27 JANUARY 2001, Page 70

Learning difficulties

Jeremy Clarke

The Spanish teacher was a quarter of an hour late for the first evening class of the new term. The course was over-subscribed. Elbow room was limited. We sat in embarrassed silence wondering if anyone was going to come to teach us. Then this small, dark, wet woman rushed in pulling off her coat. She seemed taken aback to see so many of us. Deep vertical lines cut into her cheeks as if she had either been very ill or her life had been hard and traumatic.

She was soaked in petrol, she said. A strong gust of wind had blown it over her as she was filling up her car. She'd been trying to sponge it off her clothes. That was why she was late. Her name was Francesca, by the way. She came from Columbia.

`flola,' she said. She wrote %cola' on the blackboard and invited us to repeat it in unison. The lady next to me pronounced it languidly as 'Hoe Lah.'

Then Francesca remembered something. Before she went any further, she said, safety regulations dictated that she showed us the way to the nearest fire-escape. So, if we would all like to follow her for a moment. We stood up and she led us through a door at the far end of the classroom and into a large stationery cupboard. I was one of those in the van who blindly followed her right in to the cupboard. It was dark in there and there was a strong smell of petrol. 'That's funny,' she said, 'they must have altered the building.'

We returned to our desks. The visit to the fire-escape was postponed. Francesca went around the class asking us our names and what we hoped to get out of the course. Some said they were learning Span

ish for 'something to do'; others said they regularly went on holiday to Spain and thought it was about time they made a serious effort to speak the language. A couple wearing identical fleeces were thinking of opening a bar on the Costa Blanca. I said I was learning it in order to be able to read the articles in the Spanish magazine Toros. A man in a check sports jacket who had been under the impression that we were the Intermediate French class apologised and left.

To break the ice, Francesca got us to introduce ourselves to each other in Spanish. I had to say 'Como te llamas?' (What's your name, then?) to Beth, a mobile caterer. And Beth was supposed to reply, `Me Ilamo Beth'. (My name is Beth.) And then we'd swap over. Unfortunately, this wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. When we broke for a ten-minute coffee break, I was frustrated by my inability to get even this elementary phrase right. That old sense of helplessness at my inability to absorb foreign words was coming back.

The last language I tried to learn was Swahili. I stuck doggedly at it for three years, even going to school on Zanzibar for three months in the second year, but I was never any good at it. I couldn't even do the greetings without saying 'banjo!' instead of 'jambe When I told them I'd been learning their language fairly intensively at London University for two years, my Zanzibari friends were incredulous to begin with, then derisive. Mwalimu they used to call me, which means teacher or professor. On Zanzibar I was so utterly demoralised about my inability to remember elementary vocabulary I remember weeping with anger and frustration. I haven't been back to East Africa since, but I try to keep my hand in a bit by translating a Swahili New Testament into English now and then when I'm on the lavatory. (For anyone who might be interested, the Swahili word for God is Mungu.)

After Swahili with its 18 noun classes, I thought Spanish would be a doddle. But I was forgetting that learning a language, any language, is simply a tremendous feat of memory. And unless yours is photographic, the rules of grammar and (say) 1,500 words of vocabulary have to be hammered into the brain until they stick. And it takes a certain amount of courage initially too: courage to open your gob and perhaps make a fool of yourself in front of people. For some this is the hardest part of all.

There were a dozen or so 'people with learning difficulties' clustered around the vending machine downstairs. As a person with learning difficulties myself, therefore, I was able to join them on terms of perfect equality. They were a jovial crowd. When I asked them what they were studying, they just laughed. When I told them what I was studying they laughed again. I'd forgotten their names by the time we met again at the vending machine during our coffee break the following week. They all remembered mine, though.