How being a self-taught polyglot changed my journalism career

Diana Whistance-Smith sitting in on a meeting for her internship in Florence, Italy. (Courtesy Diana Whistance-Smith, Amerigo)

I hated my Grade 12 French class. It’s not that I didn’t have friends in the class or that the teachers didn’t know what they were doing. But I’d convinced myself, at 17, that I, in no way, would need to know any languages other than English for my prospective career path. I was going to be a writer a journalist. All I was going to need for that kind of career was an impeccable understanding of the English language and the willingness to become a grammar Nazi and spellcheck until I was blue in the face.

I hated my Grade 12 French class because I thought languages besides English weren’t so important to me.

Four years later I’m now a self-taught polyglot and currently learning my sixth language. Those six are English, Italian, German, French, Ukrainian and Dutch. I have a lot of work to do before I can call myself a master in all six, but I’m getting there.

I’ve lived and worked in Italy for months at a time as a reporter for an online publication, and I’ve worked for a sports company in Germany for a day. The life of a polyglot is endlessly entertaining.

The questions that I receive usually range from: “You speak Italian? Oh, you must be Italian, right?” to “But wait, why are you speaking German? How do you do it?”

By definition, a polyglot is someone who knows and is able to use several languages. Nowadays, becoming a polyglot is as accessible and easy to do as using your phone and watching TV. That is, if you’re willing to dedicate a bit of time each day to doing so. My secret to learning multiple languages is no big “I’m a mastermind in disguise” type of reveal. I use free apps (Duolingo, I owe you my life), which teach the foundational grammar and sentence structure of any language. I use language exchange apps that set you up with language partners in the language you aspire to learn, in exchange for teaching them English (HelloTalk is the way to go, once you’ve completed everything Duolingo has to offer). When you’re feeling confident enough, try watching a TV series you already know like the back of your hand in the language you’re trying to learn. Chances are, you’ll remember the words well enough to line them up with what the characters are saying in the foreign language. Or, you might luck out and download a series with English subtitles.

Then comes the leap of faith: go to the country you’ve been learning the language of, make friends and get a job there. Refuse to speak English until you’ve mastered a handful of conversational phrases or can navigate your way from Point A to Point B in one piece.

What you’ll find is that if you are truly committed to learning a language, people are equally committed to helping you through all of your mispronounced words and miscommunicated questions. In May 2016, after following my sure-fire process of mastering Italian by myself, I took on an internship in Florence for two months as a reporter for an online publication, running my own “Reporting in English” section. Little did I know that my colleagues spoke little to no English and every event I would be attending and covering would be in Italian.

 

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Diana Whistance-Smith on her internship in Florence, Italy. (Courtesy Diana Whistance-Smith, Amerigo)

 

“You have no choice but to be confident in the Italian you know,” was what I reminded myself more times per day than I could count. By the end of my most recent stint with the publication in February, I was doing entire interviews on my own in Italian, coming up with questions on the spot.

I remember laughing my way through the little grammar slip-ups or the awkward moment of asking a company’s president how many years he’d been working for the company and having it come out as, “How old are you?” Thankfully, he laughed it off and told me that I shouldn’t ask people their age during an interview. But he appreciated that I, a non-Italian, was making the effort to learn anyway.

When a friend that I’d made through a language exchange offered me the opportunity to work alongside her for a day, I took my confidence to Frankfurt, Germany. Apparently having a Canadian who speaks limited German was still someone worth having at Yosemite Sportshop for a day. I made a point of keeping up my confidence when greeting customers, offering help and spending eight hours with German colleagues and customers.

 

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Diana Whistance-Smith with a colleague at Yosemite Sportshop in Frankfurt, Germany. (Courtesy Diana Whistance-Smith)

 

I was “the Canadian assistant visiting from Italy who spoke minimal German but did a great job.” I smiled my way through the day, despite the occasional agitated customer who refused to let me find someone else to help them whenever the German went over my head. I made a video of myself speaking German in the store that day to show everyone back home what I was up to, and to advertise the truly awesome working environment.

To this day still have people ask me how on earth I’m able to speak all of these languages. “I thought you only spoke Italian, now you’re speaking German?”

If I haven’t yet inspired you to learn a new language, or brush up on one you already know a bit of, then I can at least answer the overarching question of this article: “Why did becoming a self-taught polyglot change your journalism career, Diana?”

Confidence. Learning new languages has helped boost my confidence in any situation  foreign or in my own language. I’m able to tell myself that no matter who may seem more competitive than me or has more authority than me journalistically, I am just as capable at producing quality work. That I have been training for years to be the best that I can be in my field. That I should remind myself everyday, whether out doing a field report, reading a teleprompter during a newscast or helping out with editing video footage, that this is what I have been training to do for the rest of my life. That no matter how daunting things may seem, carrying yourself confidently will get you the results you’re looking for.

Thank you, Grade 12 French class. I probably owe you my career.

 

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