Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Elisabeth Smith, a writer of best-selling teach-yourself language books

'In Rome I fell in love with Italian'
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The Independent Online

Elisabeth Smith is a leading author of language instruction books, which include One-Day German World Cup Language Pack, One-Day Spanish - the DVD and the Teach Yourself Instant language book-plus-CD series recently given away with The Independent.

I went to school in a Hitler Youth jacket. I was born in Hamburg and when my father came back from the prison-of-war camp in France, he became the headmaster of Gross Borstel, a lovely school. For us, it was a matter not so much of poverty as of slender means. My mother, being a practical person, got hold of a Nazi jacket; she dyed it blue, but the teacher said: "You're wearing a Hitler Youth jacket!" I was six and totally ignorant of all this.

My father was an amazing, creative, inventive person and his classes were great fun. We had a huge garden and he created a little patch of ground for each student with a little house. At 12, I went to a very new co-ed school in Hamburg; I enjoyed it. (My sister, on the other hand, went to an all-girls' school; she didn't enjoy it. She became a bit of a nun, a swot.)

At 16 you could leave or go on the track to university: you chose to lean more to science or to the arts. There were 46 in my first class and when we finished there were 10 of us, five boys and five girls. I was the only girl who did well enough to be exempted from having to go through the oral on every subject. What spurred me on were a couple of things. My best friend was the prettiest girl in the class. At one stage she wanted to be an air hostess but said to me: "No, no, you can't be one - you have to be pretty." The effect was that I decided to be somebody by achieving in some other way. I became a prefect and showed some sort of disposition for leadership.

Also, my parents won a lottery, a win great enough for my sister and me, at the age of 17, to go to Rome for 10 days. That did something for my life. I fell in love, not with a boy but with being in Rome, the atmosphere and the language. Back in Hamburg, I went on an Italian language course in my spare time and later went to be an au pair in a lawyer's family in Rome.

When I came back I started at Hamburg University. I wanted to be a teacher of English and studied English language, English literature and history, and, as subsidiary subjects, philosophy and education. Did I enjoy it? No, strangely, not that much. The very loose structure was a shock. You can lose yourself. There was very little guidance. It was not the happiest time, but in my second year I met my future husband when I went to England in the holidays.

I don't have a degree from Hamburg. I did three years of a six-year course, up to the level of a first degree in England, and left because I was getting married to an Englishman who decided he wasn't going to wait for another three years. I decided to do O-levels and A-levels in England, enough to give me university entrance qualifications: I chose Latin, French and English literature O-levels and at A-level I did German and Italian - all in a year. I really had to push it. And I had to get myself a job.

I enrolled in the Open University for German and symbolic logic. A second husband, also English, took me to Spain, and I had to start all over again with the Spanish language. Seeing my fellow-students in the language class dying like flies (they faded away in six weeks), I thought, "I can do this better!"

I remembered that when I was six a neighbour's child wasn't doing too well at reading and I was asked to teach her. I was paid 20 pfennigs, a fifth of my monthly pocket money: decent pay but not union rates.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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