From Toulon with Love: Jonny Wilkinson on language learning

Lauren Ward

Is it ever too late to learn a language? In 1997, Jonathan ‘Jonny’ Wilkinson left university to become a professional rugby union player. Since then, Jonny Wilkinson has excelled in the sport, becoming captain of the English rugby national team and seen as the key force that drove his teams to victory in the 2003 and 2007 Rugby World Cup finals. After 12 years with the Newcastle Falcons, he transferred to Toulon in 2009 and that’s when his language-learning journey began… Discover how Jonny found out the hard way the importance speaking the language of his team mates.

What were your motivations for learning a new language?

Not knowing a language is an enormous limitation when expressing and sharing experiences. Different languages offer different nuances, understandings and therefore incredible opportunities to broaden one’s ability to see things from new perspectives. Learning new languages also allows you to connect and relate to new people and new experiences.

Jonny Wilkinson in action for ToulonHas speaking another language opened any doors for you?

Learning new languages opens enormous space and potential for new experiences that wouldn’t have ordinarily been there. It has potential for spreading messages further afield. It is not so much a case of opening doors but illuminating new doors you never knew existed.

How did you approach learning a new language?

Get in amongst it and throw out your best efforts! For me, learning is not about remembering but about investing, experiencing and committing way beyond any type of fear or making mistakes.

Do you have any tips for someone wanting to learn a new language?

Keep hold of your excitement and passion. Don’t make it about right and wrong. It’s your energy and internal state that will create momentum. This method of giving it a go and moving on in a positive, relaxed way helps you own your learning rather than remembering it.

What were the challenges you faced when learning a new language and how did you overcome these?

The main challenge is the potential for frustration. It clouds all clarity, spontaneity and performance. Getting carried away with expectations of how it should be is the problem. It’s not a straight-forward upward curve; and assuming it should be creates frustration. The other opportunity for frustration is lack of vocabulary, or not feeling like you have time to work it out. You have all the time you need. Take it and use it. If you don’t know the answer then try something close and learn in a relaxed way.

Jonny Wilkinson drop goal for ToulonWhat or who influenced your learning?

The desire to fully integrate myself into the French experience; becoming the most fully-fledged team player and member of the Toulon region I could possibly be.

Were there any funny moments you’ve had when trying to speak French with your teammates?

There are always certain words that have very different meanings in different languages, but my main issue at the beginning was grasping the masculine/ feminine nature of all things and words. I got the impression that certain members of the team found it confusing and a touch offensive when being constantly referred to as female, the same mistake against the women even more so!

If you enjoyed learning about Jonny Wilkinson’s experience, why not watch our interview with Bridget Kendall MBE – BBC Foreign Correspondent from 1983 and the first female Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge?

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