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Language Lessons

A slice of late evening sun brightens the smartboard. Latifa’s marker pen squeaks across its shiny surface. She turns to us, ranged in a semicircle of battered desks, and utters an indecipherable sound.

We stare at her, eight adults of varied ages, with grey hair or pierced noses, balding heads, laced shoes or striped stockings, male and female. I glance around me, see frowns of concentration or bewilderment, the weary smiles of fellow sufferers. After a day’s work we have come to grapple with the rudiments of a new language.

Latifa again makes the sound and asks me to repeat it. I try, but fail abysmally. A ripple of sympathetic laughter breaks out among my companions.

‘No,’ she says, ‘not kha as if you’re clearing your throat. This is ha – like when you clean your sunglasses.’

I huff on my imaginary glasses and she rewards me with a nod of approval. Beaming with pride and relief, I remind myself that to utter strange cries in front of a roomful of spectators is what I ask of my own students every day. Safe in the role of teacher, I extend the tip of my tongue to encourage those who have no comparable sound in their own language to imitate th as in think, or to buzz like mosquitoes for th as in then. Laughter meets those attempts, too. It helps to deflect the frustration of an adult reduced to a linguistic infant.

Only now the roles are reversed. I am here this evening not to teach but to learn.

It’s some comfort that I’m not alone in my madness. My colleague, Rhoda, whose bright idea it was to come here – ‘It’ll help us appreciate what our own students go through’ – sits beside me, looking horribly efficient with her neat list of Arabic letters and example words.

Panic, and the fear of incompetence seize me. I am older than I care to mention, and learning the alphabet. After three lessons I have copied – let’s not pretend that I’ve remembered, let alone understood – a dozen or so letters. All look perplexingly similar – a sort of migraine of dots and squiggles. Their connection to sound is elusive, their combination into units of meaning shrouded with mystique. What’s more – and this strikes me as downright unreasonable – each letter can be written in three different ways, according to its position at the beginning, the middle or the end of a word.

So this must be what Shundor feels like, I realise, when he struggles to distinguish between b and d, or between capitals and lower case, or different fonts or styles of handwriting. Shundor, the chef from the Bengal Tiger restaurant, who can cook a fantastic biriani but is unable to to read or write in English. Is he literate in his native Bengali? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Week after week he attends my beginners’ class, always smiling, always courteous, slightly diffident with other, predominantly European students. They are beginners, too, but their familiarity with the Latin alphabet sets them apart. 

For Sundor each word is a struggle, even to copy. His hand seems unused to forming the shapes of letters. Moving from left to right across the page is awkward for him. He can’t keep straight – his words dip and trip higher or lower – Bengali hangs like a row of tangled socks from a washing line.

Now it’s my turn to experience a similar problem as I attempt some elegant Arabic swirls. All I manage is a hesitant scrawl like the path of an inebriated spider. Working from right to left feels like holding the pen in the wrong hand. Even forming letter shapes is beyond me. 

‘What we need,’ a fellow-sufferer suggests, ‘is one of those children’s handwriting books to practice with.’

Rhoda and I exchange glances. ‘We’ll ask the lads to get us one when they next go to Dubai.’

For several years now she and I have been teaching groups of young men – charming, with a delightful sense of fun, if sometimes exasperatingly noisy – from the United Arab Emirates. Their level of English is good, because most have been educated in bilingual schools. Our attempts to learn their language have caused an amused interest. That we’d even bother to try intrigues them, even if the only word I can remember to practice with them is the Arabic for rabbit.

But it’s the students in my beginners’ class I empathise with most. Like Shahira, a year out of Kabul and the burka, blossoming in her new white suede coat with its fluffy collar, her dark eyes made up, her lips painted crimson, bent patiently over her notebook, painfully producing short sentences of near perfection. 

Or Momo, whose pidgin learned from tourists in Tunis bears no resemblance to standard English. Or Katya, with her degree from Moscow University, (a mail-order bride, or so we suspect) married to a builder – ‘Bah! I don’t talk to him – he is so stupid!’ Or Johnny, kitchen hand from the Hot Wok takeaway, whose borrowed name is his only word of English. Their achievements, small as they are, are monumental compared with mine.

So why am I bothering? I don’t want a qualification. It’s not like French or German which once, long ago, I studied at A level as a step towards university. Or Spanish, which I learned by ear when I fell in love, not just with a person but with the very otherness of his culture.

