On Thursday nights, every other week, I teach English to foreign workers. A few weeks back, with the rest of the class absorbed in a pretty basic exercise, I found myself perched on the desk of a Spanish student whose level of English is well above that of the average student in the lower-level group.
‘I thought we talked about this a few weeks ago,’ I said. ‘You were going to try the higher group, remember?’
This particular student is a real sweetheart. We’d talked previously about whether her grammar was good enough for her to move up a level – I was adament she was, her argument to the contrary was that she occasionally makes mistakes with her tenses. Of course, she could stay in the lower group – it doesn’t make a huge difference to me – but the more I thought about it, and I did think about it a lot, on my way home, the following morning, the more I realised that what makes me sad about it is that she’s letting her fear hold her back.
As soon as I decided I wanted to be good at French, I got good, pretty much. In class, at least. On a holiday to Australia aged 16 I took a grammar workbook which I realised later was aimed at university students. There were no explanations or examples, so I worked through it to the best of my ability, only to find that more often than not I was getting the answers wrong and I had no idea why. I couldn’t recognise how far I’d come in a couple of years, only that I wasn’t yet where I wanted to be.
And I made my life, and a lot of other people’s, an absolute misery.
For two years running, my best friend won the end-of-year French prize and it seemed so bloody unfair, even though, looking back, I can see exactly why that was the case. She was a meek, obedient, disciplined student, good across all four skills, while I, despite being the one with the offer of a place at Oxbridge and the one who spent all her free periods reading French novels, applied myself only to the things I was comfortable with, namely Reading, Writing and Listening. Not speaking. God, no.
It wasn’t all my fault. I had a filthy temper, which I could now tell you was born of anxiety, but at the time I, and everyone else, just assumed meant I was a stroppy, difficult bitch. My French teacher, with whom I thought I was desperately in love, believed that speaking skills were improved by filming class discussion or debating activities and then playing them back to us, so we could identify our errors. I know a bit about language teaching now, and it’s not a terrible method, but his major failing was not recognising just how much it didn’t work for me, and mixing it up a bit.
We had an agreement: I knew that what bothered me was seeing myself move on camera; the jerky movements that to me screamed ‘disability,’ so I sat out of shot. You could hear me, but not see me. And still I hated it. It made me cry, it made me shout, it made me anxious as fuck in the run up to lessons where I knew we’d be being filmed. I know now that disability has coloured my views about every aspect of my body – I don’t like seeing myself move, hearing my voice, still photos that I can’t control … the list goes on. I wish I’d been able to tell him that calmly.
I owe the change to my Cambridge interviewer, who recognised I was too young and too lacking in confidence to be able to handle the challenge of a Cambridge degree straight after leaving school. My gap year was obligatory. Learning to speak French was not. Not for them, at least, but my mum wouldn’t let me get away with just working my summer call centre job for another year.
And, to cut a long story short, in a bakery in Switzerland I really learned to speak French. I doubt, even when I was pretty much fluent, that I was ever grammatically perfect. But I was revelling in the language, really enjoying it in a well rounded manner for the first time ever. I got a job abroad because they needed someone to speak English with the tourists: I spent most of the Winter letting the Brits struggle on in pidgin French before switching to English once they’d reached maximum fluster.
I was so immersed in the language that when things went wrong ‘Putain!” was more instinctive than ‘Fuck!’ I delighted in the fact that the French for ‘pussy’ is ‘chatte’ and that I could drive my boss crazy by answering with a slangy, drawn-out ‘Ouais,’ rather than the crisp and polite ‘Oui, Madame’ that she expected. All stuff that I picked up by just throwing myself into the language, and not overthinking it.
I’d love to say that that was the last time I feared throwing myself in at the deep end, but of course, it wasn’t. I never worked in Italy, or found an equivalent way to immerse myself in the Italian language and as a result the Italian I picked up during my degree has pretty much wilted and died. And I certainly haven’t lost that fear when it comes to sex – even when I’m doing something I love, like giving head, I still worry that my technique could be better. There’s a balance to be achieved here somewhere: if I love the act despite my worries I’m not letting it hold me back. And technique, like grammar, has a place in sex, certainly, which is why I’m always sorely tempted to go and do this.
The girl that I teach moved herself into the higher group after we had that chat. I’m pleased for her, because I think she’ll be having more fun. And fuck, just like sex, when language is fun, it’s *really* fun.
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*I realised halfway through this, that it’s kind of an extension of/development of the thoughts behind this post. That’s ok though, right?