Need to know: The mission - Just how easy is it to learn a foreign language - fast? Maggie O'Farrell plays `parlez' games

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Between the ages of 12 and 18, I learnt vocabulary, memorised grammar, passed exams. Eight years on, nothing remains. Or nothing useful. I can rattle off a whole paragraph in German about how I have finished all my homework and that my hobbies include shell-collecting. The only thing I can remember in French is the sentence, "Eh voila, le cheval est mort."

So my mission is to learn a language, and I apply myself with gritted determination and determined grittiness. I decide on French and impulsively order one of those courses on tapes that promises that you'll be fluent by the time you receive the parcel. I imagine myself tanned, and suddenly and mysteriously blonde, sitting in a cafe on the Left Bank reading Camus in the original.

I wait for the tapes. I rush to the empty doormat every day. Weeks pass. Francophile enthusiasm wanes. I become tempted by Spanish, then Italian, then Portuguese. I arrive home at 2am to find a parcel on the mat. I rip it open, shouting, "Sacrebleu!"

Tape one consists of a number of mad-sounding people in a very echoey studio, cooing, "Bonjour, Monsieur Martin," "Bonjour, Monsieur Jones." I open the course book at random. It says: "Allez, bonne peche! - for use when greeting someone collecting shellfish on the beach."

I tear off my headphones in disgust and fall asleep. The next day I am revitalised and ready to learn. I track down a French class and, after a deal of tedious bureaucracy where I have to sign over my first-born to the local council, I am admitted. I sit next to a woman whose name badge says "Anna". "It's pronounced `honour'," she tells me in a New York accent, pointing at her badge. "As in Your Honour?" I ask. There is a pause. She squints at me as if she can't see me properly. "Naw," she drawls, "it's Spanish."

The class opens with a conversational free-for-all where we get up and mill about speaking French, pretending we're at some Provencal cocktail party. I escape from sense-of-humour-bypass Honour and approach a man in a Wallace and Gromit tie.

He does a very good single eyebrow raise and says something to me in staccato French. "What?" I bleat. "Could you translate? I'm new." "Ah," he says, "I said: `Do you put fertiliser on your eyelashes?'" This seems the kind of question to which there is no answer. In any language. I move away quickly.

In desperation, I call a friend who is blessed with French cousins and an expensive education. He tells me that a language is best acquired by osmosis: total immersion is what I need - the linguistic equivalent of a flotation tank. This sounds rather nice so I go round to his flat. "Bon soir," he greets me.

"How're you doing?" I mumble.

"Non, non," he admonishes, "en Francais, s'il vous plait." I reply, "Hmm."

Things degenerate: he wanders round his flat delivering incomprehensible speeches. He chops his hands through the air, smacks his palm to his head, rubs his chin, seems at one point to be asking me a question. I nod sympathetically. It's like watching TV with the sound off. He could be telling me about his failed relationships and I'd never know.

"Le cheval," I venture at one point, "est mort." He realises my limitations, and turns into a vocal Marcel Marceau. "La fenetre," he says slowly and clearly, pointing with both hands at the window. "I know that," I snap.

But he carries on: "La porte, le table, le livre, une stylo, le lit, du pain."

"Shut up!" I shriek, my hands over my ears, "I don't care! I give up! Let's go out!" Monsieur Marceau slumps, exhausted, against le mur.

"All right," he says. "Let's"