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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Ioannis Ikonomou is the one of the world's most exceptional polyglots. Illustration: Martin O'Neill for New Statesman
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The man who speaks 32 languages - and counting

When Ioannis Ikonomou arrived in Brussels as an interpreter, the EU had 12 official languages. He learnt them all - then kept going.

One Sunday evening in January, in a high-rise apartment in the upmarket European Quarter of Brussels, Ioannis Ikonomou, who is Greek, was anxiously watching the television news. The left-wing Syriza party, which had pledged to end austerity, was poised to win the election, pushing Greece towards confrontation with its international creditors.

He was, however, more worried about the showing of the far-right Golden Dawn, which he detests. “I’m the opposite of Odys­seus,” said Ikonomou, who looks younger than his 50 years, with close-cropped hair, a soul patch and a jawline beard. “He wanted to go home but I am always trying to open myself up to the world.”

Ikonomou achieves this aim in two ways. First, by travelling widely and frequently, and second, and more importantly, by using his remarkable linguistic skills. During his summer holiday in Athens last year he spoke Greek to his relatives and Bengali while eating at the restaurants run by Bangladeshi immigrants near Omonoia Square.

He then celebrated his birthday by visiting Israel for three weeks. In Jerusalem he chatted to Jewish Israelis in Hebrew, and in Ramallah to Palestinians in Arabic. He spent last Christmas in Colombia, talking Spanish in the slums and nightclubs. His next trip, he told me, was to Taiwan, to improve his already fluent Mandarin.

Had he visited Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Albania, Iran, or Kurdistan, he could have addressed the local people there in their mother tongues. There are also the languages Ikonomou uses daily in his job as a translator at the European Commission. Among the more than 2,000 full-time linguists in Brussels, only a few can operate from eight or more of the 24 official EU languages. Ikonomou works from 21 of them – Estonian, Maltese and Irish are his exceptions. In all, he speaks 32 living languages – and has studied many ancient ones, from Old Church Slavic to Sogdian. (Reading the hieroglyphics in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo is, for him, “the closest thing possible to a mental orgasm”.)

The list keeps growing. Ikonomou told me he was interested in Korean culture and was thinking of studying the language. Perhaps Japanese, too. Neither would be easy, even for him: the more different a new tongue is from those you already know, the harder it is, he explained. But that is little deterrent to one who describes Mandarin as the “Everest of languages” because of its complexity; and then adds that his favourite pastime is reading Chinese books, making small, neat pencil notes in the margin as he goes. Restless curiosity is his defining characteristic. “The thing that killed the cat is very important to me,” he said, sipping sage tea with honey in his apartment. “If I am not learning, I am not happy.”

 

***

 

Polyglots have been subjects of marvel for thousands of years. Cleopatra was said to speak nine languages. The 17th-century poet John Milton knew ten and the lexicographer Noah Webster at least 20. The explorer Richard Francis Burton reportedly learned 29 languages, at least one of them while lying down: his knowledge of Somali supposedly came from prostitutes. Perhaps best-known of all was the man who Byron described as “a monster of languages”, the Vatican cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, whose story is told in Michael Erard’s fascinating book Babel No More.

Born in Bologna in 1774, Mezzofanti started school at the age of three and studied Latin, ancient Greek and French. At 12 he entered a seminary, where he learned Hebrew, Arabic, Coptic and German. Around the time he was ordained in his twenties, Bologna’s hospitals overflowed with casualties as Napoleon’s army battled troops from the linguistically diverse Austrian empire. A priest’s services were in demand, and Mezzofanti’s in particular because of his exceptional ability to absorb new languages. The thin, pale confessor claimed to be able to learn a foreign tongue in 14 days. One of his methods was to ask a speaker repeatedly to recite the Lord’s Prayer in his or her mother tongue, allowing him to absorb its rhythms and sounds.

Charles William Russell, an Irish priest who knew Mezzofanti and wrote a biography of him, estimated that the Italian had “mastered” 30 languages, with lesser knowledge of another 42. Even if the standards of mastery were lower in previous centuries than today – scholars spent much more time reading and translating than on the significantly harder task of communicating with people – it was an extraordinary achievement. (Ikonomou’s definition of “knowing” a language is “being comfortable reading a newspaper, following a soap opera and news bulletin; understanding what is said by a native speaker; and being able to hold a conversation”.)

How did Mezzofanti, and others like him, do it? Was it something innate, or the result of strong motivation and determination, or a bit of both? In his book, Erard conducted a survey of polyglots, most of whom spoke at least six languages, and found that while many believed they had a special talent, they also thought they were more driven than the average person. (Among Erard’s other observations: there are more male polyglots than female, and, among their ranks, there is a disproportionate number of gay and left-handed people.)

