As a child from the first moment I discovered English wasn’t the only language in the world I was hooked. The trouble was, no one in my family spoke anything other than English. Aside from the odd please and thank you in barely remembered French or German from school, I was generally starved of this mysterious world. When people spoke in other languages on television I would be glued to the screen and the odd word I learned felt so exotic. I still remember babbling away in a made-up language to try and impress people (yes I was perhaps an attention seeking child!) and to this day when I can’t find the lyrics to a song that I’m writing, I will sing in this same incomprehensible language until I find some real words.
Unfortunately when it came to school, life conspired against me. We moved several times as a child and therefore I went to 7 different schools before the age of 16. During one of these changeovers‚ I left one school that hadn’t started studying French to another where the pupils had been learning for almost a year. I still recall the horror of sitting in the first class not understanding a thing anyone said and wondering why the teacher addressed me as Isabelle when that wasn’t my name!
I was a shy pupil and therefore didn’t like asking questions. The school thought I was slow at languages despite being a fast learner in other areas. I stumbled through a year of classes and then for a short time I had one to one lessons to try and build up my basic knowledge. My teacher was patient and methodical and I started to comprehend the basics of verb conjugations. However the lessons were expensive and after a few weeks had to stop.
Once again I floundered. I also began to notice that despite the fact I really wanted to learn a language I didn’t feel particularly drawn to French. No disrespect to France at all but I just had a sense that this wasn’t my language. During the language lab lessons where we were supposed to écoutez et répétez (listen and repeat), I stayed absolutely silent – to the endless frustration of my teacher.
The year before O’ levels began we also started German. Now I was really lost! My school report said “her attitude to the German language is something to be desired!”. Poor Mr. Lewis. I don’t think he ever realised what the real problem was. Either I understood the question but didn’t know how to reply or I just didn’t understand the question!
By this point my confidence was at an all time low and as soon as I could I dropped languages at school altogether‚ yet at the same time I felt like I was missing something. I had discovered my great-great grandmother was Romany and found a children’s story in the library about a gypsy girl. On the last page were a few words and phrases in Romany. These I silently learned by myself.
In the meantime, on UK television Channel 4 was launched (yes I am old enough to remember that!) and it began with a Japanese season. I flirted with the idea of learning Japanese but soon dropped it.
A holiday is Spain renewed my passion for languages a couple of years later. By this time I was old enough to take a beginners evening course. Suddenly I found myself with people at the same level of me (complete beginner!) and I didn’t feel shy anymore. The course was a 12 week basic introduction learning typical holiday phrases and hello and goodbye and I loved it. Spanish felt more right but I knew deep down it wasn’t exactly right. To this day though I can still recite a short Spanish poem I learned on the course. But again, whilst Spanish was the closest I had come so far to finding my language something still didn’t sit right with me. It was close but not close enough.
College years came and went. I studied English as linguistics was part of the course. I have always loved to write and I found learning the roots and structure of my own language fascinating. Foreign language went on the backburner as I wrestled with Shakespeare and Chaucer – a foreign language in themselves. During these years however, I became fascinated with Irish and Ireland. I felt some connection to the place and the people. After leaving college I found myself with close friends from Ireland and was able to indulge in learning more about the country and its myths and legends. I began to take a course in Gaelic but the teacher (bless her) was a wonderful person but a terrible teacher. I think it took about 5 weeks for everyone to leave. Whilst learning Irish was reduced to simply learning Clannad lyrics, my love of the country never died. I remember taking the boat there and have a sense of coming home. Perhaps it was due to having Irish in my blood, perhaps more…
I’ve since heard that the Portuguese have an affinity with Irish and it came as no surprise to learn that for the Irish their closest cousins in genetic terms are the Portuguese. Perhaps it was this that drew me.
I have to admit that the day I first heard Portuguese I didn’t actually know where Portugal was! I didn’t recognise the language at all but it was music to my ears. It sounded Spanish one moment, Russian the next. It felt familiar and strange all at once. I had the oddest sensation that this was a language I could already speak yet I didn’t know word of it. The strangest thing is that in some ways it sounds similar to that ‘made-up’ language I began speaking as a child.
And then of course came the beautiful Portuguese soul who became the love of my life and so the journey continues.
He used to say to me that he felt like he could talk to me in Portugeuse. Sometimes he would forget and do so and some part of me would understand. Little by little I could hear words. I dreamed I was speaking fluently in Portuguese as though some part of me had done so in another time, in another place. I still have these dreams.
But that’s a story for another day.