Tag: BBC

Languages: ‘A vital part of who I am!’

As regular blog readers will recall, the BBC published an article a few weeks back that focused on a decline in language learning in UK schools which prompted us here on the blog to post a series of articles by and about our staff and students, and their experiences of language learning. Those conversations have been continuing over the intervening few weeks and I’m delighted to get a chance to post another series of thoughts on the joys and challenges of language learning, this time by Stefano:

2018 Intropido Pic I‘I am really glad to have this opportunity to write again on this topic here on the French at Stirling Blog, as I cannot recommend studying languages enough! In fact, if it wasn’t for languages, I wouldn’t even be able to write this post at all; but… is it really all about articles and academia? No, there is so much more to it!

When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to be in a school, back in Italy, where I could already start learning some bits of English from a very early age (I think I was 4 when the teachers started organising some playful and funny activities so that we could learn nursery rhymes and games in English). Although I am not too confident now with my knowledge on kids’ songs, I am sure that this joyful approach made me keep going with English in primary school, where I also started some extra-curricular English courses to engage more and more with this beautiful language. My ongoing passion for the subject then pushed me to carry on with English all throughout my schooling years, right until the very end of high school, where I found myself to be a bit of “anglophile”; as Emeline mentioned earlier, even just the chance to read books and watch movies in their original language uncovered a whole new world of possibilities (and yes, the new Harry Potter books did play a crucial motivational role in this, I must say).

After so many years of learning and practising English in Italy I’d say I never got bored of it, but I started feeling the curiosity for going to English-speaking countries to put the theory into practice; I liked English so much that I ended up working as a Group Leader for younger Italian pupils abroad during their summer camps in the UK and those travelling experiences made me realise how far even a young student could go just thanks to a foreign language! And when it was then time to apply for universities, moving to Scotland simply seemed to me like the best choice to carry on along this path.

A bit of a warning here: studying a foreign language might be contagious…

Not only does it make you connect with (and be inspired by) so many new people, but once you start learning something as eye-opening as a foreign language, it is really hard to stop!

In my case, the “language-bug” made me study French, starting when I was 11. It could have been something temporary, as in Italy you are only required to pick up a “second” European language (usually French or Spanish or German) between the age of 11 and 14. However, once again, I became ‘too’ fascinated by this new wonderful language and I stuck with French all way throughout my 5 years in high school in Italy and (spoiler alert!) even at university level here in Scotland.

When I arrived here I realised how differently you can learn French in these two countries; whilst in Italy a much greater focus is on France’s history and literature (I have lost count of the classic French novels and plays we had to study in school…), here in Scotland attention is mostly put on language skills, as well as postcolonial and contemporary studies, which makes the two countries’ approaches perfectly complementary!

Looking back, I still struggle to believe how far I have come just thanks to French and the number of experiences I have gained through it. Some examples include: school trips and holiday in France (yeah I know, this might sound obvious, but as soon as you learn how to order French food it is really hard to resist!), an unforgettable Summer School in Strasbourg, an even more memorable Semester Abroad in Paris, a research scholarship to travel across the South of France2018 Intropido Pic I and many more.

As I have been travelling around Europe, people have often asked me if I am now a “trilingual” student. I am finally happy to say, a bit more confidently, that I am now fluent in three languages (although my parents make fun of my now broken Italian sometimes, but that’s another story), but especially I am really happy and grateful for all the places I have seen and the people I have met along my journey thanks to these languages.

Anyway, as you might have guessed, this “language-bug” thing is not getting any better… I should indeed mention, perhaps, that I also studied Latin for eight years in school and, guess what, I simply loved it! Call me boring, but I had so much fun with Latin as well that I managed to be selected for a national competition in the North East of Italy; no, I didn’t win, but yes, I had a great time, everything was included for the journey and I managed to meet some other great people even in that occasion. Therefore, let me just go against a well-established stereotype on “dead languages”: not only do they help you learn modern ones, but they take you around more than what you would think!

