BBC’s Caroline Wyatt on how language learning has been vital to her career

Sarah Laughran

Caroline Wyatt has been reporting on global affairs and war for more than two decades, working as a foreign correspondent based in Germany, France and Russia for 15 years, and reporting from places including Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Egypt and Israel. In 2014, Caroline moved from reporting defence to covering global religious affairs and ethics. She moved in 2016 to making BBC radio documentaries after being diagnosed definitively with MS. Caroline grew up travelling the world thanks to her British diplomat father, and spent her teenage years in West Berlin during the Cold War. She is an occasional presenter for Radio 4’s Saturday PM programme, as well as The World This Week on World Service Radio.

We understand that in addition to English you can speak German and French, as well as bit of Swiss-German. What was your reason for learning each?

I grew up speaking Swiss-German, as my adoptive mother Annemarie was from Switzerland. So at home, we spoke both English and Swiss-German.  In some senses, that was my mother tongue, as we used it at home until my mother died when I was 11.  I still love hearing the language, as it always reminds me of my childhood, though I think the Swiss-German has now been superseded in my brain by German. I can understand Swiss-German, but when I try to speak it these days, it comes out as German.

Growing up bilingual meant that it was relatively easy to pick up German for O and A levels at school, although my grammar has never been perfect. I lived in Germany for a few years while I was a teenager, and my father, a British diplomat, was working there. Later, I went on to study German at Southampton University. I spent my year abroad in Germany, working as an auxiliary nurse in a Red Cross retirement home in Munich, where I spent lots of time talking to the patients and trying to improve my vocabulary.

I always loved the sound and the lilting nature of French, and learned it at school.  I also studied it again later on when I worked in Paris for the BBC as their Paris Correspondent.

How proficient are you in each language?

By the time I left Germany in 2000 after working or living there for a total of 10 years, I was dreaming in German, and speaking it fairly fluently. I also had a German boyfriend while I was working as the BBC’s Berlin Correspondent, which meant I was speaking German all the time, and when I left Berlin, a lot of people I met then thought I was German. Though I have no idea whether my grammar in my dreams was any better than in real life.

When I go back to Germany today, I have to think a lot longer and harder about words when I’m speaking, though after a few days, the language is back again, so it must be lodged fairly firmly somewhere in my brain. When I read the newspapers in German, which I still do sometimes, I don’t tend to come across vocabulary that I don’t know, so I suppose that to a degree it is still relatively fluent, if rather rusty. My father’s German is still superb, and I envy him his facility with languages. His brain seems to absorb them and manage to keep hold of them, even though he is now 86.

By the time I moved back to the UK in 2007 after four years of working in France for the BBC, I could very easily conduct interviews in French, listen to the radio and read the newspapers, as well as chat to friends and talk about politics, health, cinema, art or farming, or any of the subjects that we covered for work. Some people used to ask me if I came from Belgium, so they could definitely tell I had an accent of some kind, even if they didn’t realise that I was British.

But my French is a lot less firmly-rooted than my German, and it never became as fluent. I only studied it to O level, and then took weekly lessons for four years while living there, so it takes longer for me now to attune my ear when I visit friends in Paris. Although at home I’ll sometimes listen to French radio, read the newspaper or pick up a book in French to make sure it’s still there somewhere. I’m still very comfortable reading the language, but a lot more hesitant now when speaking French.

My Russian was always extremely rudimentary – it was taxi and restaurant Russian. I used it for survival, and could flag down and direct an unofficial taxi in Moscow to get me home at night, or order meals, and use basic phrases to greet people or ask them a little bit about themselves. But it was never good enough to use for conducting interviews or anything more complex than the absolute basics. If I sit next to Russians in a restaurant, I can often pick up roughly what they’re talking about, but I wouldn’t be able to strike up much of a conversation with them.

Did you find any language harder to learn than others?

Yes – I found Russian extremely hard to master, and rarely had enough time away from work to study it properly. I wanted to spend time in Russia learning the language before I became Moscow Correspondent, but sadly that wasn’t possible. So I took a class for an hour a week for much of the three years I lived in Russia. However, we were constantly travelling to cover stories, so I rarely did my homework as thoroughly as I should have. Words and phrases remain somewhere in my memory but not in any really useful sense. I think you need to live somewhere and totally immerse yourself in the language 24 hours a day with a family or at work to learn it properly. I never had the chance to do that in Russia, and I now regret it. Most of my BBC colleagues there spoke the language fluently, so I had to rely on them heavily for their interpretation of the interviews and the stories.

Do you have a favourite language? If so, why?

I love German and French, and if I had to choose between the two, I’d choose German. It’s such an orderly, precise language that’s capable of intense lyricism. It also connects me to some of my favourite writers, poets, thinkers and film-makers. German culture, like French culture, is incredibly rich and diverse, and it’s a real shame that German seems to be studied so infrequently in the UK now. For anyone with an interest in European history, culture and politics, being able to read source material in the original, or even the daily newspapers, is a very rewarding skill to have.

