I do some kidding in this column, mostly by way of a quirky, welcoming intro, but this time I don’t need to do any of that but just hand over to CAROL STAPLES, a former colleague at the Merc under Roger Norman’s regime in Deptford High Street. Carol, basically, was chief reporter and different class…
My son Henry, 28, had got a job with the British Council to teach English in Barcelona and he’d decided to learn Spanish. He took it very seriously and every now and again, he’d point to a Spanish word or phrase and ask if I could translate it.
Surprisingly, I got one or two of them right so Henry suggested: ‘Why don’t you learn Spanish, Mum?’ The next thing was he’d found me a one-year Beginners’ Course on Friday mornings at the Grove Park Adult Education Centre, not far from our home in Mottingham. And before I knew it, I was sat in a class full of other hopefuls at the start of a new chapter.
That was September 2017. Two years earlier I’d retired and for the first time in a long time had the freedom to do exactly what I wanted. So I swam a lot, went on long country walks, met friends for coffee or lunch, had lovely breaks away with my husband Derek, but never in a million years did I ever consider learning a language.
At school, I’d studied French and Latin at GCSE, the latter being taught by Irish-born Miss Prendeville, a tall, gangly, beady-eyed woman with wild blonde hair who used to lick the chalk off her fingers when we read Dido and Aeneas.
But while I slaved over the classics, all my mates were in the other group learning Spanish so I asked Miss Prendeville if I could leave her class to join them.
‘Don’t be silly, you’ll stay where you are and you’ll get an A grade’, she snapped, sending me back to my desk with a flea in my ear.
Well, she was almost right. I missed an A by only a couple of points and as life moved forward, all thoughts of learning Spanish disappeared.
‘It’s a workout for the brain’
My first class felt a bit like my first day at school. Let’s face it, it’s not easy going back to learning when it’s been decades since you sat in a classroom.
Feeling slightly nervous, I looked round at the assortment of SE Londoners sat at their desks and probably feeling a bit like me. We were a mixed bunch, male, female, all ages, different backgrounds and abilities but all connected. As an ice-breaker, Carmen our teacher asked each of us why we wanted to learn Spanish. One student said she had a holiday home in Spain, two had Spanish partners and one was a retired lecturer who was going to Cuba for a big family do and wanted to be able to speak a little of the language while he was out there.
Different reasons but one shared goal.
As the year went on, I discovered a real enjoyment of Spanish.
It’s not just that it’s a language of economy (where we use a lot of words to express something, in Spanish you use half the number), it’s also that to me the words sound romantic, poetic even, though I struggle to convey that in my broad south London accent.
On the practical side, I’ve read that learning a language boosts mental agility – basically, it’s a workout for the brain. And on a personal level too, when you’re in a class with other like-minded people, it fosters a sense of belonging. It’s a feeling that we’re all sharing the same aim and perhaps in our own way creating a small community of our own.
My husband Derek and I visited Henry in Barcelona (yes, I know English is widely spoken out there) but I got such a buzz from ordering coffee and asking directions in Spanish (“hay un hotel por aqui?” – “is there a hotel around here?”).
In my own small way, I was breaking down barriers and isn’t that what speaking another language is all about?
Thank you Carmen, my beginners’ teacher!
Most of the world speaks English so the least we can do is to try and meet them half-way.
I completed the Beginners’ Course last summer and started the Intermediate Spanish Course that September. Now I’m just two weeks off completion.
What’s nice is we start every lesson by giving a round-up of our week – in Spanish of course. To be able to understand what the other students are saying (most of the time) is just the best feeling in the world.
Thank you Giusy, our intermediate teacher!
‘I’ll continue learning’
This September, I’ll be enrolling on another course – I’m still deciding at which level but I will continue learning for the foreseeable future.
What’s really great is that you don’t sit exams or tests on any of the courses so learning doesn’t become a chore and is something you do for the pleasure of it.
As our Intermediate Spanish teacher Giusy Frate. who started with Lewisham borough in 2007, says: “I don’t like to teach just to award certificates at the end of the year.
“You may not get a certificate here but what you will get is a good knowledge of Spanish. I want people who can’t speak the language to be able to work out something in Spanish without thinking about a certificate.
“The teaching here is quality and we have a supportive management. We all work together to do things properly and we all want to achieve as a community. That is why I’m here.
“There is a real sense of doing something positive for our students who are all sorts of different people who come here for various reasons. Some want to learn Spanish to change their career, some want to travel and others who come for their own pleasure. We want to support them all”.
Prospective students should call enquiries on 020 8314 3300 or the enrolment line on 020 8314 6959. Concessions should register in person at one of the Lewisham Adult Education Centres. For equivalents in Greenwich, search the Greenwich Learns website.
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