Yet scientific studies have yet to show conclusively that talented language learners are born, not made. As Vivian Cook, professor of applied linguistics at Newcastle University, points out, there are parts of India and Africa where switching between three or four languages a day is common.

“We think of this thing [polyglotism] as a feat and an unusual thing to do,” Cook told me. “But it does not seem to be a matter of intelligence. It’s motivation – you have to be a certain type of person to do this.”

 

***

 

Like Mezzofanti, Ikonomou’s obsession started early. For the few years when he understood only one language (Greek) he lived in the Mediterranean city of Herak­lion, in Crete. The archaeological site of Knossos was a few miles away, and because Ikonomou’s parents were friendly with the guards, he spent many weekends there, mingling with the foreign tourists.

“I listened to the Germans, Dutch, Italians, and thought: ‘What they hell are they talking about?’ These were not languages to me, just sounds.”

When he was five his family moved to Athens and he started English lessons. The following summer he returned to Crete to stay with his grandparents. A British couple walked past him on the street one afternoon talking about visiting a fish taverna in the evening. Without having to think, he understood that they would be eating seafood for dinner. To the young boy it seemed like a miracle; it was a turning point.

From a German woman in Crete he started learning his third tongue: in the mornings he read textbooks on the beach while the other children played, and when they took a siesta he took classes with Frau Rosi. “I was a nerd,” Ikonomou said.

Back at school in the capital he heard a rumour that Italian would soon be offered as a subject. By the time he realised it was false, he had worked through a “teach yourself Italian” guide. At the start of secondary school he could speak four languages.

Number five was Russian, after he discovered a translated version of Anna Karenina and decided he needed to read the original. “Also, at that time, it was cool to be a communist,” Ikonomou said. An interest in Islam led him to pursue Arabic. What he most wanted to learn was Turkish, which was not offered by language schools. “Turks were meant to be our enemies. But my family was very pacifist and I, too, hated this hatred,” he said. His mother found a Turkish political refugee who agreed to teach him.

At university in Thessaloniki, where he read classical languages, he became a vegetarian, frequented a Hare Krishna ashram and listened to the music of Egypt’s Umm Kulthum, “the greatest singer the Arab world ever produced”. His parents “started to freak out”. But he also studied intensely, for his degree and for his own amusement, adding Persian, Hebrew, Serbo-Croat and Sanskrit to his list of languages. In the university holidays, while completing his compulsory military service in the tank division of the Greek army, he made use of his sentry duties and long toilet breaks to learn classical Armenian. “Thankfully the Turks did not attack at that time,” he said.

Postgraduate work at Columbia University and Harvard followed, and Ikonomou might have stayed in academia, had he not seen an advertisement placed by the European Parliament, which was looking for interpreters (who deal with oral communication) and translators (who work with the written word). The jobs paid well. Although he had no experience he was awarded a scholarship to study interpretation at a university in Spain. “So I decided to prostitute myself and go to Tenerife,” he said.

***

The European Commission’s interpretation service is the biggest operation of its kind in the world, facilitating roughly 10,000 meetings a year. The director of interpretation is Brian Fox, a genial man who was raised in Newcastle and moved to Belgium to become an interpreter in 1976, when the EU had nine member states. Now there are 28 but closer integration has done little to improve the average European’s proficiency in languages.

A Eurobarometer survey in 2012 found that just 54 per cent of EU citizens could hold a conversation in at least one additional tongue. The UK fared third worst in terms of people speaking a second language, with 61 per cent of the population monolingual (only Hungary and Italy ranked lower). Fox, who speaks six languages, said the first is ­often the hardest.

“It’s like going to the gym,” he told me when I met him in his office. “Once you’ve got one language, the next is easier.”

A typical member of his staff can interpret four languages into her or his mother tongue. “You have to know the language inside out. You are either right immediately or wrong for ever.”

A few interpreters can work from eight languages. Fox smiled when I mentioned Ikonomou. “He is a phenomenon. Outstanding – even among us.”

When Ikonomou arrived in Brussels in 1996 the EU had 12 official languages. He decided to learn them all. On his own, he improved his Dutch, Portuguese and Norwegian. The European Commission sent him to Sweden to study, and after he spent a summer in Helsinki speaking Finnish he had achieved his goal. I asked if a few months was how long it took him to achieve fluency. Sometimes it was a shorter period and sometimes longer, he replied: the thought of keeping track seemed not to have occurred to him.

“I don’t look at my watch. It’s like when you have sex: you enjoy it rather than looking at the time,” he said.

