The gift of “bonjour”

“Why would I need to tell a French person what is in my pencil case anyway?”

At GCSE, languages were seen as a massive joke. There was so much memorising: so many incomprehensible phrases that had to be regurgitated in front of an examiner, and for what? A mark on a piece of paper, and the ability to just-about garble “Comment tu t’appelle?” whilst on holiday.

At University, friends go to the other extreme. When I explain that I study French and Spanish, the general response is “I wish I could speak languages” or similar exclamations of awe; as if I have some magical gift that other mortals can only dream of.

The older we get, the more attractive leaving the towns and villages where we grew up and travelling; reading books, listening to music and watching films from other cultures seems to be. The English speaking world suddenly seems small and limiting. Besides, there are so many people who find their closest friends and future partners through visiting other countries!

My response for those who feel like it is impossible for them to learn languages is to compare it to learning to drive. Some people only have to look at their driving theory to pass: similarly, they ace their practical test after two lessons with zero minors.

For the rest of us, learning to drive is a slow, gradual process. So much of it is boring. Memorising the cat-eye colours on the motorway were not my idea of fun. Constantly stalling in the middle of the road was traumatic. I mixed up the brake and accelerator far too many times. I came back from so many lessons never wanting to see another car again! Yet for eight months I persevered, because I had a long term goal in mind. There would be the day when I could use my parents’ car; drive myself around the country, and not have to rely on mummy and daddy or unreliable buses to go anywhere.

Language learning is no different. Irregular verbs are awful. No one likes the subjunctive. You only need to look how much of a stupid language English is, with its “there, their and they’re” to know that languages like to sabotage and give you a rough ride. The first months are always the worst. However, a long-term goal it makes it so worth it. Having never spoken a word of Spanish before this year, my goal is to spend my Third Year drinking cocktails and learning to surf on the beaches in Costa Rica.

Find organisations that support language learning. Sheffield’s “Modern Languages Teaching Centre” is fantastic, as well as the “Herbert Hughes Foundation”, which gives out £1500 grants to first year Spanish students who intend to use modern languages in the world of work. I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by them, and although I was not successful, it was a really positive experience, and I was really impressed by busy professionals who gave their time to invest in future linguists.

If you do not want to take a language module as a part of your course next year (although it will impress future employers), try downloading a language-learning app. Memrise and DuoLingo have got me through First Year and A Levels, are free, and only take five minutes per day! There is a huge range of languages to learn on their sites. Find a conversation club, or speak to a local when on holiday abroad. Making mistakes is just part of the process. It is only until you open up to a stranger that you realise how life-enriching speaking another language can be!

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