To conclude, I do believe that languages are not just subjects, but rather constitute a vital part of who I am; they represent wonderful key to access our world! And if you think you have got a “language-bug” yourself, don’t worry, it can only get “worse” 😉

Now I really have to go though, I have just seen a flyer about a Spanish course…’

Many, many thanks (merci, grazie, thank you!!) to Stefano for this brilliant post and for the infectious enthusiasm for languages.

‘Languages are so important in a globalised world’

And as well as responses from colleagues, the thoughts of students on the question of language uptake and what prompted them to become language learners also keep coming in, like the following post from Samantha who is currently in her final year of a BA Hons in French and Spanish:

‘I started learning Spanish after I moved house at 6 years old. I found my dad’s old Spanish vocab and grammar books from when he studied it in high school and, although I couldn’t read much of my native language at that age, it just amazed me that there were so many people out there that could speak and understand a language different from my own, so I wanted to break down that barrier and learn more because that fascinated me so much.

I had a very basic knowledge of Spanish until I went on holiday to Spain for the first time at age 10. I absolutely fell in love with the language, the culture and the country and decided to keep learning it until today. Then when French was introduced to our course in Primary 6, I could relate it to what I already knew in Spanish which, in turn, facilitated my learning and understanding of French. Around this time, a Polish girl came to my school and she couldn’t speak a word of English, so I learned some Polish and we became good friends, and I am still more or less conversational in Polish.

In high school I absolutely loved learning French, but we couldn’t learn Spanish until we were in 3rd year and I forgot quite a lot of it. I was always quite disappointed with the languages system in my high school as there was only the option to choose Spanish or French, and due to the fact that nobody in the two years below mine chose French, they had totally eliminated it from the curriculum and replaced it with Spanish, which I was really quite sad about. I then went to Uni at 16 to continue studying languages, and now I can speak Spanish, French, Italian, Polish and some German and Japanese.

I think languages are so, so important in a world as globalised as ours, and it felt so great to make friends with people that I may not have become friends with in the first place if I didn’t speak their language. We often seem to expect people to speak English when we go abroad, and I’ve witnessed first-hand British people going abroad and shouting repeatedly in English when a native of that country didn’t understand them, and it always annoyed me. So, personally, I felt like when going on holiday the natives of that country immediately had a lot more respect for me and were more open to conversing with/helping me when they found out that I could speak some of their language.

When I found out about the BBC study, I was so shocked. I think that due to language apps and online translation services as well as the expectation for people to speak English no matter their mother tongue, more and more people nowadays no longer feel the need to learn a new language. However, I think learning languages is essential for a variety of reasons, both for going on holiday or professional opportunities, as well as giving life new perspective and seeing the world in a different light through learning about other cultures and meeting people from other countries. I feel like learning a language helps bring people in this world together.’

Many, many thanks to Samantha for this great blog post and we hope you’ll continue with your current languages, and keep finding ways of picking up new ones over the coming months and years!

‘Foreign languages open up new horizons’

And after Alex’s recollections on the start of his language learning, it’s over to Natalie, who is also in her final year, studying International Management with European Languages and Society:

2019 Cochrane Colmar 2 Mar19‘I started my language learning journey at nine years old where I had the opportunity to learn French which was a compulsory language at my primary school. I would say that I was initially inspired by visiting foreign countries with my family at a young age which motivated me to want to be able to learn a few phrases to speak in the local language. After learning the basics of the French language, I realised that speaking a language has many advantages and I decided to continue my language learning at high school where I also choose to study Spanish.

