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A taste of the other side

Every Wednesday morning between the hours of 10 and 12, I engage in an act of torture. It is called English spelling.

I know it is torture (although to me it often just seems tortuous) because my victims tell me so. And while they take it with robust good humour - my 15 or so pre-access students - I can't help but notice how they moan and groan each week whenever my little test is proposed.

Does that mean I know how they feel to be put on the spot and asked to spell out the tricky combinations that make up "separate" or "necessary" or "committee"? Of course I don't.

At least I didn't. But things have changed. Now I can claim to have walked a mile in their moccasins. And now too I can feel not only sympathy, but empathy for all such clumsy-tongued students as they struggle for that elusive answer. Put simply, I have joined a French class.

Now I suspect that I am like many English people in my feelings about France and the French. They are our nearest neighbours, so naturally we have spent the last 1,000 years waging wars against them, one of which went on for 100 years. But, despite all that, we still like them - their style, their joie de vivre, their countryside, their food, their wine, their house prices...

And their language? There's the rub. To the English the French language is like a pit prepared with sharpened stakes, then covered over with artfully disguised twigs and grasses to lure them to their doom.

Like others I have struggled to avoid those sharp points. Like others I have failed. At age 11 I sat and sang Sur le Pont, d'Avignon. Five years later, when I should have been mastering the subjunctive and the imparfait, I was still there on that pont, singing away.

With the passing of the years I have picked up odd, out-of-the-way items of vocabulary. Knowing that barbe ... papa means candy floss ensures that I will never starve in a French fairground. And while I have yet to find an opening to drop it casually into the conversation, acquiring the verb abetir - to make morons of - has provided me with hours of innocent pleasure. But still I can't string together a simple sentence of more than half a dozen words.

Ainsi, la classe. It has been three weeks now. And right from week one I have found myself behaving every bit as badly as the worst of my own students. I arrive late (those buses - terrible, n'est ce pas?). I talk when Madame le professeur is talking. I don't listen. If I don't know the answer I look at what my neighbour has written and write that. I don't want a class, I want a pill to bring instant fluency.

The key thing - sometimes it seems like the only thing - is not to show yourself up in front of the others. You know you are ignorant. Madame knows you are ignorant. But how desperate you are that les autres shouldn't know it too.

Just sitting there in class shrinks me down into a smaller, less consequential being. My short-term memory seems to have deserted me entirely. Compared to me a goldfish - a poisson rouge - is Plato.

Madame is explaining something of such sublime simplicity that every French child has mastered it before they are hardly out of nappies. In pairs we reinforce it, stumbling our way through the minefields of meaning, the purgatory of pronunciation.

Ca va? asks Madame. Oui is on our lips. Non is in our hearts. Alors. She looks around, searching out a suitable victim. Let it not be me. Please, let it not be me. I sink lower in my chair, trying to look even smaller than I feel.

"Stefen." Merde! I cast desperately around. But there is only one Stephen (as Madame likes to remind me!) On her lips a question of impenetrable difficulty is even now forming itself. My classmates look smug, relieved that for now they have been passed over.

My mouth is dry. A line of sweat sits on my forehead. Suddenly my head is emptier than an anorexic's fridge. Er, er, comment? She repeats the question. Reminds me that we have only just gone over it. I stammer out a syllable. Pause. Scratch my head. A few more mal mots come dribbling out.

"Pardon, mais je ne sais pas."

Madame's eyes roll. She doesn't say anything. She doesn't have to. That little shrug of contempt says it all. She moves on. Of course the question she asks my neighbour is the one I could have answered; as every student I have ever taught has told me. But now truly I am one of them. Now I really do know what it feels like to be on the receiving end. To hear the question; to know that you ought to know the answer; and to know that you don't.

It is both humbling and instructive: something every teacher should undergo. Forget about courses. Forget reading it up in books. If you want to know what life is really like on the other side - learn French!

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