'I speak Italian with a Croydon accent': reporters on their language skills

Our foreign correspondents reflect on the practical and cultural importance of fluency in a country’s native tongue

A large group of protesters
Protesters at an an anti-Bolsonaro demonstration in Brazil hold up a sign saying ‘Vidas Negras Importam’ - ‘Black Lives Matter’. Photograph: Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters at an an anti-Bolsonaro demonstration in Brazil hold up a sign saying ‘Vidas Negras Importam’ - ‘Black Lives Matter’. Photograph: Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Tue 15 Dec 2020 04.58 EST

Lily Kuo, Beijing bureau chief

During the worst of the coronavirus outbreak in China, people described to us deeply personal and traumatic experiences – losing their parents, suffering the death of a child, being harassed and intimidated for trying to speak out. Having these conversations in Mandarin was important not just for capturing nuance and detail but for a sense of empathy.

I grew up in a Chinese-speaking household and for me Mandarin is the language of family. It is my parents’ first language, and what dominated family gatherings of dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins while growing up. So hearing people describe in Chinese what their family members were like, or how they tried and failed to save them, hit me particularly hard. I like to think that this made me a better listener and a more careful journalist.

As it becomes harder to report in China, knowing the language has become all the more important. Being able to do interviews quickly before being pushed away by police or other minders is incredibly helpful. Catching snippets of conversations at temperature checks, or a short exchange with a health worker outside a hospital, are sometimes as illuminating as a formal sit-down interview.

Knowing Mandarin was not always the most important thing. While reporting in Wuhan and tracking down early patients, my colleague who speaks Wuhan dialect was able to quickly glean information before conversations were cut off. We often did interviews together, with her switching into dialect when it seemed like it would help. It often did.

Tom Phillips, Latin America correspondent

Twenty years ago, when I started learning Brazilian Portuguese, it was a way of deciphering the poetry of musicians I’d discovered on a gap year in Brazil, and finding a way to return there during my university language degree. Two decades later it’s the language I speak at home in Rio with my Brazilian better half, and an essential weapon in my daily quest to understand the biggest country on my patch.

Like many correspondents, I’ve covered countries whose tongues I haven’t mastered, such as China, where I never reconciled Mandarin homework with the pressures of such a relentless story. But foreign reporting is much easier, and so much more fun, when you have those skills and can dive into conversations and communities at will.

This year I’ve used what is surely one of the world’s most mellifluous languages to chat with music legends Moacyr Luz and Caetano Veloso, whose songs and lyrics helped hook me on Brazil. (After the interviews I said thanks!) Portuguese has also helped me track (and try to translate) the less poetic proclamations of Brazil’s gruff far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, a notorious mangler of the language of Camões.

Among the Bolsonarian utterances I’ve wrestled into British English are conversinha (“jibber-jabber”), pirralha (“little brat”), encher a tua boca de porrada (“smash your face in”) and escrotizar (a scrotum-based -ar verb which roughly means to humiliate someone). A personal favourite was turning só de sacanagem into “just for shits and giggles” – a translation so successful it featured not just in the pages of the Guardian but of the Associated Press and Time magazine too!

Jon Henley, Europe correspondent

I mostly blame a formative teenage fortnight in Chalon-sur-Saône in the summer of 1975 (and in particular Natalie, the neighbour of my exchange partner, Pascal) for an early infatuation with France and, by extension, foreign languages, that would define the rest of my life.

Eating cheeses that weren’t extra-mild cheddar; going to restaurants when it wasn’t even anyone’s birthday; smoking Gitanes sans filtre and snogging Natalie – activities all previously unimagined – ensured I became a linguist long before I was a journalist.

I did a degree in French and German, odd-jobbed for a few years then fled 80s England to Amsterdam, where I picked up Dutch, got hired – pretty much by chance – by the Associated Press and learned the job I’ve done for the past 30-odd years, based in four European countries.

But it wasn’t an accident, I think now. There are clear parallels between a fascination for languages and the job of journalism: both open doors, reveal unsuspected worlds, and confer an enviable status of somehow being both participant and observer.

It’s possible to be a foreign correspondent without speaking the language, but it makes many stories harder to do well. You’re journalistically amputated; deprived of much of what allows you to make sense of things, reliant on others to interpret reality. Above all, though, you are not in that unique linguistic-journalistic space – half in and half out; informed, involved, but not responsible – where the world becomes most interesting.

Luke Harding in a colourful scarf sitting on a fence by a wooden house
‘The Cyrillic alphabet was the easy bit, I discovered’: Luke Harding in Moscow before he was deported. Photograph: Justin Jin

Luke Harding, foreign correspondent

I began learning Russian in summer 2006, days after being appointed the Guardian’s new Moscow bureau chief. I already spoke German. I picked up languages easily. How hard could it be?

