Seeing a notice in a foreign language isn't an unusual experience, but the fact that it stuck in my memory for so long suggests that it had a rather special status for me. It was an isolated incident because my life followed the same monolingual pattern till I was eleven, but it may show that my mind was relatively in tune with languages from an early age in spite of the shortage of relevant exeperiences; if so, I have no idea why. Another relevant bit of family background is that my father was a university scientist (in horticulture), so my own subsequent career followed a path that seemed very familiar and natural.
My strictly monolingual childhood ended at eleven, when I entered secondary school. Not that I was then surrounded by speakers of other languages - far from it in 1950s Loughborough (a small town in the middle of England), unlike the London borough where I now live, where 200 languages are spoken in the schools. In my case, foreign languages were systems I learned about in school through books, and though the point of learning them wasn't very clear I just loved learning them and their odd intricacies. It made little difference to me whether they were living (French, German) or dead (Latin). My school was rightly called a 'grammar school', as grammar was high on the agenda. It was well taught by teachers who understood it and (I think) enjoyed it, and the best part was that a couple of teachers taught us both Latin and English, so we learned to look at sentence structure in both languages using the same system of categories. I enjoyed grammar and was good at it, and although others found the grammar harder, everyone learned something and languages were reasonably popular in the school. If only we linguists could inject a bit more of the same enthusiasm for language structure into the schools today!
At the same time that I started to enjoy grammatical analysis, my parents gave me a wonderful book about archaeology, called 'Gods, Graves and Scholars', which included the story of how Champollion deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs. I found I didn't have the brain for actually learning Egyptian; but I did have the brain for enjoying etymology, and especially so after a few years of Latin, French and German. I still get a real buzz from learning strange connections - for example, since this morning I'm savouring the enjoyment of knowing that 'engine' is linked to 'gene', 'general' and dozens of other words 'like that'. A sign of a sad mind? Maybe so, but it's kept me in linguistics for nearly sixty years, and in employment for forty.
The rest of my working life is very easy to summarise. I studied nothing but three languages during the last two years at school, and just two of them (French and German) at Cambridge; but during my time there I learned about linguistics and liked it - especially the synchronic bits which we learned from John Trim. I arranged to stay in Cambridge to do a PhD on French or German, but in the intervening summer holiday I happened to travel to the Sudan (where my father was temporarily based at the time) and met an anthropologist who was working on the nomadic Beja tribe (whose language, by a happy coincidence, is related to Egyptian). His work sounded interesting, so he easily persuaded me to do my PhD on Beja. Back in the UK I transferred to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. A year of fieldwork in the Sudan convinced me of two things: first, that research on grammar is the most exciting activity in the world, and second, that I was no good at learning languages. Back in London, I attended Michael Halliday's lectures, which were riveting; I had no idea that it was possible to integrate so many ideas into a single system, so with my PhD finished I moved round the corner to UCL to work for him. I stayed there, working mostly on English, for the rest of my employed life.
I still think linguistics is a wonderful subject, and I fit as much of it as I can into the busy schedule of a retired grandfather. I've been trying to work out why I like the subject so much. I think I love doing linguistics in much the same way that some people love music, art or gardening; and if you're on the Linguist list, you probably love it too. I have no idea, of course, whether we love it for the same reasons, and no doubt there are many possible reasons for loving it. We all come to it from different places - different experiences of language, different education systems and social backgrounds, different practical agendas. But I bet that if you and I met, we could find some common ground on why we love the subject; so I'm going to try to work out what turns me on, and you can see if it resonates with you.
Part of the enjoyment is the sheer complexity of the data, and the knowledge that it all exists in the human mind. After all, linguistics undoubtedly reveals the structure and contents of our minds in finer detail than any other subject. What other subject has the equivalent of the lexeme MOUSE, with a pronunciation, spelling, irregular plural, word class and meaning that's shared, down to the finest detail, by hundreds of millions of people? What's even more extraordinary is that the history of MOUSE can be traced back through 200 generations to Proto-Indo-European. All these details exist in the mind, not just in some ethereal 'social space', so language really does provide a window into the human mind. Moreover, if you take the 'cognitive' step of rejecting modules of the mind, the bit of the mind that we see through this window is actually the whole of conceptual knowledge, and not just language. What a wonderful way to get to know oneself and one's fellow humans!
But the main thrill for me is the process rather than the product. Give me a data problem that I have some hope of solving, and I'm lost to the world - ask my wife! Language is like a jigsaw puzzle. The point of jigsaw puzzles is doing them, rather than looking at the finished product. A language jigsaw puzzle arrives all jumbled up and without a picture, but with a guaranteed solution: a good analysis. Moreover, each little piece - each word, morpheme, construction or whatever - comes with a fixed set of properties that define its relations to other pieces; so when you pick up one piece, the challenge is to find the other bits that clip onto it. And of course, the excitement never ends because every new piece brings a new set of challenges. The jigsaw analogy may explain those early childhood encounters with foreign languages and etymologies. The foreign words troubled me deeply because they didn't fit the only jigsaw I knew, the one for English, and suggested the existence of other jigsaws that I couldn't quite imagine. As for the etymologies, each of them added new connections to the jigsaw which I thought I'd already finished, suggesting the world of multi-dimensional jigsaws or networks that some of us now envisage in our research.
It's all been enormous fun. And the good news is that there's no sign of any edge pieces yet, so don't worry about anyone finishing the puzzle before you've had your chance to add some pieces.