By Charlotte Barrett
When I was thirteen, I decided I wanted to speak English, properly, without an accent. I was a good student and I had very good grades but with my two years of learning English, I was far from being bilingual.
At the time, we did not have access to the internet and all its wonderful resources, therefore, my sole strategy was to read in English. I had noticed that when I read in my language, I widely extended my vocabulary and my ability to speak my own language so I figured if I read in English, the same would happen. I went to a fancy bookshop and I bought Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I had read it, I had seen the film so I guessed by knowing the plot, it would be easier. I remember circling all the words I did not know and looking them up but very quickly getting extremely bored with it, seeing half of the page was circled. So, I changed strategy and I just read through, ignoring the words I did not know and quickly realised I could still understand, at least roughly, what I was reading.
Then I bought a CD attached to a learning English magazine in which they offered pronunciation exercises. One of them was to light up a lighter and blowing it off by pronouncing words starting with the letter ‘h’. It wasn’t going great.
In my teenage years, Netflix was not yet a thing and if one wanted to watch a series, there were two options: never miss an episode airing on TV and waiting for the following week to see the next episode or buy the DVD box sets. One Christmas, I got the DVD box set of One Tree Hill*, for the first time, I could watch it in English. Apart from being stunned at what the actors actually sounded like, I would pause and repeat the sentences I liked and create dialogues in my own head. I spent that Christmas break living in Tree Hill, talking some rubbish teenage drama American English.
Eventually, by chance, a friend of mine told me about an International High School by the sea. She said people in that school were bilingual and half of the classes were in English. I applied and after a long day of tests, I got in. In my first trimester in the school, I really did not understand how and why I got in. The class was made up, for a good two third, of students who had an English-speaking parent or had lived in an anglophone country. My approximate One Tree Hill English was not up to the task.
However, I was blessed with my encounter with Mrs Blasco. She is the one who had decided to take me into the school and she did not let go of me. The first few months of my first year were horrible. I struggled. Really struggled. Mrs Blasco asked me to watch a film a week and to write a review of it, of at least 2 to 4 pages that she wanted on her desk every Monday. She had a collection of DVDs, mostly BBC adaptation of literature classics. Every Wednesday she would hand me back my review, covered in red, with a discouraging grade on it. She told me I should take as much time correcting it that I did writing it. She would certainly put in the effort. The margins were covered with rules or advises: look up the difference between this and that; check the tense; in English, we use hyphens… As much as I wanted to throw those reviews in the bin, I pulled myself together and I would spend hours correcting my reviews, looking up the rules that structure English. I discovered the world of Grammar and everything cleared up. I felt a bit cheated that all those rules existed, but no one had ever shared them with me. I had spent a good couple of months writing in my reviews things such as ‘he’s gonna think’ or ‘that ain’t good’ (remember, the One Tree Hill English?) until I realised it was not the way it should be. Most sentences were blurry in my mind, I could understand the meaning but I could not understand why my way of speaking (and mostly writing) the language was incorrect. Really, it was just a question of knowing the rules. I had played the game without knowing how to play so, evidently, I was frequently offside.
It is a bit difficult to explain but suddenly, when I read English, I was not just seeing words in a row that I focused on understanding one by one, but I could see a structure, words coexisting with one another, making sense together. I stopped focusing on the details and saw the bigger picture. I could clearly identify which words were verbs, which were connecting words, adjectives and because I knew their function in the sentence, even if I did not know what they meant, I could roughly understand the meaning. From that moment onwards, English became so fun. A never-ending well of creativity and exploration.
I started consuming English on a daily-basis; I would read, I would watch and I would start writing in English, just for me, playing with the words. Then, I won’t lie, I worked my arse off. With Mrs Blasco encouragements, I studied extremely hard. She was my English literature teacher and she had a way of making anyone fall in love with literature. We could spend 4 hours on a single page from Mrs Dalloway, weighing in every single word, every construction of sentence, any possible meaning. I would continue alone at night, I would read over the pages, covering the books with my personal annotations and, without realising it, becoming perfectly fluent in English.
I scored extremely high at all my English subjects finals, particularly in English literature. When Mrs Blasco received our grades, she sent me an email that read:
‘I have never had a non anglophone student that scored as high as you did. Then again, I have never had a student as brave as you are. Everybody thinks it takes hard work to learn a language when mainly, it takes courage.’
*One Tree Hill is an American teenage drama that aired in the early 2000. It centres around the rivalry of two half-brothers who play High school basket-ball and their group of friends in a town called Tree Hill.
DISCLAIMER: The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.