Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Sorry, my head is full

"How is education supposed to make me feel smarter?", Homer Simpson once opined, adding: "Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain."

If only I had his problem: thanks to obscure prog rock lyrics from the early 70s, trivia about Glen A. Larson productions from the mid-70s, and even more song lyrics from the New Wave of the late 70s, my head is full.

You can try pushing new stuff in, but the old stuff won't budge. My 43-year-old noggin needs decluttering. That seems to be the only reason why, in taking French lessons currently, precious little seems to stick.

It's been 30 years since I last sat in a French class, learning such useful phrases as: "Nikki le singe est dans l'arbre". As Eddie Izzard brilliantly observed, that is not too helpful when you first arrive in Paris as there are precious few monkeys up trees to point out. In fact so far, I've seen none.

Strangely, some of that O-level tuition did get lodged in the deep recesses of my nut. I can confidently order an ice cream, even ask politely for a beer in French. Probably, all essentials are covered with those two requests alone.

So here I am, for three hours each week, wearing the dunce's hat because I'm failing to remember how to  conjugate a verb we went over three weeks ago...or last week...or ten minutes earlier. It's not that I don't want to try: nothing would give me more pleasure than to be able to converse freely in another toungue. I used to think it was the height of erudition: what could be more impressive than James Bond describing exactly how he - and the lady - wanted his filet mignon prepared in any one of a number of languages?

I have dutifully attempted the lingo wherever I've travelled, but this has amounted to nothing more than bad Berlitz versions of ordering a sandwich in German, or requesting a table by the window in Spanish (and wondering why a toasted shoe has turned up in Berlin, and a wine glass and two Nurofen in Madrid). My Italian is, apparently, even worse, sounding closer to an Olive Garden menu being read out by a Midwestern farm boy than anyone genuinely from the Roman peninsular.

For nine of the last eleven years I have lived in the Netherlands. Where they speak Dutch. Given that the Dutch only have to look at a guidebook on a foreign country before they're fluent in its mother voice, my command of het nederlands taal has been woeful.

I can blame the fact that I spent five days of the week in an English-speaking business environment; I can claim that Dutch TV was crap and I watched, mostly, the BBC; I can argue that this nation of polymaths would simply give up listening to my awful attempts at their language and revert to English (arguing, somewhat patronisingly, that "yours is the more popular language, so we should speak English, rather than you speaking Dutch"). The bottom line is that the Dutch language just doesn't sound as poetic or as romantic as Italian, Spanish or French. Still, I should have learnt it; it wasn't about speaking it for effect - it should have been about learning it to communicate.

Now I find myself living in Paris, I know that I must learn French. Why? Because as Steve Martin famously warned: "If you go to Paris, France, 'Chapeau' means 'hat', and 'oeuf' means 'egg'. It's like those French have a different word for everything!".

Almost a month into my course, I'm wondering whether my brain has been progressively and poorly rewired over the years. I'm even seriously contemplating the possibility that mice have simply found their way in and chewed through the wiring. Whether it's stress, tiredness, laziness, or that you really can't teach an old dog new tricks, these twice-weekly, post-work lessons are making no progress whatsoever. What I can say, I can say. What I might want to say seems unattainable.

I'm frustrated by a glass ceiling of sorts: I see children of four learning new languages in a matter of months, their sponge-like brains soaking it up; I'm surrounded by non-native English speakers who are fluent in a variety of tongues, and yet by virtue of the fact I was born to speak what appears to be the closest the planet has to a common language, I feel cursed by ignorance and the inability to add to it fluently.

Technology hasn't helped: we're becoming congenitally lazy thanks to the Internet, and I'm as guilty of that as anyone. Need a fact? Wikipedia will have it. Confronted by another language? Whack it through Google Translate.

Perhaps my only hope is that, now we're in the 21st century, science fiction will become science fact: someone must be out there working on a real version of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy's Babel Fish, or BIG RAT from Gerry Anderson's Joe 90. If they are, it will probably be Google.

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