Bilingual kid

England, 1980s.

The French teacher has just set fire to my homework. This is no accidental blaze. For any spelling test falling below the mark, Mrs Grey whips a box of matches out of her handbag. The exercise book is covered in Snoopy wrapping paper for the new term and now Woodstock’s nose has started to singe. We watch as she propels the book through an open window like a grenade on the battlefield, once a good flame has taken hold. The other teachers are too busy firefighting their oversized classes to take any notice. Unsurprisingly, her act does little to deter a group of twelve-year olds.

‘Do you reckon she’ll do mine if I misspell Je m’appelle as well?’ mutters one of my classmates.

If protocols were being followed properly, I shouldn’t be studying French. My grades in German aren’t good enough for promotion to the second language set, but languages are in my blood right? The rest of my family prattle away in German and Dutch as well as French and English. I struggle to keep up.

She must learn grammar and vocabulary thoroughly [or Snoopy gets it],’ instructs Mrs Grey in her end of year report.

The problem isn’t an inability to learn languages. By the age of four, I was as fluent in Dutch as English. I learnt to speak playing out with the other neighbourhood kids. Within months of relocating back to England, it was as if this part of me no longer existed. After disembarking at Harwich and realising we were here for good, I just refused to utter another word.

It is now decades since I learnt to count Een, Twee, Drie at a Dutch kindergarten. Yet I still instinctively know how to reach that guttural sound to pronounce stroopwafels (or ‘syrup waffles’ if you buy the imposters in Starbucks). The Netherlands has been a scrap of faded blanket all my life, something I carry everywhere. I may be the only person who buys the salty liquorish (dropjes) on the top shelf of the Hema store in London’s Euston station. I stalk Dutch tourists on holiday, just to hear them speak. The language is gezelling – comforting. Its throaty rasp is a reminder of that part of me, which will always be more than apologising or not saying what we really mean.