Military linguist David Bagnall tells Jessica Moore why a career in the Navy has been his dream job
Linguists looking for a challenge could try studying Chechen – particularly tricky for English speakers, as “there are no language-learning resources from English; they’re all from Russian,” explains Warrant Officer First Class (WO1) David Bagnall. The only solution is to learn one language via the other. Fortunately for Bagnall, he’s linguist extraordinaire for the Royal Navy, speaking a mind-boggling 15 languages – seven proficiently, and the rest to conversational standard.
Not content with his tally, he’s currently adding two more: Romanian “because my family love going there on holiday”; and Chechen “because I want to branch out into less-spoken languages”. As well as Hebrew, Arabic, Pashtu, Farsi and Serbian, Bagnall can thankfully read and speak the Russian required for learning Chechen. Yet the two languages aren’t related: Chechen is a Northeast Caucasian language using Cyrillic script. “People think I’ll understand it because it’s written in the same alphabet as Russian. Well, Hungarian is written in the same alphabet as English. So is Welsh. Good luck deciphering those languages without studying them!”
Winner of the Institute’s new MOD Award for linguistic achievement, Bagnall was neither born to linguists nor raised internationally. A working-class boy from Wrexham, he developed a love of languages in unusual circumstances. “There were two steelworks in the town I’m from in north Wales,” he explains. “My dad was a crane-driver in one and he got made redundant. He got quite a lot of money. But by the end of the week, he’d got a job in the other steelworks – so, after being out of work for about four days, we were sorted.” They celebrated with a holiday to Spain.
“On my council estate in those days, that was unheard of!” he adds. “My dad went to WH Smiths to buy a Berlitz ‘teach yourself Spanish’ course. He stuck it out for a day before getting annoyed and throwing it on the coffee table,” Bagnall laughs. “I was nine. I said, ‘Can I have it, dad?’.”
And so it began. “I started working through the course but I wasn’t convinced that I could repeat this ‘random’ collection of sounds and people in Spain would understand me. Do you know what? They did! I’d go up to someone in Spain and deliver this jumble of words and they knew I wanted a strawberry ice-cream! I realised that by learning languages, someone else’s world opened up to me and I could communicate. I was hooked.”
Bagnall went on to gain an A in O-level Spanish by the age of 14, also studying French and Welsh before dropping the latter for German. “I had to choose; I couldn’t do both, and I thought, ‘If I’m going to have a career in languages, German is going to serve me better.’ I knew, even then, that languages were what I wanted to do.”
A military life
Discovering, aged 16, that it was possible to have a career as a linguist within the Armed Forces was like seeing the pieces of a jigsaw fall into place. Before working in the steelworks, Bagnall’s father had been in the military, “and that had always seemed cool to me”. Bagnall was sporty too; good at rugby and athletics, keen to spend time outdoors. “One day, while I was doing my A levels, I happened to walk past the Armed Forces Careers Office in Wrexham and I saw an advertisement in the window for linguists. I thought, ‘no way!’, so I went in, had a chat about it.” He learnt that the MOD needs people with foreign language skills to meet both peacetime and operational requirements around the world. “I knew I’d found my path and I’ve never looked back.”
The career itself is varied. Language training includes elements of interpreter and translation training, as well as skills in listening, reading, speaking and writing. Language assessments for the MOD have been delivered by the Institute’s Educational Trust (IoLET) since July 2016, and Bagnall has already sat two.
Because of the military context, he is also trained to carry weapons and defend himself in the field. “It’s about providing support to wider operations. In order to do that, you have to be able to do what everyone else can do,” he explains. “With the Navy, I have boarded other vessels to speak to people in Arabic and Farsi. I’ve interpreted on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, where you wear body armour, same as everyone else.”
As for the specific languages military linguists are required to learn, it’s very much dependent on operations. Over the past 25 years, Arabic “has always been a key” to Bagnall’s career, while “Albanian and Serbian were crucial during the Balkans conflict”. Reflecting on his greatest linguistic challenges to date, however, he says: “The hardest language I’ve learnt so far has been Afghan Pashtu. The grammar is a challenge, but the most difficult thing is that there isn’t an accepted standard. In Arabic, while there are many dialects, there is a ‘correct’ version of formal, newsreader Arabic, known as Modern Standard Arabic. But Pashtu is predominantly a spoken language that was only committed to writing in the early 1900s. It’s caught up in its geography too; Afghanistan is mountainous, so communities are isolated and language develops within them.”
Despite his advanced skills in the language, therefore, he could still meet Pashtu speakers from certain valleys and fail to understand them. “It’s maddening! You spend 18 months learning a language and still can’t understand it. And you could do a translation from English into Pashtu, hand it to four different Pashtu teachers and they will all mark different things wrong. I’ve experienced that.”
