Just as some parents of small children use spelling as a secret language when talking to each other in front of their kids – “Where are we going to spend C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S this year?” – my parents used to communicate above the heads of their children in their shared mother tongue of Dutch.
Mum’s and Dad’s respective families each arrived in Australia on the wave of post-war immigration that hit the country’s shores in the early fifties. Dad landed in Fremantle on his fourteenth birthday, and although he didn’t speak a word of English, it didn’t take long for him to become as proficient in his second language as he continued to be in his first.
When those two young Dutchies, my Mum and Dad, got married and had their first baby in 1963, they decided to raise her as a bilingual Dutch-Aussie child, and so happily chatted with her in both languages. Two or three years later, though, they realised that while other kids of her age were starting to speak, my sister remained pre-lingual. Fearing that they were setting her at a disadvantage (and not realising at that time that bilingual kids sometimes take longer to speak but then acquire an easy fluency in two languages), my parents abandoned their bilingual plan and spoke to their first and subsequent children only in English. And so although my eldest sister understands a bit of our parents’ mother tongue, it’s all double Dutch to the rest of us. Listening in to Mum and Dad’s conversations would have been tantamount to eavesdropping.
This, I think, was the beginning of my hopeless monolingualism.
When my eldest siblings were at the school we all attended there were no foreign languages on the curriculum, but by the time I got to secondary level a brilliant new school principal had introduced French. I took the class and managed to pass my exams, even when I got to WA’s equivalent of A-levels. But given the distance between WA and any decent-sized French-speaking community (the closest, Mauritius, is nearly 6,000 kilometres away as the crow flies), conversation practice was almost unheard of and language immersion unimaginable.
When my partner and I were living in Jerusalem I took a French class for a while, guessing, (correctly, as it turns out), that my partner’s career was bound to bring us to Geneva at some point. The teacher of that class, a Moroccan Palestinian lady, took an instant dislike to me that my fellow Australian classmate and I found hilarious. In one of the first lessons we were going around the room practicing sentences that began, Je suis… Most students were saying, Je suis grand. Not being especially grand myself, I broke the pattern by saying, Je suis blonde. The teacher, hovering over me to examine the inevitable inch of regrowth, scowled, Vraiment? Vous êtes blonde?
Undeterred, I carried on with the classes, and when the second term was set to begin I took myself back to the French Cultural Centre in East Jerusalem to re-enrol. I was so keen to get back into it, in fact, that I turned up before the centre had opened for the day, and so went to the café/bookshop next door and had a coffee at one of their al fresco tables. It was then that a young scallywag (by far the politest word I can think of), swooped down and stole my iPhone from the table in front of me. Suddenly distracted by dull jobs like filing a police report, cancelling my SIM and ordering a new phone, I forgot about my French ambitions that day, then somehow never recovered them.
During our four-month stay in Geneva last year, before we moved out into the wilds of the French countryside, I was sure that my French would never improve in the city, as every time I spoke my revoltingly rusty schoolgirl French, the locals would do their ears a favour and switch as quickly as possible to English. I thought that being in the countryside and in a less international environment than Geneva would force me to speak the language more, and I’d increase my fluency by stealth. But oh, how I underestimated the untapped levels of my own antisocial nature. Here in this lovely house in the middle of nowhere I’m now able to almost completely avoid conversation of any kind. I think I’m even forgetting how to speak English.
An old friend of mine in London used to say that I was wrong to always assume that bi/multilingual people were necessarily smarter than your average bear. I still do, though. Anyone whose brain is capable of shifting without clunky gear changes from one language to another – or even with clunky gear changes, for that matter – automatically wins my awe and adoration. I’m ashamed to say that that sentiment has historically worked in reverse too; my grandmother was about the same age as I am now when she moved her family across the world from Amsterdam to Australia, and the unremittingly poor level of her English was a source of constant amusement to us all. Sorry about that, Oma – these days I doff my chapeau at any and all of your valiant attempts to speak a new language against the wishes and wilfulness of an ageing brain.
One of my biggest practical challenges when M and I became inhabitants of the Holy Land was getting used to driving on the right-hand side of the road. Previous to our time there I’d only ever lived in countries where people have the good sense to drive on the left – thank you, Australia, Japan and Great Britain. Somehow, though, without causing death or too much mutilation, I managed to acquire the skill of driving on the right. When that started to come naturally to me, and I then did enough trips back to the UK and Australia to know that I could happily switch from one to the other, I suddenly felt like whole new areas of opportunity had been opened up to me. I could confidently steer a car around any place in the world (though I knew then and I still know now that I’ll always draw the line at Cairo).
I’m hoping it will be the same with French. One of these days all the work that I put in at home, poring over books and listening to CDs, will come pouring forth and I’ll find myself suddenly fluent. I’ll then be found driving around on the right side of France, chatting with anyone who’ll listen, feeling smug in the knowledge that I’ve become one of those clever and awe-inspiring individuals that I’ve always looked up to. In the meantime, though, Je ne parle pas encore bien le français.