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April 03 , 2009

Foreign Affairs

English As A Funny Language


Between 1970 and 2015,  400,000 and 700,000 foreigners per year studied English in England. English as a Foreign Language hovers somewhere between business and education. But …

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The story takes place at World English Centre, a large language school in Bournemouth in 1972. A bizarre collection of teachers wait for their monthly intake of fresh language students.  Cosser is an ex-Marks & Spencer trainee manager. Hamish once played rugby for Dorset. Barry, the new arrival, has bookshelves full of Marx and Lenin. Roger is an ex-actor with astonishing charisma. The contrast between the predatory younger teachers and the settled, prematurely mature Yorkshireman John Smith couldn’t be greater. They’re presided over by ex-theatrical impresario, Malcolm O’Reilly, the Director of Studies. The school employs just one female teacher in a staff of thirty.

One of the fresh arrivals upsets the entire pecking order. Zenubia is a Swiss actress of gypsy origins. Her quest for her own identity throws up questions of identity for everyone else. And it turns out that no one is exactly who they seem to be. Students are most confused to find that John Smith has the same name as a character in their textbook. Everyone else tries to figure out why he calls his small son Frank, while his wife calls the boy Tarquin.

Throw in minor problems with gun-running to the IRA; Libyan commissars; a Brazilian beauty-queen and her beefy brother; an ex-paratrooper who is suddenly appointed as a teacher; a venereal disease that baffles the London School of Tropical Medicine; a jolly ex-SS man proud to show off his tattoos … and finally a Swiss eugenics programme which stole gypsy babies from their parents.

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