Language learning at school: lessons to my fourteen year old self

When I was fourteen and having to choose my “options” at secondary school, I was told that I had to take a language, however I did get to choose which one! As it happened, French was mandatory, and I had the option of taking German too, my reply was “not likely”. Now I wish I had…

I even remember telling my teacher that I was never leaving England, so why would I need to learn other languages? Couldn’t I take something like creative writing lessons or art classes? Teachers didn’t do much explaining in those days, and there was never any more dialogue. I just didn’t get it; this made no sense to me.

As far as I was concerned, everyone in the world spoke English anyway. How naïve!

Choosing my career path

When we become teenagers, we start to experience our independence, and we, of course, think that we already know everything that we need to know to get on in life! It’s only later that we discover how much more we have to learn.

At nineteen I was bored with my job. Having not made the sensible choices at the right time, or the focus to know what I wanted to do with my life, I settled for an ‘easy’ job in the civil service. I’d been put off my only real interest, hairdressing. Any inspiration that I had found from our school careers evening, from seeing the bright young things from Vidal Sassoon, soon passed with my mother’s words still ringing in my ears: “sweeping floors, standing up, poor pay, it’s not for you”.

Around this time, I had been on a couple of foreign holidays and found myself frustrated at not being able to speak to people in their own language, and not understanding all that was being said.

Having a curious nature, it baffled me that I was not able to communicate in another language.

A brief foray into a course in Serbo-Croatian only spurred me on to something that was more within my grasp.

Living abroad

Notice duly handed in at my job, I soon found myself all set for pastures new in Switzerland. This was a daunting yet thrilling time. My mum said I’d be home in 3 weeks, as the tears rolled down her face when they dropped me off at the airport.

The fact that I had been ‘forced’ to take French soon became a blessing. I wanted to live in another culture and found myself in a tiny village in Switzerland, loving every minute. It wasn’t easy getting things wrong and being misunderstood at times when I tried. The reaction of my interlocutors said more about their personality than mine: some were gentle, some rude, yet this also gave me remarkably valuable life lessons.  It took me perhaps 3-4 months to become fluent, and almost 6-8 months to be completely at ease.

Different situations gave me different vocabulary, and I was soon dreaming in French.

The languages industry

Years on, I find myself employed within the language service industry. Here, I help businesses reach new markets through translation, and I have the opportunity to work in a multi-cultural office, speaking French with my contacts and colleagues. I even get to try out other languages too, even making some headway with German, which is particularly ironic, given my reaction all those years ago.

And there you have it, making the right choices at a young age is not always a simple process, and having the right advice from close family is also important. Listen to advice, and perhaps more importantly, follow your instincts and your heart. That fourteen-year-old actually does know what they want, they just need to see inside themselves and trust a little more. Take a few risks. Enjoy every minute.

Also, according to research by Swedish scientists, speaking another language gives you a bigger brain, so I’ll take that!

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Su works in the Inside Sales team, supporting customers with their translation requests. Having lived in France & Switzerland for 10 years, Su enjoys working in a vibrant and multicultural environment.

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