Article Details

Article Details

John Somers

Notes: First Secretary for Scottish Affairs, Beijing

John Somers

photo of John SomersIn January this year I took up post as the First Secretary for Scottish Affairs in Beijing.  The post and the office are fully funded by the Scottish Government and I’m located in the British Embassy in Beijing, so it has diplomatic status.   In brief, my job is to promote and represent the Scottish Government’s cultural, educational and economic interests in China.    Scotland’s relationship and friendship with Scotland is as important as it profound – I feel extremely lucky to be a part of that.

As well as English, what other languages have you learned?Chinese characters

I studied French at the excellent language school in Heriot Watt University, where I also had the opportunity to learn some Spanish and German.  After graduating I lived and worked in Japan for two years.  And now I’m learning Mandarin – a language as beautiful as it is complex (but the effort is absolutely worth it).

What inspired you to learn languages?

When I was a child I was fascinated by anyone speaking anything other than English. My parents encouraged me to learn a new language and paid for me to go on a school trip to Jarnac, in Charentes when I was 15 – since then they’ve paid for a lot more! This experience combined with the wonderful and enthusiastic language teachers at school ensured my life-long love for language learning. I was then lucky to get in to the International Business and Languages (IBL) course at Heriot Watt. The course focused on practical language skills such as translation and interpreting, it also allowed me to study at the University of Robert Schuman in Strasbourg for a year. I was really fortunate to be taught by Margaret Lang, Isabelle Perez and Cyrille Guiatte – I’m very grateful to them.

What aspects of learning a language do you enjoy most?

I love learning idioms to make my spoken language sound more natural and I like use tongue twisters to try and improve my pronunciation. I’m currently working on:   


chī pútáo bù tŭ pútáo pí, bù chī pútáo dào tŭ pútáo pí

One particular approach to language learning that I’m big fan of is the Michel Thomas method. It’s a technique that forbids memorisation, note taking or looking words up in a dictionary – what’s not to like about that?

Do you have a ‘EUREKA’ languages moment, when suddenly you realised that you were able to communicate in a language other than English?

I’m not sure there is such a thing – I think there just comes a time when the initial enormous effort you put in to learning a language stops being an effort. 

How do you use your language skills in your working life? 

picture of BeijingLots of people speak excellent English in Beijing but you need basic skills too, for such things as using taxis, getting a haircut, eating out in a restaurant, asking directions, or having something fixed.  So I’m learning and using Mandarin every day. In terms of my work, many Chinese professionals and officials speak English better than I do, but I think in terms of mutual respect it’s essential to show willing to speak the language of your host country.

In what ways do you think learning other languages has enhanced your life?

Languages have enhanced my life enormously. Learning languages meant that I could study abroad.  Studying abroad strengthened my application to work in Japan and this experience supported my application to the Civil Service fast stream. Completing the fast stream in combination with studying and working abroad meant that I was successful in getting the job I’m now in, which I love.  

What’s your most memorable language related experience?

I’ve made so many gaffs when speaking other languages that I see it as part of the process of learning. However describing my boss’s new baby as “horrific” instead of “cute” was a low point. Also mixing up the word for “important” with the word for “pervert” several times in front of large audience of over three hundred people wasn’t great - both these examples were in Japanese.

Do you have a message to share about the importance and the benefits of language learning?

The best advice I ever had was not to try and listen to every word you hear. This is not how we actively listen in our own language; our knowledge of the person we are listening to, the context of the conversation and our understanding of cultural references often mean that our brains don’t actually process every word. 

Even simultaneous interpreters rely on their knowledge of the topic and the culture to interpret at speed rather than processing every word.  Just relax and try and pick out the words you do know and try a build a sense of what is being said – over time it’ll become less ambiguous. In my opinion this is a more natural way to develop language ability.  Make lots of mistakes and don’t worry about being laughed at – people usually laugh with you not at you!

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