‘You should give lessons,’ a friend said to me, years ago now. ‘After all, you can speak perfect English.’
I reckoned it was a good idea. Here in sunny Switzerland there are lots of people who want to learn English. So I did the appropriate courses and emerged a while later as an English Language Course Instructor. And that was when my problems started.
Very soon I realised that firstly, people don’t like being corrected, and secondly, there is absolutely nothing logical about the English language. Take spelling, for instance. A typical evening class often went something like this…
I often eat apples, but I never eat pairs, Heidi wrote one Thursday.
Gently, I pointed out that we eat pears.
‘Ach!’ she exclaimed. ‘But it is stairs, chairs and hairs. Why not pairs???’
I tried to explain that pairs exist too, but only pears are edible.
‘Ey ey ey!’ she cried. ‘Pairs – pears – eat – and why isn’t it ait, then???’
The past tense was several chapters on in the book… I really didn’t want to start a lesson on the difference between ‘eat’, ‘ate’ and ‘ait’.
Klaus was having problems too. What kind of food doo yoo like? he wrote in his exercise book.
I took a deep breath. ‘Um – it’s ‘do’, actually, Klaus. And ‘you’.’
He glared at me. ‘Two o’s are ooooo,’ he protested. ‘Look – food – wood – book!!!’
And of course, he was absolutely right. I opened my mouth to explain, but he wasn’t finished yet.
‘And so – no – go – yo-yo!!’ he cried, waving his pencil in the air. ‘Why is it ‘do’?????’
Maria joined in. ‘And out – and pound – and found – and YOU??????’
Heidi was pulling at my sleeve. ‘Doo I poot the biscuits on the plait or on the pleat?’ she demanded, thrusting her book under my nose.
‘On the plate, actually,’ I said, smiling bravely, and she flung her arms in the air.
‘Pair – pear – plate.’ She gave me a very suspicious look and sat down again, muttering something to her neighbour. They both nodded indignantly. Obviously, I wasn’t being persuasive enough here.
Meanwhile, Christian was scribbling away.
Sunday lunch is deer to my mother’s hart, he wrote, and beamed at me. ‘OK, yes?’
‘Two tiny mistakes,’ I said nervously. ‘It’s ‘dear’ and ‘heart’.’
Complete silence fell in the classroom at this announcement.
‘Dear’ and ‘heart’, said Christian slowly. ‘But…’
He subsided, muttering ‘ear – air – eer – are’ to Maria, who patted his shoulder in silent sympathy.
Klaus took up cudgels again. ‘You have start and tart and part and cart,’ he said, jabbing his pencil in the direction of my nervously churning middle. ‘Why doo yoo not have hart??????’
I swallowed. Why, oh why had I ever started this? I should have been content with merely speaking ‘perfect’ English. Nobody could ever teach such an impossible language.
The whole class was looking at me expectantly.
‘I don’t know,’ I whispered, and suddenly they were all laughing.
‘But I doo no – I mean I do know how difficult it is,’ I said, trying to sound encouraging.
‘Yoo are sew write,’ Klaus said happily. ‘I think wee’ll all bee DEED beefore wee can speek good English!’
Oh well. It was nice to hear some good Scots words again – but I didn’t go into that!