I’ve been going round a couple of schools recently, who I’m going to be a penpal for (shoutouts to Langley School, Ormiston Victory Academy and The Highfield School!). But while I was there I got asked what I think is a very good question, so I’m going to write about it here for the benefit of anyone who is / will be / wants to learn a language.
How did I get to where I am now?
In case you’re wondering where I am now, that would be studying Translation, Media and French at the University of East Anglia. The ‘about to go on my year abroad’ bit you know already (at least you should if you read my last blog post! *Shameless self-promotion over*).
If you want to know the short answer to the aforementioned question, it would have to be: very slowly, with a lot of practice. I did have an advantage in that both my parents speak French, which they’d use around the house occasionally, and we had some old French kids’ TV shows on VHS (wow, that makes me feel old). So, at least if I wasn’t actively learning it, I was still hearing it. But if I had to add up the total years that I’ve been learning to speak French officially, in school and things, it comes to almost 10 years. And even then, I guess I didn’t start conversing in it properly for the last 2 of those years.
My language lessons in secondary school actually started in year 7 with German. I didn’t start French until year 8. I then kept learning both languages to the bitter end of secondary school: from year 9 SATs (when they were still a thing), to GCSE and finally to IB at the end of year 13. So that’s 7 years of lessons, homework, coursework, revision and exams. It’s not exactly a walk in the park! Then there was the fun of applying to uni through UCAS with my personal statement and IB marks, and now I’m here.
I’ve always had an affinity for French, I don’t know why. Don’t get me wrong, I love my German too, and I miss doing it (which is partly why I am going to Switzerland next year. Hello Schweizerdeutsch)! So I definitely want to get back into that. But I do just get along well with French. I know you’re probably wanting some profound revelation as to what French means to me, but I’m afraid I haven’t got one! Maybe it’s because of my personal links with the country (my family lived there for a bit, chez les ch’tis!), or maybe I’m just a language nerd who loves being able to speak in another language! And there’s nothing better than the feeling you get when you recognise a word in a film or a song, or the first time you complete a book in another language or watch a film without subtitles. Or I guess, by this time next year, be able to actually hold your own and live in another language (if you see what I mean).
So, if I had any advice for any young language learners out there (not necessarily a reference to their actual age!), it would be to persevere. I’ve spoken to so many people who stopped language learning after GCSEs, or give up only after a year because they “just can’t do languages”. Nonsense! It takes time and practice, like any other discipline. If you take up a musical instrument, you don’t get to grade 8 after 5 years of learning. You take time, you practice, you nurture it. I do know the feeling of GCSEs, though, where you feel like you just have to commit about 15 different essays to memory, so you can just regurgitate them on the paper as and when they ask you to. It feels like you’re getting nowhere, and that none of it is useful. Personally, that’s a bad curriculum, and not the way to go about becoming fluent in a language (but don’t get me onto politics, otherwise we’ll be here all night!). But stick with it, you will find that you’ve learned more than you think. Like I said, it feels like only the last 2/3 years that I’ve been able to hold a natural conversation with someone that I haven’t prepped for 2 hours beforehand, so don’t worry about not doing it overnight!
Tip 2 (apparently now I’m doing a list): surround yourself with the language. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it: corny but true. I’ve not spoken German in so long, I can feel it slipping (and this is tragic). So watch films or TV, listen to music, read books. Start with the children’s stuff: yes, you’ll feel like an idiot for a bit, but you’ve got to crawl before you can walk (pun not intended). YouTube is a gold mine for this sort of thing. Then you build yourself up bit by bit, and feel amazing when you finally understand a colloquial conversation!
So that’s a brief history of me learning French, plus a bit of what I can pass on to you to help. Hopefully that has actually made sense…
Anyway, I’ll update you with some more Swiss stuff soon! A plus!