I have had a very turbulent introduction into the world of languages, to say the least. My first contact with a foreign language apparently came before I could even speak English. I have been told how a family friend used to talk to me and her son in German occasionally whilst looking after us. However, I never learnt any German from that point. But, it does make me wonder whether it was this initial contact with German that turned on the language learning bug in my brain.
Fast forward many years and I’m in Year 2. We were given the chance in my primary school to join an after school, French club. This was before it was compulsory for primary schools to teach a foreign language so the fact that I was given this opportunity was very unusual. Anyway, without any real enthusiasm I signed up for the afterschool classes. I honestly can’t say I learnt much during this time and I didn’t carry on with it in Year 3. This was my parent’s decision from what I remember. But, as I say, I was never really interested in the first place. However, I still remember one particular song from the course to this day so I suppose it wasn’t a complete waste of money. I also remember never wanting to learn French ever again.
My next introduction into the world of foreign cultures came when my Uncle brought a woman to my house and told us he was going to marry her. I was very excited as I was going to be the ring bearer at their wedding in her home town in Italy. Fast forward to the Easter holidays of Year 4 and I’m at their wedding and, for the first time in my life, in Italy. Their wedding was a traditional Catholic Mass held in both Italian and English but it wasn’t like any Mass I’d ever been to before and at this part of my life I was attending twice a week so I knew my stuff (the perks of Catholic school). There were distinct Italian customs in the wedding which I had never come across before such as the use of flower crowns during the ceremony. This act has intrigued me to this very day and I thank my Uncle for marrying my Zia and allowing me to have a lifelong interest in foreign cultures and their differences and similarities. I am lucky that I have a permanent door to the Italian world through my Zia. However, I did not use this opportunity for many years. In fact, I never spoke a word of Italian to her until my first year at university. But, she did introduce me to saying hello by kissing each other on the cheek twice and to authentic Italian cuisine amongst other things. I have never expressed, to either my Uncle or my Zia, my gratitude for allowing me to be involved in their wedding and thus helping me become fascinated by other cultures and languages. Without their existence in my life, I doubt I’d be currently studying languages at university and for that I truly thank them.
I didn’t have any further contact with languages until secondary school where, in Year 7, we studied 10 weeks of Spanish, French and German. At the end of this we were to decide which language we wanted to study. I knew I didn’t want to learn French due to it seeming like a baby language that you learnt in Primary school (yes I was young and naïve). I also thought Spanish was too mainstream so decided I would learn German. This was of course before I’d even had a single language lesson.
My first 10 weeks were Spanish with a teacher who was an amazing and excitable French man. I definitely did enjoy Spanish but I was still adamant that I would learn German as this was a better language for engineers (I wanted to be a structural engineer at the time). After Spanish, I had to learn French. I hated every minute of the ‘baby’ language. Well that was what I tried to tell myself. My teacher was a strict but interesting woman and I can still remember many of the things that she said in class. I even got a postcard home for the quality of my French work. (In my school, a postcard was hard to get and you definitely had to earn one). I then moved onto German, I was taught by the head of languages. I did enjoy German and was still adamant that it was the language for me. However, in hindsight, I think this was more the fact I liked the teacher than the actual language. My parents fought hard for me to choose Spanish as my language of study and compromised with me by allowing me to put German as my second choice. I did however come around to their thinking and decided I did want to study Spanish, especially in Year 8 when it became obvious I only enjoyed the lessons because of the teacher. Despite this, I was placed in a German class.
There was a glimmer of hope as we were given the chance to learn a second language. There was only one class of about 20 people, in a year group of over 200 people, who had opted for this route. I think this highlights the poor state of affairs for language learning in the UK but maybe I’ll talk more about that in the future. I was desperate to be allowed to study Spanish in Year 9 as my teacher had shown me the wonder of this language. I remember telling her along with a handful of other students that we were going to study it at A-Level just so that we could move to Spanish and drop German. At this point that was a lie and I wasn’t interested in studying a language past GCSE, and that was only because I was told that the E-Bacc would be beneficial. Again, had the education system showed students the wonder of language learning properly I would not have thought in this way at all. Despite the realisation that I did not enjoy German, in Year 8 I went to a small town in Germany with the school near Cologne. I can honestly say that I loved Germany and learnt about many aspects of German life but I still couldn’t get along with German and to this day I am not a fan of the language.
I did eventually get my wish after having to convince a maths teacher, who was head of timetabling at the time, why I wanted to move from a “logical language like German” to a “language that makes no sense” (his words not mine). I even had to get my dad into the school to help with my case. Thus, in Year 9, I no longer had to do 2 hours of German and 1 of Spanish. Instead, I was learning solely Spanish. My new teacher made learning Spanish like a game and very interactive. This sparked my interest in the subject and I no longer was against the idea of doing a GCSE in the subject. If I ever become a teacher (which I probably won’t), I would like to teach with the same methods as her. I do honestly think that its teachers like this who can ignite even the smallest spark in students and get them to enjoy languages and not to despise them.
The following year, I started GCSE Spanish. I didn’t really know much in language terms and remember having a stand-off with one of my teachers over the fact that she wanted me to write ‘del’ instead of ‘de el’. However, during this year, we were shown a number of Spanish music videos. The first was Esteman’s ‘No te metas a mi Facebook”. I had never really thought about languages as something to do outside the classroom before this. But, my teachers had allowed me to see that language is a living thing. It isn’t something that you study twice a week and forget about it. We use English constantly so why not sneak Spanish into my daily life? I started to listen to Spanish music from then on and still do to this day. I have no doubt in my mind that had I not been introduced to Spanish music, I would not have such an interest with Hispanic culture today and I probably wouldn’t have had the passion needed to apply to study the subject at university. I became all consumed by the idea of leaving the UK and studying abroad. It was at this point I came across Third Year Abroad (now Global Graduates) and saw that I could study a UK degree and still go abroad for a year. I started researching engineering degrees that would allow me to do so. I was set on going to Spain and realised that this was more likely if I carried on my Language learning to A-Level. I definitely loved Spanish for my entire time at GCSE and at no point did the idea of an A-Level feel like a burden. It truly was something I wanted to do. I became all consumed by Spanish culture and the history of the language and by the end of Year 11, I had gained an A* in the subject. I was over the moon!