One of the things that I found hardest about learning a language back in the days of being at school was the lack of practical application that I was able to make of the newfound skill. Typically, the first time that I spoke French was just after I finished studying it, too late for the enthusiasm for the language to translate into increased effort in the classroom. I studied Latin for three years at school, and French for five, culminating with a GCSE in French. In the summer of 1990, around this time of year, I had just completed the various subjects and started the long holiday between the end of the exams and the new term starting in September, with the long wait for the exam results in mid-August.
One of my contemporaries, Alan, had also finished his exams, although what he was most famous for was some of his rather tall tales. Now, it is normal, almost expected, for some at school to elaborate and make their stories sound more exciting than they actually were, but Alan’s were quite something. There was the time when he rescued people from the wreck of a train crash, or when his dad had his head bitten off by a shark, and had to temporarily reattach it with sticky tape and staples. You get the idea. We bumped into Alan one day, and he mentioned that his French pen pal was coming to visit. We thought about it. “Do you speak French, Alan?”. “No”, was the reply. “Does your French pen pal speak English, then?”. “No”. We were sceptical to say the least, and thought that the communication must be riveting.
A few weeks later, I was with two friends walking by a local park, and when we looked in to the picnic area, there was Alan with a chap that we did not recognise, making elaborate gestures at each other. Could it be…? We went to say hello. “Ah, good to see you. This is my pen pal, Sébastien. You speak French, don’t you?”. Of the three of us, I was the only one who was willing to speak any French at all. “Bonjour”, I said somewhat tentatively. “Je m’appelle Mark”… “Ah, Bonjour!”, replied Sébastien with a smile. He had that look of relief that someone spoke any French. He explained that he and Alan were having a picnic, and that Alan was explaining what everything was through the art of mime. I was quite amazed. We joined in their picnic, and then had a round on the putting course there. It transpired that Sébastien was a very pleasant and positive type, and did not seem to have the same surprise or humour that we had about the whole concept of having a pen pal where neither party could understand the language of the other. In hindsight, most French people that I have subsequently met of my age speak at least some, and normally very good English, so perhaps he actually spoke more than he let on.
I enjoyed the ability to communicate in another language, and the amount of thinking that you need to do to make yourself understood in another language, and for the first time, got that kick of excitement that said that I was able to have a conversation in a language other than my own. I actually really enjoyed it. After a few hours together, we bade farewell to Alan and Sébastien and went our own way. We never did see Sébastien again; I always did wonder what happened to him. However, it did fill me with an enthusiasm for speaking French, or for that matter, any other language, and it made me feel surprisingly more confident to try to speak it, and be more worried about being understood than about being grammatically perfect. It was that realisation of the difference between speaking a language for a need to communicate, and speaking a language to pass an exam. Ever since, I have been quite happy to try a language, even if I know only a few words, which has itself caused some interesting incidents.
It also, though, made me think about some of Alan’s other stories. Perhaps he is less of a story teller and rather just has an interesting life. I never have found out, though, if his dad did actually have a close encounter with a shark…