Wednesday 14 January 2015

Je suis Charlie, nous sommes Charlie

In the light of the recent events in France and the media coverage which has followed,     je suis Charlie and therefore, French has been all over the world.

Will it create a new interest for French in England, in London, where I, where we teach French at Voulez-vous parler? Not that it had died away amongst adults, judging by the number of calls I've received this month, but it certainly has in schools. I don't know, but it's a question I've asked myself, especially as we are in January, the month of new resolutions.

Sunday 4 January 2015

How languages can change your life - my story

At the beginning of this new year, and after a wonderful trip to Japan, a country I've fallen in love with like I fell in love with England 25 years ago, it made me think about how my love of languages has shaped my life.

When I was 12, a year after I started learning English at school, I started to love it - the fact I was in love with my teacher definitely contributed I think - and started to write to penfriends from England. My correspondance then spread to numerous countries from all continents, as most students were either learning English or French. I would write letters - as the internet/emails didn't exist in the late 80s/early 90s - to boys and girls from Canada, Russia, South America, US, Australia, England, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Indonesia. I was lucky to have a mum who didn't mind spending a fortune on stamps to make me happy. It sure did wonders for my English, as repetition is the way to remember vocabulary. I remember spending ages looking words up in the dictionary. It paid off. I never had to learn my lessons from school as English seemed to stay in my brain so easily. I was also learning German from 13 and Spanish from 15, but don't recall writing much in these languages.

Around 1989/1990, I started doing the Lille-Yorkshire exchange in summer, I would go to Yorkshire for 2 weeks and my penfriend would come back in the bus with me and she would spend 2 weeks in my family on the Northern France seaside. I have such fond memories of my stays in sunny Yorkshire -I think I was lucky, as I now know what English weather is like - I remember being welcome like a queen and loving the food, the activities, the visits to Leeds, the Dales, Whitby,York and its Middle-Ages museum, whose smells amazed me, a big shopping centre like I had never seen before, trying sailing and step for the first time, a sport I would later practise weekly. What I found very interesting was seeing how people lived and their interactions as a family, as I was growing up with my mum and sister. These girls didn't know how lucky they were to live with their dads. But I digress.

Staying in immersion for 2 weeks meant that my English was hesitant when I arrived and more fluent and richer in vocabulary when I left. I had learnt lots of new food words, new verbs, new towns, discovered new music, new actors, and more than anything, saw what English schools were like. During my first summer in Goole, Mandy, my penfriend, was a fan of Cure, which I was too, and she introduced me to Beautiful South, which I fell in love with and still listen to this day, thinking about her house and sunny garden where we played with her brother during those July summer nights.

I did this exchange for 2 years. Then le collège was finished and I was at the lycée. My teacher organised an exchange with a Sittingbourne school, and that's where I met Joanne, from Sheppey, in Kent. By then, my English was better, I knew more tenses and my vocabulary was richer. We got on really well and carried on visiting each other for a few years. Unfortunately, we lost touch, and I don't despair to find her one day on facebook or linkedin.

When I was 18, very much in love with England, the English language, and a book worm, I decided to read English at university, as I was already following my guts at that time and thought that one should study what one likes, instead of choosing a safe but boring option. I knew I wouldn't get very far studying English but had faith in life, and it proved me right. I graduated and as most students studying English at uni do, I applied to be a French assistant in a school in England. We had to fill in a form with 3 choices of town, being told that if you ticked London as a first option, you were unlikely to get it. Being me and following my instincts, again, I put London as my first option, and obtained a job in an East London school, where I spent 2 wonderful years meeting a lovely English man in the same school as soon as I started. England was definitely feeling like home and the thought about going back to France never occured to me. This is why I'm always surprised when asked the question. If you feel at home somewhere, why would you want to leave?

