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Why pain in Spain is mainly on the wane

Lynne Field decides it's time to stop dabbling in Spanish, and finds herself sitting a GCSE alongside her pupils

This morning I sat my GCSE Spanish listening exam in the school sports hall, along with the kids I've seen every day for the past five years. So what? Thousands of 15 and 16-year-olds are sitting similar exams at the moment. The difference is that I am not 15, nor even 16; I am 50-something, and one of their teachers.

Why am I sitting GCSE Spanish and causing my colleagues who arrive to invigilate to stare in disbelief? Well, I speak French fluently - I teach it. I travel down through France chatting away to every waiter and hotel receptionist, until I get to Biarritz. Then I cross the Pyrenees and have two alternatives - consult my phrase book frantically and recite a few prepared sentences while being totally unable to comprehend the replies, or to enquire @Habla usted ingles? The first leaves me feeling inadequate and frustrated; the second like some arrogant colonialist.

I have, over the years, dabbled half-heartedly with Spanish conversation classes and teach-yourself cassettes, but with no real success. Then, two years ago in Madrid, I decided I would have to do something serious if I were ever to enjoy the pleasures of the remote beauty of Extremadura and its "romantic, slow-paced charm", described in my travel guide.

I went to my local tech and enrolled on the Foreign Languages for Commerce and Industry course. The old conversation classes no longer exist as colleges' funding is these days restricted to vocational courses.

The teacher was excellent and the class fun. The only inconvenience was having to learn the Spanish for items such as "filing cabinet" and "personnel department". The final assessment was conducted by a wonderful Peruvian man who burst into song at every opportunity.I passed with distinction.

So last year I enrolled for GCSE and found it was serious stuff. To get a good grade from just 25 weeks' tuition, a couple of hours a week, requires a committed effort and we all did our homework conscientiously.

When the time came to register for the exam, I realised that to take four papers at the college was going to require an unacceptable amount of time off and that the obvious solution was to take the exam at the school where I work. I asked our Spanish teacher if she was willing to mark my coursework and conduct the speaking exam. "No problema."

The coursework was no problem for me either. I produced the kind of formulaic pieces I beg my students to do - some past tenses, some future tenses, some relative clauses and some felicitous phrases gleaned from various texts to give me a good "style" mark.

The speaking exam was a different kettle of fish - or cacerola de pescada, as they say in Seville. I drove to work every day talking out loud to myself about the delights of the city where I live, the colour of my children's eyes and whether I like ironing. At every opportunity I imagined myself pitching my tent at a Spanish campsite, standing at the side of the autopista with a flat tyre or arriving at Alicante casualty with my finger hanging off. The real thing - when I had to ask for a map and what time the castle opened - was a considerable anti-climax.

This morning's listening was fairly nerve-racking. You hear each bit of Spanish twice only and, if your mind wanders off, you've lost it. I only have one more paper to go - reading - which should not be too bad given the comfort of a dictionary. As to whether I can converse more happily when I go to SpainI I'll let you know when I get back.

Lynne Field teaches French at Sidcot school, north Somerset

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