The Cyrillic alphabet was the easy bit, I discovered. In Moscow, I was lucky enough to have a brilliant Russian teacher, Vika Chumirina. Gradually, I made progress. There were verbs of motion, perfective and imperfective. And prefixes – za, pro, na, ot, pere – which played in my head like a fugue, as I clattered through the city’s dark tunnels on the metro to work. Lessons took place in the Guardian’s cramped office. In summer we sat outside under a birch tree. I read Russian classics: short stories by Ivan Bunin, evoking a lost world of pre-revolutionary love affairs; prose works by Sergei Dovlatov, a Soviet emigre writer. My grammars grew dog-eared. I dropped a story by Victor Pelevin in the snow.

After four years in Moscow, I was pretty fluent. My Russian was good enough to read the morning newspapers and to understand – so far as it was possible – the dark swirl of Kremlin politics. I could talk, joke, exclaim. Few Russians spoke English; knowing the language enriched my reporting.

My story ended in 2011 when Russia’s FSB spy agency deported me from the country. I take Russian lessons still, via Skype. On my screen I see Vika’s study and a soft grey Moscow light.

Philip Oltermann, Berlin bureau chief

I am a native German speaker: it’s the language in which I speak to my parents and my son. English is my writing language, because I went to university in the UK and started my journalistic career there. This should mean I am bilingual, though in practice I find the two languages are fighting a constant war of attrition in the left hemisphere of my brain.

I noticed this when I moved back to report for the Guardian from Berlin in 2013. I interviewed a data privacy activist who was also an academic in linguistics, who told me that I “make interesting mistakes”. While my old Hamburg accent hadn’t disappeared, I was projecting English syntax back into German. “It’s quite unsettling, actually,” he said.

Seven years later I fear German grammar is winning back some disputed territories, as I am sure my subeditors in London have noticed. Though occasionally my neural software still detects English when it should hear German. When Boris Johnson visited Berlin, he made a reference to Angela Merkel’s famously optimistic quip at the peak of the refugee crisis: “Wir schaffen das”. The acoustics in the room weren’t great, and I built the introduction to my article around Johnson describing Brexit negotiations as a “shuffle dance”, though luckily I double-checked the audio before I filed.

I find being completely fluent in the language of the country you report on pays off most in interviews. I tend to interview people in German even if they are reasonably fluent in English, as they give more precise answers. Sometimes a telling choice of word illustrates a broader point. When I recently interviewed Uğur Şahin, one of the scientists behind BioNTech/Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, he told me that his vaccine would “bash the virus over the head” (“Dann kriegt der Virus einen drauf”). Şahin is a serious scientist, and I think he slightly regretted his informal choice of words afterwords. But it hinted at his genuine excitement about his company’s breakthrough.

A woman sitting on a bench in a piazza talking to two older men
Angela Giuffrida talking to residents of a small town in the Molise region of Italy last year. Photograph: Handout

Angela Giuffrida, Rome correspondent

Sometimes Italians get thrown off by my surname, which is Italian, even though I grew up in England – and especially when I then speak their language with a relatively thick Croydon accent. A doctor recently said: “Your surname is so Italian, your accent so English … and on top of that, you have this red hair. Where is that from?” One of the beauties of conversing in Italian with Italians is that they rarely chide you for errors – both sides somehow manage to make themselves understood.

That said, knowing how to speak and read Italian is very important for this job, as not so many people, even those in senior roles, speak English. I found it particularly daunting this year when speaking to scientists about the pandemic - the need to understand them in their language, and get the information correct, felt more paramount than ever.

Lorenzo Tondo, correspondent covering the migration crisis

I’m aware that my writing style will never be as polished as that of other colleagues and that my articles will always need a bit more attention from my editors. I am a native speaker of Italian, born and raised in Sicily, and English is my second language. This condition, however, does bring many advantages, such as establishing meaningful connections with sources and having a deep understanding of socio-cultural context.

Foreign newspapers often have a paternalistic attitude toward Italy, rife with stereotypes based on the happy-go-lucky nature of Italians. Being Italian also gives me the chance to highlight lesser-known aspects of my country, not just the mobsters and la dolce vita. In addition, watching people’s reaction when they realise I’m Italian, with a Sicilian accent, and not a Londoner, is priceless. It happened to me when I interviewed Andrea Camilleri, author of the Inspector Montalbano novels. He had called a woman to translate my questions from Italian to English. When he heard me, he was shocked: not only was I speaking Italian, but I was raised in a Sicilian village 20 kilometres from his hometown.