Passion and aptitude
Mercifully, Bagnall’s life today is far less infuriating. Currently living on the UK military base between Greek-speaking Southern Cyprus and Turkish-speaking Northern Cyprus, he says, “I’m in a very privileged position where I can walk five minutes in one direction to speak Greek with locals and five minutes in the other direction to speak Turkish with locals – and I do both regularly.”
Married to a linguist, “We speak Greek and Turkish whenever we go for dinner, or if we have a family day out. My son’s got the knack too,” he notes proudly. “He’s 12 and he can get by in Greek and Turkish.
We lived in Italy for a couple of years too, and he picked Italian up. And although he can’t speak Arabic or Russian, he can read the script. If he sees a sign written in Arabic, he can pronounce it. He has the ability and the interest, and those things need to come together.”
Encouraging the next generation is paramount for Bagnall. “There will always be a need for linguists in the military,” he says. “We need people with both a passion and an aptitude. There are tests you go through when you apply, and you don’t need to be able to speak any of the languages that we’re interested in at that stage. We’ll do the rest. Although,” he adds wryly, “if you joined with Russian or Arabic, that would be quite handy!”
For his achievements, Bagnall was honoured with an MBE this year. Clearly choked, he says: “I hadn’t seen that coming and I am absolutely blown away by it.” Describing 2017 as an amazing year, he also cites his IoLET award as a highlight. “That came like a bolt out of the blue as well! I have that award on my desk; it has pride of place. To be given that by the Chartered Institute of Linguists – it doesn’t get any better than that!”
Now he just has that tricky Chechen-by-way-of-Russian to master. And then, if his career to date and personal passion for language learning are anything to go by, David Bagnall will move on to yet another linguistic challenge. The Berlitz Spanish course has a lot to answer for.
David Bagnall won IoLET’s new MOD Award for linguistic achievement in November 2017.
The MOD Language Assessment Board (MODLAB) is the assessment scheme in place to assess the foreign language proficiency of UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) personnel. The Institute’s Educational Trust (IoLET) has been working with the MOD to deliver these assessments since July 2016. During the academic year 2016/17, around 400 MOD personnel were assessed in 35 languages. Some are course candidates finishing their language training; others are independent candidates seeking verification of language skills or returning for requalification.
At the annual IoLET Awards event in November 2017, two MOD Awards were presented for the first time. WO1 David Bagnall won the award for the independent candidate who gained a MODLAB qualification in 2016/17 and had made the most significant sustained commitment to language learning. The winner will typically be someone who has maintained a high level of proficiency over a number of years, possibly in more than one foreign language.
Spr Alexander Bosco won the award for the candidate from the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture who had made the most significant achievement during training in 2016/17. The winner will typically be a candidate who has achieved a notable level of proficiency, made the most progress or shown the greatest commitment to language learning.
The key features of the MODLAB assessments include adherence to proficiency levels as defined in the NATO STANAG framework for languages; assessing skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) separately; providing multi-level assessments measuring skills levels from Survival to Expert; and ‘jagged’ profiling to reflect strengths in different skills.
Alexander Bosco commented: “I joined the Army in 2013 and trained to be a fitter (vehicle mechanic) before joining my operational unit in 2015. I’m a combat engineer, so sometimes I’m in the workshop, fixing a JCB; sometimes I might be on the ground, working on a bridge. Learning Arabic has given me some interesting opportunities. I was recently in North Africa, and I’m currently on an exercise for personnel who need to practise working with interpreters, so I’m role-playing the Arabic-speaker.
I’d always been interested in learning Arabic. My mum is Lebanese so it’s part of my culture and heritage, and I’d learnt my dad’s native language – Italian – living in Italy as a teenager. Arabic is also a useful language for me professionally, and I got on the course after scoring highly on the Modern Language Aptitude Test.
The course ran from September 2016 to July 2017. We studied in small groups of 6-7 for 6-8 hour days, with short one-on-one sessions. It was a really intensive ab initio course, taking us to level 2 (‘functional’), so we’d brush over the vocab during the day and revise at night. We mainly learnt Modern Standard Arabic, with an emphasis on the military and geo-political context. So at the beginning we could talk about terrorism and international affairs, but not order a coffee, although we did cover all the basics later on.
In North Africa, my Arabic was useful, although I mainly communicated in French, which I learnt at school. Going forward, I would like to improve my French, Spanish and Arabic – languages I already speak – rather than starting to learn a new one.”
Freelance writer and editor Jessica Moore is Co-Founder of WM Editorial (wmeditorial.com) and has worked for several national publications, including The Independent and The Telegraph.