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English words, French words, Learning words

Words are some of my favourite things. I like talking, listening, writing, reading. I enjoy the shape and history of words, thinking about their origin and the story behind their place in the English language. Although I found Latin rather deadly at school, I am glad I studied it; similarly, while I hated the process of ‘Learning Anglo-Saxon with the BBC’ at university, once again I am pleased that I had the opportunity to spend a year understanding where English came from. I went to Greece, learnt a bit of Greek; I went to Egypt, learnt a bit of Arabic. I know a little of most of major constituent parts of the English that we speak today and for some geeky reason this gives me pleasure. I like to know that when we speak of intellectual things we tend to use words of Latin or Greek origin; when we speak of work in the fields and getting our hands dirty, we are more likely to choose words with Anglo-Saxon roots. English is one of the richest and most varied languages in the world, constantly changing as young people invent slang, new ways of thinking come into play (most notably in the last thirty years with the revolution in technology) and people from other lands come to live in Britain, bringing their own words which eventually find their way into colloquial, and then formal, English.

French is a vital part of English. Although it has Latin roots, it is very much a language of its own, proud of its heritage and holding on for dear life in the changing world. I did it for O level and did well. But I was not allowed to take A Level French, although it was the natural choice along with English and History. This was because, according to my French teacher, I was “too stupid” to do so. I missed out and it is something I have always regretted.

The woman who taught me French has sadly had a profound influence on my life; she still sits on my shoulder when I speak French and laughs. I have never cared what I sound like when I speak Arabic. I know that there are sounds I cannot pronounce and that I speak too fast, using words I have sometimes made up. I use mime, facial expressions, and if I decline a word wrong it does not twist me up into knots. I do not have this laissez faire attitude to French, alas. My former French teacher is always there, sneering at my accent or my mis-use of prepositions.

It is therefore perhaps ironic, given my relationship with French, that my partner is French, that his parents do not speak any English and that I now live in France. Of all the countries I could have chosen, I had to choose France whose language holds such childhood terrors for me. And yet here I am, getting better at French daily, despite my teacher’s dismissal 29 years ago.

I started lessons shortly after moving here, two years ago. I found, by chance, an inspirational teacher called Albert Croce who runs the Aquitaine School of Languages in Bergerac. With him, I can sit for 2 hours and discuss French politics, literature and culture; I come out of every lesson buzzing and full of energy. Now, I have decided to formalise my learning of French and am working towards a French as a Foreign Language exam: DELF B2. I have bought all the books and have begun going through the thick grammar text book from page one. My memory of the basic rules of French is rough and I have been making do with picking up phrases and words from those spoken around me, rather than really using the accurate construction of sentences.

And yet... Despite my enthusiasm, the pile of shiny new text books on my desk and a leather-bound notebook always to hand, committing to the kind of studying I need to do to even begin to think about taking this examination is difficult. Realistically, I need to spend about an hour a day on French. I need to absorb the grammar and then learn it, actually learn it. My brain is different to that young brain of mine 29 years ago, and I find it much harder to retain information so I need to find various ways to hold onto new vocabulary. It is difficult. Sometimes I would prefer not to put myself through it. So I don’t. Displacement activities have developed. And I am really an expert at displacement activities, a skill I developed while writing up my thesis: in this period every book was ordered alphabetically, my experimentation with cooking was incredible, and my flat was spotless.

I was lucky – in some ways – at school and university because I was able to cram information into my brain at the last minute. This way I learnt the translation of part of Book IV of The Aeneid off by heart so that for Latin I could appear to be translating the text during my O Level when actually I was simply recalling the text from memory. I can’t do that anymore and I don’t see the point. All I remember from that Latin exam is the phrase ‘Broken by war, fractured by the fates’. I have just googled this phrase and find that it doesn’t even exist, so even that little fragment is mis-remembered. The more useful skill I developed from Latin was recognising the roots of words; I am sorry that I don’t remember more of the Virgil.

Cramming French is not an option. I want to absorb it, let it float, let it be part of me. I would prefer not to make people laugh when I am trying to put forward a serious idea because I have accidentally mixed up the word or ask to buy a “chauffeur” from a DIY shop when I really meant a “heater”. I also want to speak like the French: it is a beautiful language and the accent is exquisite. I am a reasonably good mimic and am particularly proud of being able to do a good Scouse accent but I can’t copy the musical sounds of French because I can’t even hear the difference between some of the sounds, let alone pronounce them.

It would help if I did some more studying. It would help if I watched French films or listened to the many podcasts in French that I have downloaded. I am impatient with myself and my ability to study, and because of this I get frustrated. I want to be able to do something immediately, to succeed straightaway, but this is simply not possible for someone who is not a linguistic genius.

I will get there. Little steps, and all that. I try and remember some of the things I tell my students: be realistic, be kind, set yourself small targets. I have a superb teacher and I am lucky enough to be living in the country where the language is spoken. While I have learnt other things over the years (diving and skiing being the toughest) this is the first time I have returned to something essentially academic for a long while and it is a curious process. Good for my teaching, good for my humility, and good for that phantom of my former French teacher slowing falling off my shoulder. She won’t be there for very long.


It is curious that I have found myself with three French students, all based in the UK. I do not – and cannot – teach English as Foreign Language, despite a year of trying to do so in Greece in 1991. My three students are very different. One is an au pair in Manchester who needed to pass her GCSE English language in order to get on a course starting in September. There was a fair amount of EFL teaching required but I also tried to help her take risks with her creative writing. Another is a bilingual student at the South Kensington Lycée who wanted to do iGCSE English and get as a high a mark as possible; we are carrying on together with enrichment lessons and had a fantastic hour the other day, exploring a passage from Chaucer and identifying the words of Norman origin and those which therefore must be Anglo-Saxon. A third is an eleven-year old bilingual student, also at the London Lycée, who is dyslexic and with whom I am trying to find a way of making the written word less intimidating: colour, pictures, games involving moving text around to create sentences, Beatrix Potter; all things that my teaching platform, Scribblar, can make possible.

I love teaching all three, and have found the fact that I know some French and, more importantly, that I am learning French an enormous help: I see the patterns of their mistakes and understand that they are importing French rules or French vocabulary in the same way that I do with English into French. I think it makes me a better teacher with them; and it certainly helps my learning of French.

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