Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Learning English

on May 22, 2015

The first evening after our arrival, the embassy held a reception to welcome us. We got to meet all the diplomatic families, who were only a handful, as well as the local staff. One of them tried being sociable and asked me what grade I would be studying.

Ah, what grade? My mind raced through all the possible answers. In Taiwan, I would be entering the second year of Senior High School, which corresponded to the Premiere in France. I knew that this level was called 11th Grade in America, but what system did they use in Great Britain? And did this school, the CMS, use the British grade system or the Jordanian one? And what was the Jordanian one anyway?


While I pondered these questions, I remained quiet. The Jordanian guest turned around and asked the closest Chinese adult, “Does she not speak English at all?”

People who have never learned a foreign language and have never been thrown into the sea, sorry, into a native speaking environment, do not understand how many obstacles and unseen barriers there are in there!

Going to school was equally fraught with submerged coral reefs. My English teacher was Scottish. And that was when I learned that the Scots rrrroll their R’s! It took me a couple of weeks to start understanding what she was saying in class.  The students spoke more understandable English, except for the two who were also foreigners: an American girl of French origin named Marguerite and a Pakistani girl named Um Kulsum.

Marguerite spoke American English, which matched the language spoken in all those American movies and TV sitcoms we watched, but she did not understand many of the words I said.  I had learned phonetics in France, and had been taught about the short I and the long I. In French, this means you pronounce the “ee”  sound a bit longer or a bit shorter. I had not realized that the short I is pronounced differently and closer to an “ay” sound than an “ee” sound. So Marguerite was very puzzled when I talked about “peekels”:  “You know, what is called “cornichons” in French… —  Ah! you mean Pickles!”  Or when I had to describe what ships were: “Oh, you mean SHIPS! Not sheep! — That’s what I said, sheeps!”

sheep or ship

Um Kulsum was the first to approach me. She was absolutely overjoyed to find other foreign students this year in her class as she had been the lone one the previous year. Unfortunately, I could not understand her accent for the first few weeks. Today, I can see that her accent was very light compared to that of many Indians and Pakistanis I have met over the course of the years. But at the time, when I could only understand slowly spoken perfectly pronounced English, it was disastrous. Here she was, trying eagerly to convey all sorts of information to me, and all I could do was open my eyes as big as possible (perhaps because it made me feel that opened my ears too… ), and give myself the air of a deer caught in headlights.

Writing was an easier task. After all, English is quite close to French.  I can see many of you, readers, shaking your head and saying no. But remember that my other two languages were Arabic and Chinese. None of those were closer to English. And since most of my English learning was traditional, meaning that they were based on written grammar and vocabulary, and since I had always been excellent at writing, learning to write in English was a total pleasure.

I tried to duplicate my feats from the French schools, but the teacher never did read anyone’s essays in class. She did, however, often circle in red the French words that inserted themselves against my willpower into my compositions. The most common culprit was the word “et”, meaning “and”, which would pop up almost every other line. Other longer words were often in my own Anglicized spelling of a French word. If  a French “acteur” became an English  “actor”, then it follows that a French “professeur” should become an English “professor”.  Many of the words ending in “-tion” were spelled the same way in both languages, and the words ending in “-ment” changed their suffix to “-ly”.  However, the rule did not always work, and I would produce very ridiculous English words now and then. Aha, I thought, “intelligemment” becomes “intelligelly” (intelligently).

english vs french

Although the teacher was usually right, I remember one particular word where finally, I managed to be right. Well, almost. I wrote something occurring “after a laps of time…” and the teacher circled “laps” and commented in red: no such word. I did look it up some years later and found that it should have been spelled “lapse”, and that derivatives exist in English such as “so much time has elapsed.”

Just as they did in France, the teacher assigned us essays on a variety of topics. I tried hard to elicit some kind of response from her about my great writing skills. I overdid myself in descriptions of immense skies and rolling plains, I desperately invented vivid horror scenes — in one case involving the gigantic shadow of a witch on a centuries-old wall that would bleed when stabbed — but all to no avail. British phlegm prevailed.

Literature was a bit of a challenge at first. But once I got over the Shakespearean terms for Twelfth Night and the nineteenth century long-winded sentence structure of Northanger Abbey, I started enjoying reading them. Here, I must insert some comments on the teaching of literature in high school. In the US, many teachers simply assign books to students and then discuss them or receive written reports about the books. This allows them to “read” as many as 8 books a year. The truth is that most students are quite unable to read even a single chapter, and rely on their Cliffs’ Notes or Sparks Notes to understand the content. In the British (and French) system, the teacher actually reads these books. Out loud. We read in turn too, and on the spot, as they appeared, we discussed word nuances, implications,  foreshadowing,  ironic twists, and so on.

All in all, my English did improve fast, and I managed to win the British Council English Award at the end of the year for best writing, an English dictionary of modern phrases.


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