Language Learners from Literature: Alex Rider

A few years ago, I asked a good Irish friend: “If I were a spy who needed to convince Irish natives that I was one of them, what would I need to do?”

He gave me several tips, including: “Stop calling the Irish language ‘Gaelic.’ That’s what foreigners say. Real Irish call the Irish language . . . Irish.” It went without saying that I would also have to speak some Irish. But every spy already knows that.

A few weeks ago, I asked my current Bavarian tutor the same question about German natives and Germany. He was far less optimistic than my friend, saying: “Nobody is going to believe you grew up in Germany because of your skin, your hair, and your eyes.”

“What if I tell them I’m the daughter of the Philippine Ambassador to Germany?” I persisted. “Or that I’m part Turkish?”

He kept shaking his head — though he did advise me never to pretend to be Turkish in Germany. I admit that I was a little surprised. I don’t expect all places to be melting pots these days, but I had imagined that big German cities were a little more cosmopolitan than his answer implied.

From Volume 1, Chapter 6

British secret agent Ian Rider had more confidence in his nephew. Based on the languages that Alex Rider can speak, Ian must have believed that Alex could pass as a native of three different European countries and some of their neighbors. To other agents British intelligence, it’s obvious why Alex received such training.

“. . . I wonder if it’s occurred to you that Rider may have been preparing him for this all along,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Preparing Alex to replace him. Ever since the boy was old enough to walk, he’s been in training for intelligence work . . . but without knowing it. I mean, he’s lived abroad, so he now speaks French, German and Spanish. He’s been mountain-climbing, diving and skiing. He’s learned karate. Physically he’s in perfect shape . . . I think Rider wanted Alex to become a spy.”

“But not so soon . . .”

I started rereading Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series last month, hoping for spying scenes involving languages. So I’m sad to report that, at least in the first four books, our hero barely uses his French, Spanish, and German. This is especially disappointing because in these stories he visits France twice and even goes to Cuba! But no matter where he is, the villains all speak perfect English. It’s a little sad when the villains have better language skills than the heroes!

On the other hand, Alex masters enough American English in a few days to pass as an American boy. Does this count? In a world where saying “jam” (British) instead of “jelly” (American) could get you killed, it probably should!

What I Would Say to Alex Rider

All the characters believe that Ian Rider had been secretly training Alex to be a spy. But the theory fails as soon as you see that Alex never learned Russian. It’s a very strange omission. Right after I noticed it, I thought of another good reason for Alex’s training. Maybe his uncle wanted him to escape being a spy.

If I could talk to Alex, I would suggest that his uncle was not preparing him for a similar life, but instead was equipping him to have a better one. We can argue that the real villains of the Alex Rider books are not the terrorists, madmen, and assassins that Alex has to fight, but the British agents who force a fourteen-year-old boy to fight them. Ian worked with those other agents for years; he must have guessed that they would try to exploit his nephew. And perhaps he wanted Alex to have a fighting chance against them.

With his language skills, Alex could easily disappear into France, Spain, or Germany. Or into neighboring Belgium, Luxemburg, Austria or Switzerland. Or even into most Latin American countries or North America’s Québec. He might be too blond to hide one of France’s former African colonies, but these are the exception. I have a few more Alex Rider books to read, and I wonder whether he will do something like this in the last one.

Do you sometimes think about being a spy?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *