Yesterday we were amazed to see a unicycle wobbling into the car park of the anonymous corporate building over the road from the school, ridden by a young lady in no way wishing to draw attention to herself. I was talking to Mark, about sober and important business of some sort, when he spotted her from the window. Not only was she riding a unicycle (not an everyday sight, but not unseeable either), but she was riding a unicycle with an enormous wheel. None of us had seen a wheel so large on a unicycle before. A penny farthing, remarked Susie, without the farthing.

I suppose it is too late now ever to hope that I will arrive at work one day on a unicycle, to the amazement and delight of my colleagues. The best I can hope is to watch my students perform analogous operations on the monocycles of their acquired language. For most of us, learning a second language is a little like switching from an automatic, internalised behaviour – speaking our mother tongue – to something similar but harder. We map the new skill to the old, and wobble off down life’s highway, trying not to collide with, or get in the way of, too many bicyclists. We make progress with our arms (and perhaps our tongues) hanging out.


We soon got back our work. But the lady on the unicycle struck a chord, on a day so hot that anyone with any sense would rather be differently engaged, elsewhere.

And the chord was this. While none of the teachers or staff, to my knowledge, unicycles to work, we all arrive folding up strange mental contraptions not suited to the workplace, and walk and talk, and appear to all intents and purposes commonplace functioning colleagues to one another. No one knows that we have a unicycle or other crazy mental contraption folded up in the garage; or that, as the day ends, we take ourselves away, and unfold our mental unicycles, and create a silent sort of gleeful mayhem up and down the Hills Road.