In a way, I suppose, I’m a little bit in love with all of them. With the boys from Dubai and the au pairs from Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic, or the South Americans like Lola, who used to sing jazz and bossanova to tourists in Argentina until the Englishman who became her husband walked in one night. Each individual gives me a glimpse of a country, its customs, its alluring strangeness. And, yes, I’m a little in love with all their wonderful and exasperatingly unintelligible tongues, with the whole miracle of language, its myriad intricacies, its patterns of sounds and structures and meanings, its regularities and irregularities – the very mystery of human communication.

Is this a kind of passion? It’s not a word I’d ever connected with teaching before I discovered ESOL. My aversion to teaching, yes. My unsuitability for teaching, maybe. My past avoidance of teaching, definitely  . . . . 

I can feel a lesson on the use of prepositions coming on, I think, as my mind returns to the classroom where I sit, not as a teacher, but a learner. Maybe language really is a passion. But I’ll still be glad when half-term comes. And, no, I won’t spend it doing my Arabic homework.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might like to follow Rosie’s attempts to grapple with Greek in Fragments of a Dream.)

The immigrant, the bank clerk and the old lady

I’m at my Spanish bank, wondering which queue to join. The one for the teller, alone behind a glass screen, or the one for the gestor, who sits at a desk and deals personally with customers’ accounts? I’m not sure, so I hover between the two, trying to see which moves faster.

Yesterday, in a different part of town, a cash machine swallowed my card and I caused a bit of a scene. I’d already stood for ages in one long line, and when I was left card-less and cashless, I butted in to another and asked what I should do. I must have raised my voice, because several people, waiting patiently, swung round to look at me. 

It turned out that my card had expired. Silly me. I was told to go to my own branch to collect the new one. In England it would have been sent by post, well before the old card gave up the ghost. With blood pressure rising, and already weary from other bureaucratic nightmares, I steeled myself to accept that this was one more of those mysterious Spanish norms I hadn’t yet mastered.

So here I am today, waiting my turn and trying not to get rattled while clients in front of me deal with their transactions — mostly payment of bills which surely they could arrange by direct debit — when the silence is broken by an angry outburst. We all look up. A young man is letting rip in a torrent of broken Spanish, the gist of which seems to be that he has stood for half an hour, first in the queue for the cajero automatico, then in this one, only for the teller to say he can’t help him with whatever it was the machine wouldn’t do.

From behind his glass screen the bank employee, looking pale and frazzled, tries to explain the reasons for this problem and why he’s not authorised to deal with it, but the young man grows more and more upset, his voice louder, his gestures more expansive. The dozen or so other customers, all Spanish, standing in line or resting in comfortable armchairs, are quietly engrossed by the drama. I watch on, aware that this could so easily have been me, exploding with frustration in front of an audience. I feel relieved, restored. It’s as though the young man has taken all my pent-up exasperation and expressed it for me. I have become a detached spectator, like everyone else. 

Despite this I’m uneasy. Because the young man is black. Everyone else is white. And judging by his Spanish, which is even more riddled with errors than mine, he has learned most of it on the street. He addresses the ageing employee with the familiar tu, he calls him tio (literally uncle, colloquially dude). I cringe for the young man, knowing only too well how often my own powers of expression have cracked up in offices with regulations as absurd as anything Gulliver encountered in Lilliput. The occasional joder (f*ck) has been known to escape me. But I am retired, one of the tribe of ex-pats who help prop up this country’s economy. He is a survivor, almost certainly African. Could this turn into one of those ugly racist incidents that I’ve heard about since the Brexit referendum in England, with insults and calls to go back where you came from? 

I glance at the other patrons of the bank, middle-aged, middle-class, prosperous, wondering how they will react. So far all are calm, listening with interest but making no comment. 

The young man is not calm. He is clearly distressed. His voice rises and wavers with emotion as he accuses the teller of treating him differently. He keeps repeating: 

‘It’s because I’m black and an immigrant you don’t help me!’

At this point the woman in front of me steps towards him, tentatively, respectfully. She is old, even older than me, well-dressed, well-groomed and no doubt well-off. Gently, politely, she speaks to the young man. She explains that he is not being treated differently, that the rules are the same for her and for everyone else who comes to this bank. The clerk is only following instructions. Yes, they, the Spanish, think that the rules are ridiculous, too, but there are protocols and protocols have to be followed, and everyone has to put up with them, like them or not.

The young man is appeased. His anger begins to fade. Another employee appears, summoned by telephone, and goes with him to the machine to help with his transaction.

The woman rejoins the queue and we strike up a conversation about how hard it is for foreigners to navigate Spanish bureaucracy. I say that it often seems bizarre and illogical and she agrees.

‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I think we are like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills.’

I’m amused, it’s so true, and I nod in admiration. How deftly she’s defused the tension. But I can’t help wondering how this scene would have panned out in Brexit Britain.