2019 Cochrane Strasbourg Mar19My secondary school (St.Modan’s, Stirling) highly promoted language learning by exposing pupils to language events and school trips in different countries which further inspired me to continue learning both languages until my final year of school. At the age of 17, I decided to do the Scottish Baccalaureate in Languages which involved a project focusing on the differing attitudes towards learning foreign languages in Scotland, France and Spain. After carrying out research, I discovered that there were alarming trends emerging within the UK concerning the decline of students committed to learning a foreign language and I became interested in changing perceptions of language learning. For me, foreign languages open up new horizons and the ability to speak French and Spanish has enabled me to become more culturally aware and more open-minded. In addition, I hoped to expand on this research, develop my passion for promoting languages and enhance my own linguistic skills at university.

One of the main reasons for continuing to study both Spanish and French at Stirling University was to be able to use the language in real life situations and to eventually become fully immersed in both French and Spanish culture. Without a doubt, deciding to study languages at university was one of the best decisions I have ever made and it has become more than an academic subject. The ability to speak French allowed me to study at a French business school where I made some lifelong friends. It also enabled me to become more confident as a person and more aware of cultural differences.

2019 Cochrane European Parliament Mar19

Furthermore, speaking Spanish allowed me to live and work with Spaniards every day during my role as an English Language Assistant in Spain. The language enabled me to understand the culture in a way which would have otherwise been impossible and I became fully integrated into the Spanish way of life. Similarly, I had the opportunity to continue my passion for promoting languages by working closely with SCILT in order to promote the Spanish language and culture within a local primary school.

The recent news regarding the decline in students wanting to study languages deeply saddens me as I look back with fond memories at the opportunities I have had thanks to my ability to speak two foreign languages. Certainly, I hope to continue to study languages after leaving university as the advantages of speaking multiple languages go beyond the classroom and they have become an enormous part of who I am today.’

Many, many thanks to Natalie for another great post singing the praises of languages – thanks for taking the time to do this! From our perspective, what has been particularly lovely in the responses from students is the level of passion that is coming across and it’s great to get a chance to share that.

‘Studying a language is awesome!’

As we mentioned in the previous combined posts, a few of our students got back to us with longer responses to the questions we sent out but also to the report and its content, so we thought it’d be good to post those responses as separate articles, starting with these thoughts from Alex, a finalist in French and Maths:

2019 Janes Provence Photo Feb19‘If you hadn’t heard already, a BBC News article was published this week by Education Editor Branwen Jeffreys stating that “Foreign language learning is at its lowest in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium, with German and French falling the most”. Reading this article filled with me with sadness and slight infuriation and I decided to share my reaction with my friends on Facebook with the following caption:

“As a languages student, this is super sad to see and is undoubtedly caused by English becoming such a universal language. We as British people are very lucky to grow up communicating in a language that a great deal of the world has a desire to learn, but that should not immediately make us become incredibly lazy and not learn other languages. There are so many opportunities available through having a second (or more) language, and that’s what should be promoted from a young age. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have brilliant teachers in the years I’ve been studying French and without them, I would not be studying the degree I am now.”

After thinking about this further, I became reminiscent of my language studying days and thought that those should be shared, potentially with the prospect of encouraging others to study languages at GCSE if not in further education. In all honesty, I don’t really remember learning French in primary school so I only started to acknowledge studying it in high school. Once I got to the age of 13 at the stage of choosing my GCSEs (Standard Grades to Scottish folk), the top half of my school, academically speaking, had to take the language under the Baccalaureate system which was either French or German. I was lucky enough to have a native French teacher in my first year of high school, who may be the fundamental reason I continued to study the language for years to come. It was maybe one of the first times I had heard a non-British accent, and I remember thinking it was so cool. My interest for the subject grew at the rate I was learning vocabulary and tenses, and the passion and drive to succeed worked as I achieved an A* at GCSE.

Going onto sixth form, I was excited at the prospect of developing my French competence even further and that proved to be the case. My teacher was fantastic and really stimulated my interest to spend lots of time on doing more than just studying the language. I’d always known I wanted to do a Maths degree but this casted a cloud of ambiguity about what I wanted to do. As you might have seen on my first ever blog post back in early 2017 (blimey!), I ended up doing the two subjects together.

