Peter Ustinov the linguist

Peter Ustinov was a rare multitalented entertainer, the like of which may never be seen again. He was a much loved character whose passing in 2004 was mourned by his admirers around the world.

Wikipedia informs us that Ustinov was an English actor, writer, dramatist, filmmaker, theatre and opera director, stage designer, screenwriter, comedian, humorist, newspaper and magazine columnist, radio broadcaster, and television presenter. How about that lot!!

Personally I always remember him most for his role as Poirot in the movie Murder on the Orient Express.

I recently came across a 1995 interview with Ustinov in which he was asked by the presenter about his linguistic ability. His answers are very revealing.

Where did you learn to speak German and Russian and French, and all the languages, I mean you speak many more languages than those. Where did it come from?

Well I don’t know, I think it’s just a musical ear, really, which is a completely untrained musical ear because I’m no good at music really, except the appreciation of it, but I can’t play an instrument… so I don’t really know, except it amuses me the way language is formed and the way the mouth is formed as a consequence, and it interests me a great deal that my mouth is obviously formed internally for speaking English, otherwise I have to stiffen or do something curious with my face which I can’t afford to do. When I talk French on French television or German on German television I always have a slight accent and make mistakes because my face remains English, but if I pretend that I’m French… then I can speak like a Frenchman (or a German).

Doesn’t that just go to show that ACTING plays a huge part in language learning?! It may well be the case, as Ustinov himself says, that he benefitted from having a musical ear but for those of us that don’t we can at least act; pretend that we are from France when we speak French, from Germany when we speak German, or from Spain when we speak Spanish.

Try it!!

Here’s the interview in full.

Do you have your own fond memories of this talented man?


Jim Porter is a co-founder of Speekee®, the most comprehensive Spanish for kids learning program ever to appear online. Jim’s work includes this homeschool Spanish curriculum and this homeschool Spanish curriculum (not a misprint – he wrote two!) and this Primary School Spanish curriculum.

Jim began his Spanish learning journey in 1990. He has been a language teacher since 1994 and he lives in sunny southern Spain. He has two bilingual children. More…

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