I've had some cool language experiences over the years. Some were ordinary interactions, and others were definitely not everyday events. But all of these were rewarding because they happened in another language.
When I think back on these moments, I realise this is what makes it all worthwhile.
So, here are eight of my most memorable language highlights.
#1 Waiting Tables In Paris
In Paris, I spent six months working in a little French café. It was busy at the best of times, but lunchtimes were chaotic. There was enough work for three waiters then, but unfortunately, there was just me.
Everyone wanted lunch at the same time, and they all needed it fast. There would be 40 businessmen sitting there, shouting, “Where's my food? Can I have this? Do you do that?”
I remember juggling orders, coordinating with the kitchen, answering queries, and generally being rushed off my feet. Looking back, I feel quietly proud that I was so young and did all of that, speaking French.
#2 Japanese Bossa Nova
Now, you probably aren't expecting to hear the words Bossa Nova and Japan in the same sentence. But when I lived in Tokyo, I went around the live clubs playing the guitar and singing in a Bossa Nova group.
Someone had to introduce the band each time — and the job usually fell to me. I had to really prepare for that because the last thing you want to do is fumble your words at a live gig with 50 people looking on.
It was scary stuff, but I did it, over and over again.
And, I particularly remember being up on stage at one cool little bar, introducing us in Japanese and totally feeling like I was owning it.
#3 Education Open Day In Cairo
Yes, I've had a lot of jobs over the years, and in Egypt, I was in charge of the Young Learner Programme for the British Council.
One day we held a meeting for sixty parents, and I had to explain through a translator what would be happening during the next term.
So, I'd speak in English, wait while the translator said the same thing in Arabic, speak again, wait again and so on. You can imagine how frustrating that was.
It got even worse when the parents started asking questions because unbeknown to everyone, I'd been studying Arabic and understood what they were saying. What's more, I could tell that the translator was starting to make mistakes. So, what I was saying wasn't what the parents were hearing.
In the end, I bypassed the translator, jumped right in and answered the parents in Arabic. Then the questions flooded in and I handled them all. Afterwards, I remember thinking, “that was pretty cool.”
#4 Making Friends In Itacaré
My fourth memory comes from one holiday in Brazil.
Itacaré is a small surfing village on the east coast with a real hippy vibe. After my friend went home, I stayed on. I'm not exactly into surfing, so I spent a lot of time hanging out in bars and cafés just having fun and chatting to the locals.
On my last day, I walked into town to grab some lunch, and it felt like everywhere I turned there was someone who knew me.
On every street corner it seemed I would stop and chit-chat in Portuguese with a local who wanted to say “hi!” and I thought, “Wow! This is quite something.” It was one of those days when everything came together.
#5 The Spanish Press Conference
Back when I was playing in a Brazilian Samba band, we went to a music festival in Tenerife, Canary Islands.
On my very first day, the organiser turned to me and said: “Right, the press conference starts now — and you're our spokesman.”
I said, “In English, right?”
Of course not! The whole thing was in Spanish.
So, five minutes later, there we were up on stage in front of 30 journalists; a couple of really famous people, reps from three other groups and me.
Fortunately, my Spanish was quite fluent at the time but oh, the pressure. Before I'd even had a chance to think about how I was going to explain our music, I was into it, giving this talk in Spanish.
It was a massive adrenaline rush — and totally nerve-wracking at the same time. But I've still got the printout of the article that came out in one of the Spanish newspapers a few days later.
#6 Cantonese In Tottenham
London's a melting pot of cultures these days. On any given day, you're likely to meet someone who doesn't speak English particularly well.
I remember walking down from the British Museum, engrossed in my headphones when a girl stopped me to ask for directions. I couldn't make head or tail of her English, but luckily I recognised her Hong Kong accent, so I replied in Cantonese.
She was blown away that someone who looks like me could speak her language, so we walked and talked for five minutes or so before she went her way and I went mine.
It's one of those moments that often happens in London, but each one is special. They show that all these languages I've learned are just part of my daily life. And when you can speak to a tourist in their own language, they go away thinking “These English people aren't so bad after all.”
#7 Thai In Two Weeks
In 2016 I was in Thailand, on a mission to learn to speak Thai in only 14 days. My goal was to be able to have a conversation in Thai by the end of two weeks.
I recorded the whole project onto a YouTube playlist so you can see what I did each day.
Right at the end is a conversation I recorded with my fantastic teacher, and we managed to do the whole thing in Thai for 25 minutes.
That was an amazing experience because it was my first intensive language learning project. I gave it so much energy and effort that it felt fabulous to reach that sort of endpoint.
#8 Writing My Own Language Books
It's such a privilege to spend my life teaching and talking about language learning. I get a kick out of it every day.
But one of the real highlights came when I walked into Foyles, the largest book store in London, and saw all my books on the shelves.
To have these books out in the world and sell hundreds of thousands of copies with people all around the world learning a language with them. That for me, I think, out of everything I've mentioned is the coolest of all and something that I'm very proud of.
So, we've got eight very personal things that have really made language learning such a special part of my life. Now, I'd like to hear from you.
So, hop over to my YouTube channel and talk to me in the comments under the video. What makes learning languages worthwhile and meaningful for you? And what are some of your coolest language moments?
I can't wait to find out.