Matt Worman: my career in languages | Louise Tickle

The army captain’s Pashtu and other tongues has taken him to second in foreign languages at the army’s defence centre

Captain Matt Worman, 30, was commissioned four years ago as an education officer in the army. After learning some Pashtu on an introductory course, he then opted to do another 15 months intensive training in the language. Following a deployment as a military linguist in Afghanistan, he is back in the UK and soon to take up a position as second-in-command of the foreign languages wing at the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture.

I’d studied French and German at school, and taught English in China for five months before going to university. That time gave me a profound insight into another culture. Even though I didn’t develop much of a grasp of Chinese, I came back home with a real appetite to learn more about how people lived in very different parts of the world.

At university I did law and then worked in a number of jobs from youth offending to Sainsbury’s, but going to Sandhurst gave me some really interesting options. My younger brother was in the army already and had studied Pashtu and loved it, so I leaped at the chance to learn when it came along.

On that first 10-week course, we were taught by Afghan nationals. It was classroom based, but there were practical elements including military exercises which put you in scenarios where you had to act as an interpreter, for instance. By the end of the course you get to level 1 in ability, so slightly below a GCSE, but not much. You have to be rigid with the effort and time you put in. With Pashtu, it’s about reprogramming your brain. Having a sentence with a whole load of content and meaning and then sticking the verb at the end is completely alien to native English speakers.

Enrolling on the longer course was great because I’d really enjoyed getting to grips with Pashtu at an elementary level. But when I was sent out as a military linguist on a patrol base in Afghanistan, I definitely felt apprehensive. Within an hour and a half of arriving I found myself in a room with eight Afghan security personnel who spoke very little English and sounded nothing like my tutors. It was daunting, but over the months I spent with them they became such close friends.

Speaking the language allows you an insight into people’s minds and souls, and that depth of friendship is something you’d never get by communicating through a third party. In this sort of setting, you talk about everything; you might be discussing a really tragic incident, and then next minute you’d be talking about the London Eye.

Those relationships became enduring friendships because they’re built on a mutual interest in each others’ cultures. I remember a time when one of my Afghan colleagues lost a close relative in terrible circumstances. Just being able to offer a few words of …read more