The Awkward Letter

By Sophie Lyle
When I was in my novice teaching year in the North Eastern part of Spain in the late 1980s, I had what I thought was the highly original idea of asking my students to write problem page letters to an agony aunt in order to elicit structures of advice (yes, that old chestnut).
Next lesson, my dutiful and obedient students proudly presented me with their homework and we decided to read each other the problems and suggest answers as a group.
Amongst the submissions was this gem (I still remember it word for word, nearly 30 years later):
Dear Agony Aunt,
I have a big problem. I have been with my boyfriend for six months now and last weekend we made the love. We didn’t have any preservatives and so we practised the march back. I think I may be embarrassed. Please help!
In order to fully appreciate this missive, there are a few linguistic points to elucidate. The confusion Spanish students often suffer when differentiating between ‘preservatives’ and ‘contraceptives’ can easily be imagined when the Spanish for the latter is ‘preservativo’. The idea of the ‘march back’ and the evils of bi-lingual dictionaries I will leave to your own powers of deduction, although the idea that it needs to be ‘practised’ is especially delightful. The cruelty of the false friend ’embarrassed’ is particularly acute, ’embarazada’ meaning ‘pregnant’.
It took me some time into the teaching profession to realise that banging your hands on the desk in appreciation whilst tears of laughter stream down your face is not an appropriate feedback method.