A Life in Languages, Part 1

20. Dec 2018

If there’s one thread that’s run throughout my life, it’s been language. Apparently, it took me a while to get going, as I didn’t utter a word until my third birthday, when I came out with a fully formed “Happy Birthday”, but I’ve been making up for lost time ever since….

Aged 10, I clearly remember my teacher, Mr Jenkins, a corpulent sadist, attempting to teach us some French words prior to a school trip to Ostend (my first ever trip abroad). The magic of their sound, even when mispronounced with a strong Welsh accent, lit up hitherto unknown corners of my brain. I was hooked. 

But the love affair really began when, at the age of 11, I was suddenly being taught Welsh, French, Latin and German at secondary school. My brain, which seemed reduced to mush during physics, chemistry and biology lessons, suddenly came alive and began to fizz. 

And this despite the fact that the lessons were pretty dull. 

Back then (late 1970s), the fashionable method of teaching was language labs, and our school had invested in a gleaming new example. The teacher sat at a console at the front, reading the newspaper, while we boys got stuck in an endless reel of listening and repeating to isolated phrases: “Monsieur Marsaud est dans le jardin”. Who Monsieur Marsaud was, what paper he read, and what on earth he was doing in the garden, was apparently of little consequence. We simply repeated, over and over again, his name and his location. Who knows, maybe he’s still there, part of the furniture, surrounded by weeds and garden gnomes. 

But despite the mind-numbing methodology, and the monochrome monotony of the books (although in later years some of the texts went crazy and introduced the odd orange title), I found it easy. The words clicked into place, the correspondences seemed obvious, grammar tables had a crystalline logic that was self-evident. And my exam results demonstrated just how easy it was: 97, 98, 99 out of 100 every time. How I rued those missing marks…

And so it continued for five years, all the way through till A Levels, when in those days we had to choose just three subjects to fill our entire school week. A crucial choice, which would perhaps determine our university career and thus the rest of our lives. But for me there was no hesitation…

To be continued…

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