My early English lessons

Robert's Thoughts

Comments (7) / April 25, 2023

Allow me to entertain you with a true story that you will find hard to believe.

The lady who came into our nursery on a rainy autumn afternoon in 1941 was dressed in gray and her hair was not quite tidy.  Mom said her name was Mrs. Palethorpe (‘a strange name’ I thought) and that she would be teaching us English every Wednesday afternoon for an hour.

I was seven and my sister four.

And so we learned about ‘The farmer’s dog’ and ‘Jack and Jill’. Then we graduated and watched ‘Snow White’ at the movies and learned yet another song  ‘Heigh ho heigh ho, it’s off to work we go

In mid-1944 Mrs. Palethorpe disappeared because of World War Two.

After the war, to advance my knowledge of Shakespeare’s language, my parents sent me to classes at the British Council (coincidentally, also on Wednesday afternoons).  There, to make me sound like more an Englishman than a Hungarian refugee with a horrible accent, I was taught:


I take it you already know

Of tough and bough and cough and dough

Others may stumble, but not you

On hiccough, thorough, laugh, and through.

And cork and work and card and ward

And front and fond and word and sword

Well done! And now if you wish, perhaps

To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word

That looks like beard and sounds like bird.

And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead–

For goodness sake don’t call it deed.

Watch out for meat and great and threat,

They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

A moth is not a moth in mother,

Nor both in bother, broth in brother.

And here is not a match for there,

And dear and fear for bear and pear.

And then there’s dose and rose and lose–

Just look them up–and goose and choose,

And do and go, then thwart and cart.

Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!

I’d mastered it when I was five.

I was twelve.

And here comes the unbelievable part of the story.

Since my sister was too young to be allowed to attend class with me at the British Council she began to fall behind with her English. So, I talked my parents into allowing her (9) and me (12) to go to the cinema after Sunday lunch at grandma’s to watch English-speaking movies.

Their smug answer: “if you can get in and have the money to go, then go”.

Surprise,  surprise. I did not have the money, but my sister did.

Imagine, she was not allowed into English class at the British Council, but old enough to work at the Opera late at night as an ‘extra’ because she was a member of the Opera’s ballet school.

And she got paid there for her efforts!

In those after-the-war wild days, unaccompanied kids were allowed into cinemas in Budapest ‘no questioned asked’. So, for a couple of years, my sister treated me to the movies almost every Sunday, but under the condition that it should look as if I were treating her and not she me.

She was – and still is – a stickler for etiquette.


We saw over thirty British and American films. I still remember the title of some of them:

Mrs. Miniver, The 49th Parallel, Casablanca, Going My Way, Odd Man Out, Great Expectations, National Velvet, In Which We Serve, The Bells of St. Mary…  Unforgettable, sweet outings.

7 Responses to :
My early English lessons

  1. Surányi Bálint says:

    The farmers dog was in the yard and Yumbo was his name.

    Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water,
    Jack fell down and broke his crowne and Jill came tumbling after.

  2. Jacob+Potashnik says:

    It worked – your Hinglish has all the continental charm of Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier and Nikita Khrushchev! With love!

  3. Andrew Gross says:

    Robert – Great story, charming details– lo and behold, it did pay off ! Andras

  4. Liz says:

    I’m delighted you mastered our language at such an early age!! Not difficult at all ( well not if you are, like us, English! Love the ditty though. Liz

  5. Dear Robert, what a great story ! Love the hair splitting poem ! Haha.
    There are similar traps in french and it can be very challenging!
    Hope you are well, Hélène D

  6. Hannah Shapiro says:

    So enjoyed your “my Early English lessons”- laughed with great pleasure at your poem from your time at the British Council & shared in your list of English movies of those “ wild- after war days” – a very interesting description of growing up in thevBudapest of those days …”Thanks for the memories”💓

  7. Berend Katalin says:

    Kedves Róbert!
    Igazán aranyos történet.
    Jó ötletet kaptam, megnézni újból azokat a régi filmeket.
    Köszönöm szépen.
    Berend k.

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