I’m at my desk, buried under spreadsheets as I try to plan my experiments for the next two months, when I suddenly notice the time. Pushing my calculator away, I grab my coat and leap out the door whilst my colleagues look on in bemusement. They probably think I have just realised that I left the centrifuge running or that I’m late for a meeting with my supervisor….
Actually, my destination isn’t in the Animal and Plant Sciences Department but over the road in the 301 Student Skills and Development Centre. And it’s the subjunctive tense, not science that’s running through my mind right now. It’s almost time for my French lesson.
Pourquoi? you may enquire. I have always had a secret dream of being able to speak fluent French…this probably comes from the family camping holidays I enjoyed as a child in France. Although we had a whale of a time on the beaches and in the mountains, I always felt a bit excluded by not being able to understand what was being said around me. At secondary school, I applied myself with gusto to the GSCE but the intense focus on passing the exam, rather than speaking the language, knocked the enthusiasm out of me. I didn’t take it up for A Level and the paltry knowledge I had gained languished at the bottom of my innermost mental filing cabinet.
During my undergraduate degree, I had a few half-hearted attempts at following “teach-yourself” books but I couldn’t seem to retain anything from them. What I needed was a proper teacher, a native speaker who could take me through the grammar and clear up my conundrums. So when I moved to Sheffield University and found out about the Languages for All programme, it seemed too good to be true.
Even now I can hardly believe my luck. Every week, Sylvie takes us through a rigorous grammatical session, picking us up on word order and those all-important verb endings. Meanwhile in the lab session, the focus is purely on speaking and listening so we can put our skills into practice. The tuition is absolutely first class – of the standard that you would normally expect to pay good money for, yet for students it is absolutely free of charge. Slowly my faltering phrases have become more fluent. Words are starting to trip off my tongue more readily and sometimes I even find myself thinking in French!
As a PhD student, I don’t even have to complete the exam to obtain a course certificate; I simply have to achieve a minimum 70% attendance, complete two obligatory assignments and fill in an independent study record. I’ve found that without the pressure of having to pass a test, I am enjoying learning the language so much more and have even started having weekly skype sessions with French speakers using the online portal Conversation Exchange. The university also run Tandem Language Exchange events, where you can find a partner to regularly practice with. If I only had the time, there are countless more resources that I could take advantage of on the University MUSE pages – including listening exercises, online textbooks and foreign films. It’s also the perfect way to have a break from worrying about the progress of my research project – when I’m thinking about French, I can’t think about anything else!
So what can be the next challenge? German, Russian, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese… all of them, and even more, are on offer! Why not take the plunge? There may never be another chance for you to properly learn a foreign language from true experts….and even if there is, it probably won’t be free! You can finally fulfill a long-cherished ambition and gain some incredible CV-elevating skills to boot. Or at the very least, manage to say more than Je ne comprends pas when you go on holiday…