It’s unpleasant to feel a language slipping from one’s grasp. There was a time when I was a confident French speaker. I was taught it very well at an early age by an inspired teacher who showed us large pictures of village life in France and got us to imitate her speaking about what we saw before we ever wrote a word. We learnt the sound of the language before we learnt its meaning. Helped by a musical ear, I took to it like a duck to – well, quacking.
I stopped studying French early on in secondary school but the foundations had been solidly laid. When I married a bilingual wife, twenty years later, and found myself spending more time in France, it came back quickly and I was thrilled to have the chance finally to put it to good use.
But last weekend in Corsica I was tongue-tied. On arrival we were plunged straight into conversation with our fellow guests, most of whom were French and also staying in the hotel. Immediately I was struggling for vocabulary, syntax, idiom where once I would have dived in and prattled away happily; and it didn’t get any better as the weekend progressed.
I could claim that a long and tiring journey, preoccupation with work, the small talk, the straining to listen and follow in noisy surroundings, made it particularly challenging. But the fact is that I simply don’t speak French often enough any longer, and I’m getting to the point where I will lose it if I don’t find a way to keep using it.
The wedding, indeed the whole weekend, was wonderful. The ceremony was moving. The place, halfway up the west coast of Corsica among plunging red cliffs, was spectacular, and our hosts’ generosity was abundant. (The confiscated sgean dhu has since made it home, what’s more.)
But the thought that I’m starting to lose a language seems like the loss of a vocal chord. It left me feeling depressed, also wondering how much of a priority I can afford to make of maintaining it. Is a second language that I use infrequently really that important or is it just a matter of personal pride?
As chance would have it, while I was struggling with one, I was also being challenged and delighted by another. (Actually, I don’t believe in chance. Either there’s some unseen purpose to everything, an orchestrating hand, or we notice connections and choose to make something of them. I tend towards the latter view.) Anyway, if you have the slightest interest in how language works and you’ve never read Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, get it immediately.
A bleak but mesmerising vision of a post-nuclear England, it’s The Road with knockabout jokes by Punch and Judy and a made-up version of English which is part punning, part phonetic and owes more to the tradition of oral storytelling than anything written. It’s breathtakingly clever, funny and convincing and I’m enjoying the book every bit as much for Riddley’s speech as I am for the extraordinary story.
Language is a living thing, and the more inventive we are with it the more alive it becomes. I may be losing my French but I need to remember this when it comes to the language with which I earn my living, English.