How I learned Latin… and French

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Since I grew up bilingual in German and English, Latin was the first foreign language I learned. My dad taught me Latin when I was 5, using the Nature Method, a book of texts featuring a family with kids my age on up, talking about everyday life, with a brother beating up on his little sister etc. My dad read it to me just as I was becoming an avid reader myself, so I actually started reading Latin in addition to English and German. I cherished our Saturday mornings together, my weekly Latin lesson was when I had my dad all to myself. There was grammar, too, at the end of each story, and I liked being able to solve those logical puzzles, and there was poetry, which I’ve always loved. So there I was, a 5 or 6 year old, reciting Ovid’s love poems. I loved anything romantic and sensitive, so it was great.

Perhaps you’ll think “How precocious!” but it wasn’t at all. I was a totally normal little girl, with dolls and stuffed animals and a head full of dreams, and doing Latin didn’t turn me into some monster. It was just something I enjoyed. When I got Latin in 7th grade it was a cinch for me, because I’d got the basics, and it was fun to have a subject I was always good at.

Then, in 9th grade, we got French. I couldn’t get my mouth around the sounds. I didn’t hear the difference between the vowels. Several other classmates were already fluent, and I was a bit frustrated not to be able to join in the fun. Our teacher obviously adored those few fluent speakers, and I remember kind of switching off in class. The texts in our book were a total bore. Then our teacher got sick, and we had substitutes and then no teacher and then finally another teacher came who started drilling us, and I got one bad grade after the other. At the end of 11th grade I was one unhappy girl, and flunked the grade.

I was so fed up with my school and the whole situation that I went on a diet, lost 15 pounds and decided to change my life. I was 16 and making good money babysitting, so I saved up all my money and bought myself a ticket to France. Burgundy, Auvergne, Province:  I was there for two blissful months, working with French youth to restore old castles and churches. It was great living in a community with people just a little older than me. I naturally fell in love with a French boy, and finally got some useful and real phrases to say. So, to make a long story short, I came back fluent in French. Oh, incidently, I had top marks in my report card from then on. But frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. School was over for me. I knew I could learn, I knew I could make it in life. And I knew that school was simply in my way. Life happened after school.

So there. That’s probably why I became a teacher.


8 Responses

  1. Fine reading. Learning a different language is really a bit difficult but that’s life to master that is difficult. All learns that is easy but extraordinary people learn that is difficult. That is the slight difference between ordinary and extra ordinary.


  2. This is seriously inspiring. People think school is the way out so much. Like school is this magic thing that’ll get you out of your rut. You’ve proved that anyone can learn anywhere. Thanks for being so open with your story!

  3. Dreams at 5-8, when I was having Latin lessons? That’s a long, long time to summarize. Perhaps I can tell the story in the books that still have a place of honor on my bookshelf: After “Winnie the Pooh”, “Where The Wild Things Are” figured very large. I adored Rudyard Kipling’s “The Just-So Stories”. Of the fairytales, mine own was always “The Little Mermaid”. My brother Adam gave me Meg Rutherford’s “The Beautiful Island”, which gives this blog its name, when I was 8. It’s about old buildings released from their state of suffering by following the call of the birds to go to a beautiful island. Magical! The first book I bought myself from my pocket money in first grade was a beautifully illustrated book of Japanese poems, “Don’t Tell The Scarecrow”. I read the Grimms’ fairytales in German, or rather: my German mother read them to me, and after second grade I switched to the German School to get away from the bullies at my inner city school. I seem to remember that our Latin lessons dwindled then, I was outgrowing them and moving closer to my mother. She brought me the Narnia books back from her business trips to the showrooms in New York, and Narnia became my dreamland.

  4. Dear Sudam,
    I would be curious to know more about how you have learned your foreign languages, at which age, for which purpose, with which means and results. One reads that India has special challenges in language learning and teaching, but I would be interested to learn more about them from a more personal point of view, from experience… which language feels like the mother tongue and is good for expressing which kind of thing, for example. In my case, each of my languages serves a very different purpose, and I sometimes have to switch to express something.

    Dear Jessica,
    Sometimes school is the way out, a great place to be when things are rough at home or in the neighborhood. But I just think we sometimes forget that kids have a life of their own to live, and need space and respect and the freedom to find their own means of empowerment.

    Thanks for your kind comments, everyone 🙂

  5. Nice article!

    there are many thought-provoking sentences here, but this one stands out for me: “Our teacher obviously adored those few fluent speakers, and I remember kind of switching off in class.”

    I was ‘adored’ by my English, French and German teachers at grammar school – whereas the faces of the maths and science teachers fell the moment I walked into the room.

    We have to stop adoring the best students – and share our smiles and encouragement round the dorks, too.

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