Languages & Creativity: How I discovered the best motivation for learning a language by Amy Varney

The European Literature Network is delighted to be collaborating with Creative Multilingualism – a large-scale research project led by the University of Oxford, which studies the interconnection between linguistic diversity and creativity. In our new series of blogs entitled Languages & Creativity, ELNetter and post-doctoral researcher on the project Heike Krüsemann will curate a selection of Creative Multilingualism posts for a fascinating glimpse into the world of language research. Over to you, Heike!

It’s official – languages and creativity go together! Who knew? Well, clearly not everyone, so the Arts and Humanities Research Council gave us money to do some research and spread the word. Don’t you just love it when things fall into place like this? Our intrepid research teams right now are busy studying the creative power of metaphorthe construction of a meaningful world in nature (that’s naming plants and animals to you and me), intelligibility between languages and communitieslanguages in the creative economyworld literaturescreative possibilities in translation, and creativity in language learning. While we’re doing that, we’d like to share some of our findings and related musings with you, dear ELNetters, in bite-size chunks and blog post format. Do let us know what you think – we’re always happy to hear from you!

By Heike Krüsemann

Heike Krüsemann is a UK-based researcher, writer and translator with an interest in Language, Culture and Education. Blog: German in the UK, Twitter: @Dr_Heike_K. Heike’s #RivetingReview of Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf; Heike’s #RivetingReview of Bühlerhöhe by Brigitte GlaserHeike’s Short Story with a translation twist: German Cinnamon


Blog post 21:

Amy Varney on how an embarrassing faux-pas in Spanish she made at the age of nine turned out to be the beginning of a beautiful language-learning journey. 

How I discovered the best motivation for learning a language

My language learning ability didn’t get off to a great start. Aged nine I wanted to wish my older cousin a happy new year, and even though I saw her practically every day, the way I felt I could best express my dearest wishes for the start of 1999 was to of course hand-make her a card. In Spanish. Even though she is English. I thought she would probably love this though, because she was studying Spanish in secondary school. So I phoned my uncle, who was about to marry a Venezuelan lady later that year, and Aunty Carolina reliably informed me that ‘Feliz año nuevo’ was the way to go. Unfortunately I somehow ended up colouring in enormous letters in the form of ‘amo muevo’ instead, and handed it over unawares to my somewhat baffled 16-year-old cousin Michelle. Not a great start.

Not to be deterred, I tried to further my grasp of the Spanish language during a trip to Venezuela in the winter of 1999 for the aforementioned wedding. Although only 10 years old, as a bridesmaid I was responsible for the readings. Luckily just the English translations though – a fellow bridesmaid two years my senior and crucially, Venezuelan, was responsible for the native language readings. It seems I did well in South America, picking up crucial phrases such as ‘gracias’ and ‘hola’ to add to my vocabulary list next to ‘amo nuevo’.

Luckily with secondary school came the promise of some consistent learning. However, 75% of Year 7 were obliged to study French as their (only) language option. I was of course not having any of this – unwilling to waste my three-phrase-strong prowess in Spanish, I managed to secure a place with the 25% of people studying the language. Phew! A fantastic teacher (gracias, Señora Hernandez!) and a real drive to speak the language with my newborn dual-nationality cousins, led to a flying-colours GCSE and enrolment on an A-level course at Sixth Form College. Sadly though, my journey to forge onwards with this beautiful, colourful language ended there – a few weeks into my AS-level. Committed to too many A-levels, faced with an impossible timetable and battling a mental health condition, I was forced to pull out. I didn’t go down without a fight, and to this day have multiple Spanish textbooks gathering dust on my bookshelf from my attempts to keep up the language in my early university days.

Fast-forward 10 years, and I am learning a new language. This time I am better equipped to take it all the way, I am confident I will succeed, and I will share with you my secret…

Now I wish I could tell you that I found a passion for Serbian when I travelled through Eastern Europe, or that a visionary language angel came to me in a dream and showed me that Slovenian was my destiny. I wish I could tell you that I’ve found a way to transcend new heights of learning to speak in a foreign tongue, but it wouldn’t be true. But what I can tell you is this: I promise you – there is nothing quite like spending time with your partner’s family (including a language professor and a translator) who are all intelligent, bilingual, conversational, and make frequent trips abroad to Germanic countries with you, to motivate you.

And so now, I spend my mornings before work studying German in my living room, and my evenings at the Oxford Language Centre on the OPAL programme. I’ve been forced into a Dirndl, had my first skiing lesson in German (Gott, hilf uns!), told everyone quite confidently that my bees hurt (look up Beine and Biene), sat in a café in Austria repeating ‘Ich bin ein großes Mädchen’ (‘I am a big girl’) over and over until the pronunciation was just right, and I have developed a possibly unnatural enthusiasm for ‘Siggi Schwein’ – a book for German toddlers based on the English story ‘Percy Pig’. However, I am having the most hilarious and fantastic time ever and I wouldn’t change a thing.

There are so many new dimensions to life that I truly believe I have been missing out on without a second language. I can’t wait to uncover them all as I continue my journey!

By Amy Varney


Amy Varney studied for her MBiochem, followed by a DPhil in Medicinal Chemistry, at Oxford. She now coordinates a University of Oxford spin-out company and is learning German at the University Language Centre.


This post was first published on the Creative Multilingualism site on 10 August 2017.


Read previous blogs in the Languages & Creativity series:

Blog 1: My love affair with eight languages by Alice Sze

Blog 2: A tale of two city guides: multilingual identity, writing, and translation by Heike Krüsemann

Blog 3: How language learning can be inspired by a fictional world by Emma Huber

Blog 4: Do you have butterflies in your stomach or little deers jumping in your heart? by Marianna Bolognesi

Blog 5: Creative translation: bending to rules to keep it personal by Philip Bullock

Blog 6: Why translation matters by Julie Curtis

Blog 7: We are Children of the World

Blog 8: Helping to balance the European argument – John le Carré speakes out for language learning by Katrin Kohl

Blog 9: “Reader, I went through a wedding ceremony with him”: Translating Jane Eyre by Eleni Philippou

Blog 10: How curiosity led me to learn 7 languages by Yulia Polishiuk

Blog 11: How I produced my first-ever (multiligual) school play by Ann Poole

Blog 12: How learning languages can help in a career as a film producer and writer by Jessica Benhamou

Blog 13: ‘Lessons learnt’ by a professional translator – adapting the same play three times over three years by Noah Birksted-Breen

Blog 14: Creative translation in the classroom by Charlotte Ryland and Lucy Christmas

Blog 15: Korean pop – BTS and fan translation by Sowon S Park

Blog 16: Translating a Russian play into Hip-Hop theatre – a conversation by Rajinder Dudrah and Noah Birksted-Breen

Blog 17: Are creative or functional teaching approaches more effective in the language classroom? by Suzanne Graham and Heike Krüsemann

Blog 18: Tracing prismatic rays of translation by Matthew Reynolds

Blog 19: Research update: identity and multilingualism in South Tyrol by Jamie Green

Blog 20: Guide to directing foreign-language plays by Noah Birksted-Breen

Category: Languages & Creativity

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