By my early sixties the limitations of my 1958 ‘O’ Level French were being cruelly exposed when attempting to converse with my neighbours in France and for the last four years or so I have been learning French. I have done the majority of my studying at the Institut Francais in London, and this has involved a spectrum of teaching arrangements that have included one-to-one private tuition; once, twice a thrice weekly classes in groups; and intensive courses every morning for two weeks or every day for one week. I have also had private one-to-one tuition in France as well as several weeks of ‘immersion’ courses with French lessons during the day and living with a French family in the evenings.
For the first three years or more almost all of my teachers were women, as have the students in group lessons. Working in such groups I have, almost without exception, enjoyed the courses immensely and for some reason have assumed that somehow it was the proportion of women that had made the difference. The sentiment was so strong that when, last summer, I had arranged to have a male teacher, I was concerned that him being male would make for incompatibilities and possible tensions. However, Bernard turned out to be wonderful, and in his way one of the best ‘profs’ I have had. He was/is around my age and like me recently retired. In a kind, warm and professional atmosphere our ‘male’ relationship (both of us are straight) was easy, the content stimulating and I learned masses. Going to my twice-weekly lessons was a treat, and I found myself cycling through the Brittany countryside to and from his house with the light-heart of a school boy.
Obviously this was a one-to-one situation and I wondered if things might be similar if I had a group class in which the other students were mainly men rather than women. I did not have to wait long. I have now had one intensive course where the majority of students were men, and another in which all the students and one of the teachers (we had two for the course) were men, and I have discovered that the gender ratio has made not a scrap of difference. In these predominantly male classes the learning environment was the same, as were our interactions with one another, and the learning experience.
This finding was welcome. While I have certainly recognised and register whether my colleagues and teachers were men or women, their actual gender was irrelevant in the learning environment. We chatted, teased, joked and struggled together in the same way no matter the gender. I am not sure if this is what could have happened when I was younger, and whether the change I now observe was simply the product of maturing. What I do know is that it is a great relief and has given me a feeling of liberation.