Although I was very excited about learning French when I was in the second form at Hillbrow (aged 8/9), my enthusiasm soon waned when I encountered the usual over-grammatical approach of those days, and by the time I reached GCE O level at Shrewsbury it was not my priority, and I failed.
I felt, however, that I’d missed something by not learning languages. In my last year at Shrewsbury we had studied poems by Baudelaire, and this had given me a feel for French. So some time after I got back from Germany in 1968 I not only studied German at evening classes in Watford, but also French, and in both languages I passed O level with A grades.
But living in Paris (see Episode 16) in 1975-76 was my opportunity to become really fluent, and I remember the Spanish director of a company to whom I taught English saying: ‘I wish I could master English the way you’ve mastered French.’ I enrolled at the Sorbonne in their diploma Cours de langue et civilisation francaise. Unfortunately I was too busy with other things to get the diploma, but I was awarded the certificate. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed attending the wonderfully crafted lectures on French culture and history.
Of course I didn’t remain as fluent once I left France, but I don’t think you ever lose a language, just as you never really forget how to ride a bicycle. When the need arises I find it soon comes back.