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Nice Urdu - shame I failed the exam

Lynne Blackburn was advised to study the language of her pupils. Initially she was bewildered but she grew to love it

As I sat down with my line manager to discuss my performance management, I thought my professional target would be pretty straightforward: to improve my IT skills. Instead, my manager pondered for a while and said, "I think you should learn Urdu." It wasn't such an outlandish suggestion. I am a teacher of English as an additional language and I need to communicate with Pakistanis, so knowing Urdu would be a massive boon.

Anyway, every Emag teacher needs alternative careers lined up: I could go into homeschool liaison, or - aim high - teach Urdu. Now that would be a feat. We put down that I should gain a grade at GCSE.

I started off in the time-honoured way and bought myself a Teach Yourself book. Unfortunately, I was put off learning Urdu immediately. A woman, my book announced, had to give her husband, and any other male, including her sons, the formal, respectful form "ap", whereas a man would give his wife and any other woman, including his boss, the informal, "tum". I struggled with this rule, but was I angry because of my feminist principles or was I looking for excuses to back off learning Urdu?

Listening to colleagues' conversations over the following months reassured me that even if this was the rule, Urdu speakers didn't obey it, so it was back to my books.

But the next hiccup was worse. Besides the writing looking like squiggles, I realised that each letter has three distinct forms, depending on where in the word it occurs. How on Earth could I learn that? At this point I felt the sort of impotent rage you feel when your overhead projector packs up while you are being observed. At least you can kick a machine to feel better, but what can you do to seriously hurt an alphabet?

A colleague convinced me there was a basic pattern to each letter, and I finally put my nose to the grindstone. I learned the alphabet over Christmas and could soon recognise simple words. I made flashcards that my husband and kids had to test me on. Every night from nine till ten I had my sacred hour of Urdu and I loved it.

I really enjoyed the thrill of sitting the exams although I barely slept the night before my speaking test and, of course, the examiner didn't ask me the right questions. The listening paper was difficult. The multiple choice questions were in Urdu and I didn't have a hope of reading them in time. I actually started looking around for distraction, so you could say this was a good learning experience for me in more ways than one.

I got a D. A print-out from Edexcel showed I missed a C by one point, so I should really feel encouraged.

I'm still learning Urdu. Maybe it's ten years hence, but I have a vision of an imposing Yorkshire stone school with views over rolling hills. The sun shines through a window into a class of perfectly behaved students. The rays shine on the teacher, writing fluently from right to left. The class applaud as she concludes a faultless plenary and, yes, that teacher is me.

Surely, there's more chance of my keeping my Emag post than there is of that particular scenario?

Lynne Blackburn teaches at Oakbank School, Keighley, West Yorkshire

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