2019 Janes Monaco Photo Feb19Reasons why I continued to study French? The first reason has to be the opportunities to go to the country of that language. My experience of living abroad in France in the first half of 2018 was AIX-traordinary (no pun intended), and would 100% recommended those kinds of experiences to anybody. Secondly, the teachers I have had over the course of my studying French have been brilliant. Languages are a department that often gets underrated but is maybe one of the toughest subjects to teach as the ability to pick up a language and to continuously keep students interested is not an easy task at all. Thirdly and finally, the skills you obtain from learning a language are vast. Communication, confidence, competence; 3 Cs that many employers look for in most jobs, which make you a very exciting employee to take on board.

So if there’s any students reading this, especially between the ages of 7 and 16, studying a language is awesome and I would definitely recommend it!’

Many thanks to Alex for this fantastic plea on behalf of Languages and language learning, and for the terrible pun…

Why study Languages?

I’m sure many of you will have seen or heard coverage this week of a BBC survey looking at the drop in the uptake of languages at secondary school level across the UK. If you didn’t, there’s plenty to read about it here and elsewhere.

This is, of course, a source of great concern for all of us working in Languages at whatever level within the education system and the reporting prompted us at Stirling to ask some questions, of ourselves and of our students, about our own experiences of language learning and what motivated us (or didn’t) to keep going with a particular language. Emails went out to all our students and to all colleagues, and the responses have been fascinating, as well as being funny, impassioned, thoughtful, concerned… and many other things besides. So, what better reason for a blog post? Or several!

What I’d like to do here, to start with, is to gather together the responses that have come in from colleagues, ie from those of us who teach French at Stirling, and there’ll then be a few blog posts from our students. The questions, though, are the same for all of us, as for the students namely: at what age did you start learning a language that wasn’t your native language? What language was it? What made you continue learning it (if you did)? And if that language wasn’t French, at what age did you start learning that and why and why did you decide to study it at University? And, finally, are there other languages you have previously studied but stopped studying and, if so, which ones and why?

And this time, if you’ll forgive the indulgence, I’ll start with my own experience… So, I’m Cristina Johnston and I’m currently Programme Director for French at Stirling and I started studying French at secondary school, in first year. However, before I started learning French, I was very lucky because I had already been exposed to Italian as my mother (and half my family) come from Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland. I spent school holidays in Switzerland, with my grandmother and family there, and many of them (most of them, at the time) didn’t speak any English but spoke either Italian or the dialect of Ticino, so if I wanted to communicate with them, I just had to speak Italian.

So, when I got to first year of secondary school and French classes started (there was no alternative to French for pupils in first year in my school), although it was a new language and a new accent and new words and new ideas, it somehow already felt familiar to me. I could understand bits and pieces from the first lesson when – as I still vividly recall – our fantastic teacher, Mr Prosser (with whom I’m still in touch every now and then so many years on), appeared and insisted on speaking French and on us speaking French, from the outset, for everything. Others who’ve been in touch about this have spoken about feeling that kind of familiarity and comfort within the new language and that was certainly my experience.

From second year, I also did German and continued with both to the end of secondary school, with French remaining very much my favoured language but German really growing on me, particularly as we got the chance to read more in German (Kafka and Frisch and Dürrenmatt). I spent a year living in France between school and Uni (taking ‘French for foreigners’ classes at Lille III University which was brilliant) and then it was just obvious that French would be part of what I’d do at University, too, so I did. I also took up Czech in first and second year of University which was challenging, to put it mildly, but which I thoroughly enjoyed, not least because, if you wanted to take second year Czech, you had to spend a month at a Summer School in the Czech Republic during the Summer which seemed like an excellent way to spend my time.

