I am of an age to have been obliged to study Latin at school. I was quite open-minded about this proposition – neither I nor my colleagues were of the view that we shouldn’t study a ‘dead’ language. We were of a time where pupils unquestioningly acted upon the wishes of a teacher.
I was dreadful at Latin. Although this could well have been due to the limitations of my overall intelligence, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that one of our teachers took joy in humiliating weaker pupils, inviting the class to mock students (that was me) and the other was downright violent. I felt no resentment or fear of these characters – I just switched off completely in the class, took the hit (literally) and learned nothing, although I have a vague recollection of a volcano wiping out the main characters, including a dog.
Conversely, I was quite good at French. I had two lovely teachers, one of whom I remain in contact with now, and the other who moved on and I have been unable to locate. In 2010, we relocated to a sleepy village in rural South-West France and I was obliged to delve back into the distant reserves of my memory and rekindle my school French. I found that being immersed in a language – and having to use it as no other option was available – was a very effective way of becoming a fluent French speaker. I use the word ‘speaker’ as my written French is still rather poor, but that is unimportant. If I’m in the bar with my French pals, no-one is likely to ask me to write the verb ‘vouloir’ in the third person conditional tense. It is much more valuable to learn the expression for ‘Wales won the match – you owe me a beer.’
As time progressed I fell deeply in love with the French language. I learnt how to say ‘I’m going to throw up’ when a child demonstrated exactly how to say this before offering a practical demonstration of the phrase in his guitar lesson. The same child also taught me the unlikely phrase for ‘there is a dead bat under the fridge’. I adore the odd old-fashioned words which are departing from English but are still commonplace in French (cache, umbrage, grave, terminate and the like) and the daft new words for modern items (aspirateur – vacuum cleaner, ordinateur – computer).
The strangest, but possibly the most-valuable tip I’d offer the French language learner is that when speaking a language, the job of communication must take over the whole body, possibly to the extent where the speaker’s personality changes. When speaking English, I can be rather quiet – I tend to mumble and meander. When in conversation in French, I become far more European. I hurl my bodyweight forwards with open palms when arguing a point, I shrug, I say ‘Mais non!’ and wave exasperated arms around; quite frankly, I become a Frenchman. This sounds silly and has, quite rightly, left me exposed to mockery and ridicule from my social group, but surely effective communication is more than just words from the mouth. How often do we look at people’s eyes to see what they are really thinking? Can the body language of cultures be a whole new discipline in itself? Should we teach pupils gestures such as ‘the upwards flap of the right hand, with flexible wrist to express disagreement’? Language is a complex, cultural and expressive tool. To speak it, we must say it, feel it, express it, shape it and communicate it with our whole being.