On the wall in front of me, I currently have a number of post-its with simple Spanish words and phrases that I am trying to learn, in preparation for a trip to Spain in June for the marriage of my step-daughter to Juan-Jose, a native of Valencia. I must admit to struggling a bit, more to find the time to concentrate sufficiently long to embed the phrase into useful memory. Perhaps I’ll have to give up Twitter and blogging and hide away for a while… both take up a greater amount of time than they should!
It has brought back memories of earlier language learning, particularly at Grammar School. We all had to do Latin in the first years and a second language, which for me was French. In years 4 and 5, now 10 and 11, my group had Mr Beale, Bertie as he was nicknamed, by us, although he probably knew. At that point too, I was persuaded that German was a more useful language than Latin for a science career, so started a two year course from scratch with a new teacher. Being a very different approach to language construction from Latin-derived languages, I did struggle, although something must have clicked, as I can occasionally remember a few phrases, or imaging I am lost in my car and asking for directions.
I did find a natural affinity for French. Whether it was a 1960s promoted love affair from watching black and white films and series, like Maigret, I don’t know. I just loved the language, found that I could play with it, work out constructs and hoovered up vocabulary. We had conversations in class, mini-dialogues with Mr Beale, modelling ideas, sharing with each other, having errors picked apart. We were encouraged, required to speak aloud, and develop confidence because, to quote Mr Beale, “Language only lives when spoken or can be read”.
The oral exam for GCE consisted of turning up at a room in school at a particular time, in order to have a conversation with the (unknown) examiner. The topics of conversation were not known ahead of time, so we started with bonjour and progressed from there. I remember talking about a summer job selling ice creams and burgers in Paignton, my love for cricket and other sports and aspirations, which included the dream to visit France and maybe do fruit picking. I got 95%, apparently, for speaking.
It was, in fact, many years later that opportunity to visit France was realised, after very good friends left Fareham to live in the Limousin in an old farm house. Nick had been a partner in a folk band, so that summer, 1991, in tandem with a local singer/songwriter, Jean-Mark, aka Paul Fane, we spent our time working on material that we took to the Truffe de Perigeux, a Radio France competition. I spoke rusty GCE with a modest confidence, and a reasonable accent, so got by, as sometimes you have to do. We played in the final and had a good time, got asked to stay and become a musician, but discretion, headship and a young family made sure sense prevailed. Holidays were always available.
Three years later, we bought a two room cottage and set about restoring it to be able to spend holidays in the country. It is still a work in progress.
Getting to know neighbours has been a long process. As farmers, who did not learn English at school, they are always incredibly busy and dash past the house in their tractors. When neighbours do stop, it is to pass the time of day, ask after the family and then pass to the shopping. They now assume that I should speak the language like a native, so some speak very fast or with the Limousin guttural inflection, both of which put early (Parisian) French to the test. Some families with children learning English in school, I have got to know through a local summer school.
Over time, we have developed a few very good friendships, often with (professional) people who have some English too, and want to practice that for work, so we can get by in Franglais, or more properly part and part. There are also many Dutch families locally, too, who speak English well.
Language in any form, as Mr Beale knew, only has real meaning when it is spoken or written (read), to support communication and engagement with others. He encouraged us to become as fluent as possible; something that I must now struggle with, in Spanish, if I am to do slightly more than order a coffee or tea or a couple of beers.