A few years later, at the beginning of the noughties, on holidays with a friend in Cyprus (see us in picture below), frustrated because I couldn't read Greek, I asked him to teach me the alphabet, which he did, but I didn't remember much, so I decided to hire a tutor on my return and spent the next years learning Greek, meeting 3 teachers and new friends in the process, as I seized every opportunity to meet Greek nationals, so I did, through couchsurfing - hosting Greeks in my home - parties my teachers would have and others activities. When I went back to Greece, it was very different being able to communicate in the natives' language. People really opened up and were very happy I had gone through the trouble of learning their language. And of course I could ask directions, which proved very handy, as well as argue about prices when I felt I was being ripped off.

In London, over the years, meeting so many Greek, Spanish and Italians, I've been able to practise these languages learnt at school or as an adult, and even though I'm not as fluent as I should/could be, I always find opportunities to listen and speak, even if I'm hesitant and rusty. It can be in the train, in a waiting room, someone lost in the street, facebook articles in the language, it's regular and fun contact with the language which matters.

Many years ago, I started to learn Albanian as I was very close to someone who was a native speaker. One could think it's a useless language to know. Not quite so. Last year, I met a few Albanians whilst networking and had an Albanian family behind me in the shuttle when travelling back at Christmas. Even though I only remember 3 or 4 words, it establishes a connexion with someone, who can tell you've had an experience with their culture. Languages can open doors -and jobs - and allow you to understand what's happening around you. In London, as there are so many foreigners, one will often find oneself within a group of Italian, Spanish, French, which will speak in their  native language for a few minutes, which is natural. Whether it's in a professional or personal context, it's always better to understand what's going on, especially if it's your partner's family or colleagues on the trading floor. I mention the latter as I'm thinking of a former student of mine who was learning French to undersstand what his French colleagues were talking about.

My last experience with a new language was Japan a few weeks ago. Before going, I had bought books and other tools to learn Japanese. Being lazy and the task being too big to tackle on my own, I hardy did anything except listen to/read a few chapters of my phrase book and put up 2 posters of Japanese vocabulary in my bathroom. When I arrived, I was lucky to have a few things organized for me so I didn't need Japanese very much, but when I got lost in a Kyoto station one day, I told myself I should really have done what I preach to my students: learn directions and a few phrases about being lost and where is...? What was fantastic was the immersion I had whilst on a yoga retreat before Kyoto, with 2 teachers, one Japanese, one Australian, Lucy, who taught the classes in English, translated into Japanese, helped by Maho, the Japanese teacher, who helped when Lucy had forgotten a word or expression.We were 23 in the class, 9 Japanese and the rest of us came from different countries: England, Spain, France, Australia, Hawaii, Fiji, Switzerland. The expats living there and native speakers taught us some Japanese words during meals and the outdoors activities that we did together. It was such a mix of languages and cultures, sometimes in the middle of an onsen/hotspring that I'm going again later this year.

For a French person, spoken Japanese is quite easy per se, especially the pronunciation, because sounds are similar and simple. It looks like a difficult language because when we think of Japanese, we think of what it looks like and psychologically, this is enough to stop most people from considering learning it. But if you take a breath and forget this, just focus on the sounds, take notes in our alphabet, words used on a daily basis are easy to remember as they are repeated over and over again. Of course, some can be a pain, after all, it's got nothing in common with Latin, unlike a lot of European languages. Something to remember: how long did it take us to speak our  native language? Not months, but years, so be kind and patient with yourself.

In conclusion, if you want to learn a language, do it, at least try, you will always learn something from it. you can go to meetups to meet natives, fellow learners and speak to someone else than your teacher. If you're thinking of sending your child to a French or Spanish family to improve their language skills, do it, it's an amazing opportunity for them, which they'll thank you for later if not immediately. If you want a private tutor because you think it will make you study regularly and focused, you're right, you might even make a new friend, like I have with some of my students over the years. Your teacher will also teach you about the culture and might lend you some DVDs, books and magazines.

The secret to learning is passion, regularity, repetition, speaking, even with mistakes (who cares?) and make new friends in the language, go to parties in the language you're studying. In Naoshima, even with no Japanese, I spent 3 hours dinning with a group of retired ladies from Nagoya - only one spoke a bit of English (in the picture below) - we had a great time, you'd be amazed how much we can talk about with gestures, pictures and smiles. Happy learning in 2015!