A Life in Languages, Part 3

7. Jan 2019

In the UK, around the age of 16, you’re asked to make academic choices which could prove crucial in determining your career. From all the various arts, social sciences and science subjects I’d studied, I now had to choose just three…

Like most choices I’ve made in life, this one took a matter of seconds. I’d hated physics and chemistry from the moment I stepped inside the malodorous laboratories. Biology was marginally better, but I still ditched it as soon as I could. Maths was fun, and I was good at it, as it’s really just another kind of language, but it didn’t inspire me that much, and once it was no longer compulsory, I gave it up. To this day, I still can’t really see the point of trigonometry. I can’t remember the last time someone asked me for a cosine or a tangent. 

History was interesting, but it had been taught in such a crushingly boring way, with such a narrow focus on British triumphs, that it was impossible to enjoy the classes, though I came to read a great deal of history later in life.

Besides all these push factors, however, the pull factor of the three obvious choices was irresistible. There could be no doubt I would study French, German and English. 

Imagine this: there were 150 boys in my year. Perhaps 50-60 left after O’ Levels – the earliest age at which you can legally duck out of school in the UK. And of the 90 or so remaining, only 7 of us joined the English class. But better still, in German and French I was the only survivor. 

I also took private Latin lessons, just for fun…

In other words, the school had managed to take 150 boys and turn 149 of them off languages. All good for me of course, but an indictment nevertheless of both the British lack of interest in languages (Wales being little different in this respect) and the dire methodology with which languages were taught.

So there I sat for the next two years, essentially having state-funded private lessons, for 16 hours a week – 8 in either language. I also took private Latin lessons, just for fun…

Of course we never actually spoke French or German in that time – the only practice I had was when the sexy French assistant Stéphanie rolled up in a battered 2CV, complete with statutory Gauloises. She was the subject of many a daydream (ahem, let’s not go there), but I’m afraid my passions were never reciprocated, for some strange reason…

Apart from that, it was studying language systems, translating both ways, doing practice tests, and of course indulging in my first taste of foreign language literature. We studied Gide, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Racine, and Flaubert, along with Goethe, Zuckmayer, Kafka, Schiller and Mann, and my teachers put long hours into commenting on my essays.

In terms of learning, it was bliss, and I idolised my teachers, with their sophisticated knowledge of French and German, their European worldview, their access to culture and insight. Mrs Lloyd in particular took care to nurture my knowledge, and even bought me a Larousse dictionary as a reward when I passed the Oxford entrance exams (of which more in the next chapter).

Imagine my disappointment when I bumped into her, decades later, while walking through Llanelli market. By that time, I was living in a small French village and burbled enthusiastically to her about how the journey there had begun in her class. 

“Nice for you,” she said. “France is a lovely country – but it’s a pity there are so many French people there”. 

And thus was yet another boyhood illusion shattered. 

To be continued…

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