Sitting across from me at the table, nervously picking at her fingernails, was my newest client, Ramona. A very pretty woman in her 30's and originally hailing from somewhere in the South of France, she had come alone to my apartment for our linguistic assessment meeting.
One of the things I offer my students is a free 45-60 minute session which I call a 'linguistic assessment' before they commit to buying lessons from me. This assessment really serves as a guide for me to work out what level the student's English is at, their strengths and weaknesses, their needs and goals (why are they taking English lessons and what do they hope to acheive etc) and their personal interests (hobbies or subjects that they are really interested in) so that I can then go away and plan their future lessons completely tailored to their needs and interests.
I looked across at the woman, playing with her hair now. "So, Ramona, I'm just going to ask you a few questions in English," I explained carefully. "And try to answer them as fully as you can, ok?"
"Oui," Ramona nodded and then corrected herself. "Uh, yez."
"Now," I tidied up the papers that were splayed out in front of me. "If you don't understand anything, don't worry, just ask me to repeat myself. Don't be shy and...just relax!" I gave a reassuring smile, knowing she would feel more at ease once we had begun.
Ramona tried to give me a smile back but appeared to be so nervous that she could only manage a small one. "Yez," she said, nodding slightly. She's certainly not alone amongst my (for the moment, few) clients who have come to me having lost all confidence in her ability to speak English. She hasn't used English in 4 years but she used to work in an English speaking company and so I know the vocabulary will come back to her with encouragement and lots of practice.
I grabbed the tape recorder, and pressed record. I had already explained to Ramona that our conversation would be taped so that I could later listen back to remind myself of our discussion (but in actual fact it's so that I can pick apart every single tiny error and analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the student. They don't need to know that part though).
"Testing 1-2-3," I said, projecting my voice towards the tape recorder. I cringe everytime I do this, because it's not the most original of things to say into a microphone, is it? I pressed stop and rewound to the beginning. Ramona took a deep breath, looking uncomfortable as she waited for us to begin. "Don't worry," I smiled at her again.
Flicking the play button with my index finger, I was greeted to some kind of recording of cats being strangled. To my horror, the sound that came out of the tape player was not what I thought I had just recorded, although it was my voice. It was me singing in a high-pitched, utterly tuneless voice.
"BAAABY LUUUUV, MA BAAABY LUUUUUUV," a disembodied voice shrieked out of the speakers. "I NEED YA, I WANTCHA, MA BAAAABY LU-"*
"Oh my GOD!" I cried as I pratically threw myself ontop of the tape recorder to make it shut up. Frantically I searched for the stop button, and when I found it the silence that filled the room was possibly even more painful than the caterwauling.
I dragged me slumped body, which up until now had been thrown on the table, clutching the tape recorder fiercely to my chest, and tried to compose myself. But before I could work out how to move on from this horrific moment of shame, my thoughts of self hatred were interrupted by a loud snort.
I looked across the table at Ramona, the shy, nervous woman, who only a minute ago had looked terrified of me. She was laughing so hard that she had turned almost purple, her eyes squeezed shut and every in-breath she took was a snort. Shaking her head, she raised her hands as if to say 'I surrender' and wailed "Za- zat woz sooo fu- fuu- funnie!"
I don't know whether it was her laughter that was contagious or if I'd already managed to see the funny side of the situation, but I was now hunched over, in hysterics too. And for the rest of the linguistic assessment Ramona was completely at ease, having had the ice well and truly broken between us, and knowing that no matter how bad her English is, she will never, ever look as much as an eejit as I did in our very first session together.
*I have just checked on the wonderful world wide web and apparently these aren't even the correct lyrics. Shameful or what?!