You studied German (and English) at university – how did your knowledge of German help you in your early career at the BBC?

My knowledge of German was incredibly helpful after starting at the BBC as a news and current affairs trainee in 1991. I applied for the job of German Business Reporter in 1993 after two years of BBC training, and moved to Germany that year to report on the country following unification. It was a fascinating period in German history, and that job would not have been possible without a decent working knowledge of the language, not least as very few former East Germans could speak English then. That has now changed, but trying to report on a country without speaking the language well, or fluently, means that you’ll always miss out on nuances and quite often miss stories altogether.

When you took on your overseas posting did you notice a rapid difference in how much you were using your languages?

Yes, absolutely. I used German and French every day that I lived in both countries, and using the language vastly enriched the experience of living there. For me, that was part of the appeal of working abroad. Getting to know people and make friends, and understand a country properly, is almost impossible without at least a rudimentary knowledge of the language.

Can you tell us about a particular experience you’ve had as a defence correspondent where languages have played an important role?

I often wished that I could speak Arabic, Pashto and Dari or Farsi in order to be able to speak to people in Iraq and Afghanistan directly. In Baghdad, a lot of people did speak English, especially the young. However, in Afghanistan, in more rural places such as Helmand Province, we usually had to rely on local interpreters. That meant that you were never quite sure if something had been translated directly, or perhaps edited to suit what the interpreter thought you wanted to hear. Working with our own BBC staff in Kabul was a lot easier. The producers there were all reporters themselves, and knew exactly what level of detail to translate. Languages help you to connect with people, and when speaking to Afghan women in remote areas, I would have loved to understand and respond to what they were saying directly, rather than have to have conversations mediated by interpretation. Equally, while filming on patrols with the British Army in Basra or Helmand during the wars it became very clear that body language says a lot in itself. No words are necessary when you go through a village that is patently hostile, where people are silent as you pass, or the children are all hiding. So much communication is non-verbal that you can sense very clearly when you’re in danger.

What’s it like reporting in places where you do not know the language – does this pose any challenges?

It’s much harder to report on places where you don’t speak the language. I remember reporting from Chechnya and asking questions about an alleged massacre and other killings there. It was very hard to talk to mothers who had lost their children without being able to put questions forward with any real nuance.  Equally, while reporting from Cairo during demonstrations, I felt a lot more vulnerable not being able to speak to people directly or understand what was being shouted. Likewise in northern Iraq, reporting on the Yazidi men and women who had been driven out of their homes by ISIS, I felt I was missing a lot during interviews because my follow-up questions were limited by having to be interpreted. It’s hard enough for someone to speak about their experience of being raped or seeing their family slaughtered without doing it via a male translator, who may himself feel awkward about putting those kinds of questions to an interviewee.

Generally in a profession such as journalism, how important a role do languages play?

For foreign correspondents, languages matter a lot. Most foreign correspondents I know will speak the language fluently or very well, and if you don’t, you’re at a real disadvantage. Editors will always try to ensure that at least one member of the team speaks the language, but very few people can speak enough languages to be fluent wherever they’re sent at the last minute. I’ve worked on stories across most of Europe, as well as everywhere from India and Pakistan to Israel, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan, and across the former Soviet Union. I often felt that I would have done a much better job if I’d been able to talk to people directly and understand every word they said – plus the nuances underlying what they actually said.  Having a good interpreter is an absolute essential in those circumstances, as is reading up as much about a country and its culture as you possibly can before you go.

As well as your career, how else have languages been beneficial in your life?

Languages have not only enriched my life but perhaps also helped save parts of my brain from the ravages of MS, which I’ve had since around 1992. Growing up bilingual is meant to help increase the number of neural connections made in the brain at an early age. So in one sense, speaking two languages from childhood may have enabled my brain to be slightly more resilient in keeping hold of language and other skills, as it tries to rewire itself to compensate for the areas that have come under attack from the disease and been damaged.

Are there any other languages you wish you could speak?

I’d love to speak Italian. I learned a little while working as Religious Affairs Correspondent for the BBC so that I could use it when greeting the Pope on the papal plane, but when I retire, learning to speak decent Italian would be an excellent project, and would involve a lot of travel to the very best vineyards in Tuscany.

What’s your best piece of advice for people who are getting to grips with learning a new language?

Spend time in that country, and if at all possible, live there. Spend time with people who speak the language, and don’t let them lapse into English with you. If you can’t be in the country, listen to the radio in that language or watch TV, and read as much as you can. At the very beginning, learn 10 new words every day, and test yourself the next morning. If you can’t live there, at least go on holiday to that country and enjoy immersing yourself in the rhythm of the language. And possibly the wine and the food as well.

Read some of our other celebrity interviews on language learning.

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