially». While the National Theatre has business-interruption insurance, it is not yet certain this particular event will be covered, since the precise cause is still to be determined.

The NT’s executive director, Nick Starr, said: «Our own experts have reported that there is such strong correlation between one particular thunderclap and the ceiling collapse that it would be too co-incidental for them not to be causally linked.»

He added: «Our exposure is measured in the millions of pounds – but the low millions, not the high millions.»

Burns, one of the best known West End producers and a former president of the Society of London Theatre, clearly did not see the NT decision coming.

Earlier this week she had been expecting to reopen the Apollo on 13 January with the production very much back on stage. She said: «This was and is a deeply upsetting incident for everyone. We are sorry to lose such a wonderful production and wish it well.»

A spokeswoman said Burns was «devastated and heartbroken», but would be back fighting and that the Apollo would reopen with another show.

Starr admitted it would be «a real wrench to leave that beautiful theatre». He added: «Sadly the closure of the gallery to enable its restoration means that the show no longer works economically there. We look forward to renewing our relationship with Nimax Theatres on another show in the future.»

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a wildly popular adaptation of Mark Haddon’s award-winning book, had been playing to full houses since it transferred to the Apollo last March, taking around £190,000 a week at the box office. Last year it won seven Oliviers – equalling the record set by Matilda the Musical – including best actor for its then star Luke Treadaway and best director for Marianne Elliott.

It had been booking until 25 October, with the current cast contracted until 1 March. A new company, due to start rehearsals on 20 January, will also be offered a holding fee in the hope that they will push their contracts back. «It is hard to put a number on it,» said Starr. «There are losses and there are costs.»

A Broadway transfer of the play will also take place in October this year, the NT confirmed yesterday.

The London production will move to the Delfont Mackintosh-owned Gielgud which is around 200 seats bigger than the Apollo. Tickets for the new performances go on sale from 17 January. All Apollo ticket holders will be contacted to offer a refund or transfer of their bookings to the Gielgud


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