A few months ago, I happened to overhear a rather stilted but amicable dialogue in a coffee shop between a woman who, it transpired, had purchased property in Italy, and her native-speaking instructor who was being paid to hold twice-weekly conversations to help her improve her spoken Italian. The exchange was somewhat one-sided, in that the student was doing most of the talking and her listener was mostly nodding and murmuring agreement or empathy. I remember thinking that this was a cosy, fruitful way to learn or develop competence in a foreign language, particularly speaking and listening skills, provided that your tutor is willing to correct and interrupt as necessary, and provided you have the time to commit.
As a UK-based written translator of scientific material, for the most part associated with the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors, I don't get the opportunity to speak and listen in my source languages as often as I would like. My work is still fascinating and rewarding and it presents new challenges and obstacles, but tends to throw up largely similar vocabulary from one document to the next and I have steadily grown an ever-thickening, insulating comfort zone. Sadly, my visits to the two countries in which my source languages are spoken, although invaluable, are all too infrequent and I have very little opportunity for day-to-day conversation. So how then is it possible to overcome this sense of losing contact with languages learned but not often practised verbally?
I was first introduced to Euronews by one of my course tutors while undertaking my translation training. She insisted that it offered an effective way to improve both reading and listening skills, and she was right. While studying I found that by far the most difficult text to translate was the content-loaded, jargon-rich, brusque and truncated journalistic style of news articles, often assuming a knowledge of politician sobriquets or for-those-in-the-know abbreviations and euphemisms. (I hadn’t realised, for example, that the word l’hexagone was often used by reporters to refer to the country of France.) Therefore, for me, the most useful aspect of Euronews, established by the European Broadcasting Union in 1993, is that it often provides a written and rapidly spoken version of the article, enabling me to read and listen at the same time.
Euronews has a slightly misleading name – it delivers stories on events worldwide – but it relates to its original objective of presenting news from a European perspective, and the majority of the thirteen available language options are European. There are live-streams of top stories, with videos and photographs of events and commentary, and often a written account of what you are hearing which, while not an exact transcript, closely summarises the discourse. You can quickly read and listen to headlines to catch the main thrust, then you are encouraged to click on further links to explore the issue or related issues in more detail.
An interesting dimension to this for me is the alternative perspective on UK events. Euronews contributors offer an external viewpoint, with less of the hype that emits from UK-based media coverage, particularly from partisan sources. Moreover, with so much upheaval and uncertainty in our own country, it is refreshing to read that life goes on elsewhere and there are developments that do not impact Britain much at all. Earlier in September, for example, I read that European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, in delivering his 11-point State of the Union speech, made only a fleeting reference to the UK and our imminent departure from the EU, instead focussing on trade, currency, Africa, foreign policy and immigration. This may come as a surprise to those of us who might think Brexit is dominating European thinking.
One rather odd, almost comical feature of Euronews – which has thankfully now disappeared – was the bizarre way in which readers or listeners were formerly invited to provide feedback. Alongside the article on the screen were two quite sizeable circles, one labelled “Good news” and the other “Bad news”. This often raised a dilemma: did it have to be one or the other? I remember a couple of years ago, when I first started using the app, that a group of migrants adrift on the Mediterranean were being temporarily sheltered in a sports complex on a Greek island. Good news that they were safe. Bad news that they were forced to flee their homeland in the first place and their future was uncertain. Not straight-forward, and until making a choice by clicking on the chosen circle, you never knew whether or not you stood with the majority.
That aside, Euronews is a great way for me to capitalise on marginal time in between projects, invoicing, software updates and emails. It serves the dual purpose of keeping me up-to-date on current affairs and providing real language practice in current topics. Making the effort to read and listen in the language you wish to learn is well worth the effort.