As the world — or Catholics — reeled from the sudden and unexpected news that Pope Benedict is stepping down, an interesting fact emerged. The reporter who broke the story, i.e. who was first to report it, Giovanna Chirri, a staffer for the Italian wire service ANSA, was able to do so because she could read Latin, a language relatively few people choose to study any more.
I gave the news, then I started crying.”
Giovanna Chirri, who covers the Vatican for Italy’s ANSA news agency and is the editor of a lay people’s newspaper, immediately understood what was happening. When Pope Benedict XVI started whispering his farewell speech in Latin, “my brain short-circuited: I thought it was absurd,” Chirri said. “I knew, just like everybody else, what he’d written in his book. But I was convinced he would never quit.”
A journalist who has covered Vatican affairs since 1994, Chirri was able to break the news under pressure. “As a person, I was really, really sorry. I admire Ratzinger. I respect him,” she said. “I knew the importance of the news: I tried to contact the agency, to get the information verified, even though I didn’t doubt my Latin, then they took care of breaking the news. That’s how I communicated the information.”
As this story reminds us, being able to speak multiple languages — normal for many Europeans, less common for most North Americans — is a terrific skill. It not only helps reporters, but anyone trying to work across borders: translators, aid workers, non-profit employees, pilots, medical professionals, academics and students.
I decided to study French and Spanish during my years at the University of Toronto because I wanted to be able to work in both languages, ideally as a foreign correspondent. I did some volunteer work while an undergrad, interpreting the testimonies — grim, graphic and heartbreaking — of Chilean political refugees seeking asylum in Canada. I later used my French to win an eight-month journalism fellowship in Paris and a job at the Montreal Gazette, where we often worked in French.
I used my French again last week while reporting in Montreal, delighted at the chance to use it and refresh it naturally, not just sitting in a classroom or language lab.
I know some Broadside readers, like Kate, speak multiple languages.
How many do you speak? Which ones?
Why did you learn them and when?
Do you find it helpful personally and professionally?