I think I did ok with the one language that I took at high school. I actually wanted to learn German but there wasn’t enough interest in it, so French it was. I took it until I was 16, passing my Standard Grade exam well (GCSE level – I was at school in Scotland). But how useful was it really when I headed to France when I was 17, and how about now, um, 16 years later?
So, I did well on my exams, and aged 17 I was probably quite cocky with my abilities to speak once I got to France. After all, if you can pass an exam, which is the most important thing in the world according to schools, you should be pretty good huh?
So how did it go?
Um, badly! I travelled independently, with an InterRail ticket in my hand across the North Sea to Belgium and I can remember quite clearly sitting on a train heading into Paris. I had a plan to head to the south of France on a sleeper train so I needed to reserve tickets. I trundled up to the ticket booth, laden down with my huge backpack ready to speak and…. nothing. My mind went blank! What a huge comedown, I couldn’t speak at all, nothing was coming out. Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought!
I thought that maybe it was just me, so when this trip started to include France James also was excited to try out his school french. He wasn’t hugely successful in school, but he’d done well in languages. I was interested to see how it was for him – it was the same!
I think I’ve done a little bit better this time round, although I am still not that great. There seems to be such a big gap between what you do in school and actually using it in real life. I can read signs and information boards fairly well and can work out the meaning of things even if I don’t know the words, but listening and speaking is a different thing all together.
So do I think learning a language in the high school years as a waste of time? No, certainly not, even though at the time ‘I never planned to go to France so what is the point’, it’s been a great base to start learning again. It’s been super helpful in my quest to learn Spanish as some words are similar. But what is lacking is the interaction, you can listen to tapes and pre recorded conversations all you like, but it’s no substitute for standing in a shop having someone talking to you and trying to work out what it is they are saying!
It’s been great hearing the kids speak here, although it’s been mostly just ‘bonjour’ and ‘au revoir’, and Alex had an interaction with a child nearby and managed to say ‘non francais!’ If we ever spend time in another country like Spain for the language we’ll definitely have to make sure they have more speaking opportunities or stay somewhere with lots of Spanish speakers around. I think it’s going to be so important for development.
So we won’t give up on the textbooks and the learning at home (when we are at home!) but we’ll definitely be thinking about supplementing our learning with immersion in the language.