In other words, for me, languages have always been there, in different contexts, at different levels, with different levels of enthusiasm, and if I think about what has motivated me to continue studying languages, it’s very often people – Mr Prosser at secondary school, excellent Czech tutors at University in the shape of Josef Fronek and Igor Hajek, but also friends from countries where the languages are spoken and from other countries where other languages are spoken, and, since starting work as a Lecturer in French, students, too. It’s about the books and the films and the plays and the museums and the travel and the food, too, of course, but it’s the people who are the primary motivation, from my perspective.

Our Language Coordinator, Jean-Michel DesJacques, studied languages in secondary school because the system left him no choice in the matter. You simply had to do at least two languages, one in S1 (in his case, English) and another from S3 (German, for him) with the possibility of picking up a 3rd language in lycée. For him, that structure is relevant when we consider the practical timetabling issues in Scottish schools nowadays and the impact that has on language uptake. There were also special, geographical circumstances that came into play (Jean-Michel comes from the region on the border between France and Switzerland), meaning that tv was readily available in French, German and Italian. He had an older brother who lived in England, American relatives, American pupils visiting his college every year and, he assures us, ‘parents who grew up during the war who were convinced we needed to build a new Europe…’

Hannah Grayson spoke French for the first time in her first week of secondary school: ‘I was 11 years old and very shy, but I was quite pleased we all had to take French as a compulsory subject. It was like an immediate *click*, where I just loved it. I liked the sound of the words, the challenge of learning the names of things in another language, and the fun activities we got to do in class. After that, I chose to carry on with French because I found it really exciting to be able to express myself in another language. I met people from France and loved being able to understand them in their native language. As somebody who likes learning, I like French because there’s always more to learn – there’s always something else I could read, or words I haven’t yet come across.’

Elizabeth Ezra only really started learning French at University but says she wishes she’d been able to start it earlier and ‘learn it at a more relaxed pace!’ In her case, growing up in the States, ‘apart from a few Spanish words that everyone growing up in Southern California learns, that was my first exposure to a language other than English.

French wasn¹t initially my main subject – I just kind of took it on a whim – but I was given the chance in my first year of uni to spend ten weeks in France. I¹d never been out of California (let alone on an airplane) and thought I might never have another chance to go abroad, so I jumped at it.

Even though I was always good at grammar, I couldn¹t really understand a word people in France were saying for a *very* long time. I was actually convinced that this French thing was an elaborate practical joke, and that at some point people would burst out laughing and speak in perfect English about how gullible I was. I loved the south of France, where I was living and studying, but I hated feeling that people thought I was stupid because I could hardly speak. Of course I know now that’s not how it works, and that’s not how people think, but at 17, I didn’t realise that.

In my second year, I took more French because, frankly, I didn’t want all the (very) hard work I’d put in to learning the language in my first year to go to waste (which isn’t a very good reason to pursue something, but there you go). Fortunately, I soon fell in love with French literature. In my third year, I did my study abroad in Paris, which introduced me to the world of French literary theory and philosophy, which I also fell in love with. Once again, while I continued to be good at grammar, I was very bad at understanding spoken French, and they almost didn’t let me take classes at l’Université de Paris III. To remedy my weakness, I obviously read a lot in French, but I also bought a transistor radio (if only there had been podcasts back then) and forced myself to listen to French radio a
couple of hours each day. Eventually, I was able to pick out more and more words, until my comprehension was up to speed.

I came back from Paris with all guns blazing, keen to pursue the study of French literature and culture. After finishing my undergraduate studies, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.’

And finally, for the moment, Mathilde Mazau, started learning English at 11 (en 6e au college, en Martinique). It was her ‘langue vivante 1’ – she also did Latin, German and Spanish, but later. She says: ‘I fell in love with English through music when I was a little child and I think being able to understand and sing the songs I loved (rather than “chanter de la bouillie anglaise”) was my main motivation. I then continued English at uni and taught the language for many years in France before coming to Scotland.’

As other responses come in from colleagues, I’ll add them to the blog but this gives a pretty good starting point, at least from our perspective! Next, it’s the turn of our students to have their say (and maybe try to find some pictures to illustrate all of this!)…