I follow a trader on a local online auction site who sells vintage books (now there's a surprise). This morning I was sent a link to a book which immediately threw my senses back almost half a century. It was a small book to teach French to young people.
I remember clearly my first week at secondary school seeing on my timetable the word "French" followed by "Language labs." I was beside myself with excitement that first week, putting on headphones and learning how to say "Breakfast is ready." Useful stuff! I still recall the smells and sounds of thirty eleven year olds rewinding the practice tapes and repeating over and over "Je m'appelle....." We were all given a French name; mine was Claudette. I was disappointed, I so wanted to be called Marie-Noelle or Romilly or something a bit more romantic. Claudette sounded to me like she would be a scullery maid with bad knees.
For three years I continued to learn French three periods a week and still recall that excitement of donning huge plastic headphones and imitating the accent of our French assistant Madamoiselle Rumney.
I discovered quickly that language learning wasn't my strong point, and unlike many of my school friends I didn't go to France on holiday each summer so had no opportunity to practice. I found grammar perplexing and difficult. I swopped to learning Spanish (supposedly easier). I learned that for 5 years - or at least I tried to. Then there was the language assistant challenge in my final 2 years of Spanish - we didn't have one. There were only two of us left studying it by that point and the other girl was very talented. She danced flamenco in Spanish. I dragged my language skills behind me like a satchel with a broken strap. The lack of a language assistant meant that every Wednesday after school we caught a bus to the next city to meet up with a Spanish assistant from another school. We sat in the bus station cafe and spoke to her in Spanish, or at least my friend did. I just coughed - Maria chain smoked Gitanes cigarettes.
Not willing to admit my inadequacy at linguistics I went on to have embarrassing and inaccurate conversations in Afrikaans (lived in S. Africa), German (lived in Austria), and Arabic (lived in the Middle East).
But here's the thing - I understood conversations in every country I have ever lived in. I pick up vocabulary quickly and can usually get the general drift of a conversation. I even did it this in Hebrew after a few weeks. But the moment I open my mouth, my memory cells paralyse, my teeth glue together and grammar tumbles like a badly constructed scaffold outside a dodgy building. I'm wondering if there isn't a name for this kind of handicap? But this morning when I opened my email, I felt like that 11 year old again and wanted to repeat to myself "Le petit dejeuner et pret."