The work could be thrilling, such as when he was interpreting the words of European leaders such as Germany’s former chancellor Helmut Kohl and Tony Blair. But after six years he needed a change, so he applied for a translation job. (Fox said that only “a few handfuls” of people have switched between the two departments in the past 20 years.) After initially being posted to Luxembourg, which he disliked – “a rich village, very boring” – Ikonomou, who is gay, was transferred back to Brussels, where he married his Polish husband.

All along he kept acquiring languages by using his wide range of linguistic skills to pick the best method: for example, using a Russian self-study course to learn Ethiopia’s official language, Amharic; a Spanish one for Quechua; and a Czech method for Assyro-Babylonian. Technology was also making it simpler to become fluent. “When I was an undergrad, I craved the opportunity to learn Kurdish or Hindi, but it was hard to find someone who knew that language [and could teach me],” he said. “Twenty or 30 years ago you could say: I cannot learn Japanese. But now there are no excuses – all you need is determination.”

Satellite television was the first transformative learning aid. Richard Simcott, a co-founder of the annual Polyglot Conference – “bring[ing] together the community’s most respected polyglots” – told me that he uses foreign channels to help maintain his French, German, Serbian and Albanian, some of the more than 40 languages he has studied. (Simcott, who grew up in Chester and now lives in Macedonia, said he uses about 25 of them regularly.)

The internet, with its countless language-learning websites, apps and podcasts, has been of even greater advantage. Duolingo, a free language-learning platform, has more than 100 million registered users. When we spoke, Simcott was using italki.com, a site that connects freelance tutors and pupils, to learn Indonesian and Slovenian from teachers in those countries. One of his most useful tools is the Euronews mobile app, which has news broadcasts in 13 languages.

If you consider that cheap air travel has made it more affordable to immerse yourself in a foreign country, it could be argued that this should be a golden age for language learning. “Today, everything is at your fingertips,” Simcott said. “I don’t know how people did it before.”

Ikonomou has been learning languages since the age of five. Photo: Ezequiel Scagnetti.

***

Multilingualism can be a lonely hobby, especially for someone like Ikonomou, who has no interest in conferences or internet communities for polyglots. He said he has never met anybody who can speak more than 20 languages. “I would be happy to, but it’s not important to me. I’m not in competition with anyone.”

He seems more amused by his limitations than his brilliance. When we talked about mastering a language, he used the idiom “under my knee”, which is the correct one – if you’re talking Dutch. He caught himself immediately and laughed. “I am not a machine. I do not speak languages perfectly. I have a Greek accent!” he said.

Ikonomou’s secret, if he has one, is making languages part of his daily routine. It helps that his job requires that. His work on the seventh floor of a drab building in the Brussels suburbs can be exciting, such as when he was translating documents on the official EU position on Ukraine during the Kyiv protests in 2014. But mostly it is more mundane policy translation. Even so, it’s a job he takes seriously. He was recently tasked with translating into Greek a complicated EU ruling on the rights of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe to play outside. His choice of wording would determine if the refugee children – of whom there are many in Greece – would get to exercise in the open air, or merely outside the rooms in which they sleep.

“That’s a big responsibility, so I am proud of what I do,” he said.

At night, after dinner, Ikonomou practises his languages (“It’s use it or lose it”) or studies new ones. This involves reading extensively; his living room is filled with scores of dictionaries, textbooks and novels. He also watches a lot of foreign television, from Russian talk shows to Turkish movies, and converses with people on the internet.

I asked him to recommend a method for someone learning a new language. He described a three-stage process that requires 15 minutes of study, six or seven days a week. First, you would assimilate the basic grammar, vocabulary and alphabet by using online aids, such as YouTube video tutorials and textbooks and CDs. (Linguaphone, Teach Yourself, Colloquial and Assimil are among his favourite “traditional” methods.)

The second step he called “taking the plunge”. Here you start to read newspapers on the web and watch news broadcasts. At first, you may understand only 10 per cent of what is being said.

“Don’t give up. Read, listen. Talk to people on Skype,” he said. “Expose yourself to language. You need self-discipline and persistence if there’s no private teacher. By being in constant contact with language, you tame it, like a wild horse, and become the master of that horse.”

The third and final step is achieving basic fluency, which requires going “far beyond the grammar and syntax and irregular verbs that are only 20 or 30 per cent of language”. At this point you eat the country’s food, watch its television programmes and films, listen to its music and read its literature. Learning about the history of the nation and language will also help. If possible, you should travel to the country. “Make friends with people who do not speak a word of English,” Ikonomou said.

And keep up those friendships. It was 10.30pm when I left his apartment but he was not ready to go to sleep. Mexican taxi drivers, Chinese students and friends he had met on his travels were logged on to Facebook, ready to chat.

Xan Rice is the features editor of the NS

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double