A small disclaimer before you read on. This post is rather a personal one, where I follow a meandering journey into how I learned to speak English.
Christmas always means another birthday for me. This year I turned 47, which means it was forty years ago that I first arrived in the UK, not speaking a word of English. My first impressions of London were not positive. We arrived on a grey, rainy day, and promptly got stuck in a traffic jam on our way from Heathrow to the city centre. I had never experienced a traffic jam before in my life. I was not impressed.
I don’t remember much about my first few months in this country. I know we rented a flat in Primrose Hill and that I was enrolled at the French Lycée on Cromwell Road, South Kensington. Apart from a little ribbing about my Swiss accent – I would say ‘septante’ and ‘nonante’ for the numbers 70 and 90 instead of the French ‘soixante-dix’ and ‘quatre-vingt-dix’ – I settled quickly into my new school routine.
English was still a foreign, impenetrable language. My mother taught me to say ‘Sorry, I don’t speak English’ in answer to anyone who spoke to me. We made a visit to my aunt, who lived in Cheshire, though I don’t think I got on well with my cousins on that first trip, given they couldn’t speak French and I couldn’t speak English. Arabic (our mother tongue) was the bridge, but they weren’t sufficiently versed in it to break the impasse.
By the end of that first school year, I had picked up the odd few words of English, but I still found it impossible to understand when people spoke it around me. Then, there were some developments. My parents bought a house in Acton and we moved to this western suburb of London. At the time, Acton was not a particularly cosmopolitan place. It was predominantly English in character. Our house had belonged to a Mr and Mrs Green, who had spent the last few years estranged from each other but living under the same roof without exchanging a word; essential communication had been done by writing notes. In keeping with their surname, everything in the house was green, from the carpets to the avocado suite. It was more evidence to our eyes of the strangeness of these people, the English, who we were now living amongst.
We made the acquaintance of our next-door-neighbours, a friendly family with two children roughly the same age as us. Their mother was a primary school teacher, and they always seemed to have fun activities to do at home. As the summer holidays began, we naturally gravitated next door to play. And play we did, all summer long. By the end of that summer, I had learned to speak English, probably not to a high grammatical standard, but enough to get by. September came and off to school we went, a long commute by car from Acton to South Kensington. To entertain us through the various traffic jams, the radio would be switched on. Throughout that year and subsequent years, my days were book-ended by listening to Capital Radio in the back seat of the car. I spent my mornings listening to Mike Smith, with his accessible middle England accent. I remember a particular feature of the show was a slot called ‘Sniff with Smith’, in which people would send in their sad or poignant story, which Mike Smith would read out. I believe my nascent English was shaped by listening to his radio show.
Learning English, despite the initial spurt during that summer holiday, was a very gradual process. I went to a French school, and all the curriculum was in French save for two English lessons a week. It’s not very clear at which point English began to supersede French as my language of choice. I did not read much in English at first, so the transmission of it was oral. I listened to the radio, I played with my neighbours and I watched a fair amount of TV, after school shows such as Blue Peter, or ‘Sapphire and Steel’. Saturday mornings were made special with ‘Swap Shop’ and ‘Why don’t you?’ If you had asked me to write something in English, I would probably have made a poor hash of it.
As I approached my early teens, my parents started thinking about transferring me to an English school, as they did not plan for me to take the French Baccalaureate. My older sister had already moved to an English all-girls school in Hammersmith, and soon it was my turn to join her there. I started in lower 5th, the equivalent of year 10. For the first time, I would be doing all my main subjects in English, which was rather daunting. I had started reading fiction in English by that point. My first forays had involved Enid Blyton, followed by Agatha Christie. I could speak English, but viewed in retrospect, I was clearly an EAL student. However, these kinds of labels didn’t exist in those days. No special adjustments were made for me. I was expected to keep up with the rest of the class.
Of course I managed, though reading my English prose from those days is rather cringe-worthy. I soon graduated from Agatha Christie to Georgette Heyer, then on to Jean Plaidy’s historical novels, and then on to Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell. I think I developed my love of history from reading period novels. Life seemed so much more interesting in the past than my mundane, humdrum existence in the 1980s. It took a long time to develop confidence to express myself in English. For one thing, I quickly realised that I was mispronouncing words that I encountered on the page rather than in real life. For many years, I thought ‘misled’ was pronounced as ‘mysseled’. The word ‘breeches’, much encountered in my historical dramas, was pronounced as it was spelt, not as ‘britches’. Words such as ‘gauge’ or ‘scourge’ stumped me as to their correct pronunciation.
I spoke very little in class, for fear of making such silly mistakes. I did not yet have that facility in articulating my thoughts in English. Little wonder then, that I struggled to communicate and built up a wall between the real me and the public me. Unsurprisingly, English was my least favourite subject. My English teacher, Dr. Daniels, was one of those people who didn’t suffer fools gladly. She had her favourites, the girls who always contributed in class (one of them went on to produce ‘Little Britain’), while I tried to fade into the woodwork. One thing I remember clearly from those days, is that teachers were mostly sharp and critical, though obviously some were friendlier than others. I did not get the type of fulsome praise I see used in classrooms today. All the feedback I got was critique. When I received praise, it was earned, and it was meaningful.
I did not stop being an EAL student overnight. It took a very long time to make that switch in language from the French of my childhood and early schooling, and the Arabic spoken at home, to being fluent in English as I am now. It obviously had an impact on my school results. My O levels were very average. Lots of Bs and Cs (notably C in English lit), with only As in French, Spanish and Classics. I’m not sure what my teachers made of me. I suspect I made little impression on them. I finally turned the corner in my final year of school. Doing A level History was one of the factors that transformed my English. We were given long reading lists of history books, and looking at my essays, it’s noticeable how historical vocabulary and phrases gleaned from those books made their way into my work. I still didn’t talk much in class, but my written work did the talking for me. I guess an indicator of how far I’d come was when I went to an interview for a history undergraduate place at UCL. The very first question I was asked was this: ‘Your teachers speak so well of you that we’re curious to find out why you didn’t apply to Oxford or Cambridge’. Maybe I had made an impression on them after all.
Last year I was working as a teaching assistant in an inner London secondary school, and one of my duties was to support a Syrian student in year 7, who had arrived as a refugee with her family. Given my background, it was obvious to everyone that I was best suited for that job. I’m not so sure this was true. I tried my best to help this student with her English, but on reflection, it was my Arabic that improved more than her English. I quickly became a crutch for her in class. She would sit and wait for me to help her out on my little whiteboard.
This makes me wonder whether our well meaning initiatives are more of a hindrance than a help. When my family arrived in the UK, there was nobody there to translate for us or help us in any way. At school, I was treated like everyone else. Would I have done better with targeted assistance, or would it have held me back? I’m not sure. My instinct tells me that having to keep up with my classmates, having critical feedback and the same expectations as everyone else from my teachers, was the best thing for me, hard as it was at the time. I needed to be thoroughly immersed in an environment where English was spoken well, and of course, I needed to read lots and lots and lots.