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My Journey with Language Learning

Holly Cromwell

Tuesday, 13 February 2024

An exploration of my journey through language learning and my changing relationship with language through the school system.

Languages have always been something I find interesting; my dad is an interpreter, so I learned fingerspelling and basic signs from him while in primary school. But when it came to actually learning a language, I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t communicate, and no one would ask me to, but I could  show off a few words and signs to impress if needed. To me, that seemed to be all that language was.

It was then that I started to be asked to make choices about my studies and what I might like to do with my future. (Because we definitely all have future plans at that age.) I started simple by taking GCSE Latin entirely on the back of the Percy Jackson series, followed by GCSE and A-Level French, since I’d been learning it for years and should therefore be vaguely good at it. It was then that I started to feel some resistance. Language skills suddenly went from being a cute trick to a concern. I was intelligent, sure, but I had many doubts about my degree options. Could I get a good enough French grade to study it at university? Was English Language academic enough? Could studying English Literature ruin leisurely reading for me? I eventually settled on a university degree here at Nottingham that effectively let me continue all three of my A-levels.

Starting university was a struggle, especially telling people you study  languages. I wasn’t the polyglot people expected, and I was uncomfortable being asked to ‘perform’ French on a whim. I also found it difficult to maintain regular French work. This had an inevitable effect on my self-confidence. Was I even good enough to be here?

During second year, I spent more time on language but I failed to be the model language student. I learnt vocab variably and didn’t revise it. I crammed grammar into my head and motionlessly watched as last week’s attempt fell out the other ear. My grades also varied a lot regardless of how much work was put in. What did this mean? Language was both a strength and insecurity to me. I crashed into my exam with barely any revision, engine running on empty and papering over the cracks of the most maliciously organised exam season of my life. And I passed.

The biggest thing I learnt that year is the bar is so much lower than you think. The problem with studying languages is that you already speak one. With any other subject you learn, you think you’re doing great, then you learn what you don’t know and repeat. With a second language you always know what you could have said if only… It’s brutal, especially when it’s the same things your teacher pulled you up on at GCSE. Sorry Miss, I’m swear I am trying, but agreements and genders are just the worst.

It's on this note that I went into my year abroad. I have never been so exhausted in my life. The sheer fatigue of having to think about every word you say, every sign you see, anything anyone says, cannot be understated. But you learn. I didn’t feel like I got any better at French, but I got less tired. Before I went to France, the year abroad looked like this miracle that would magically make me fluent, but it became very clear to me that that wasn’t what was happening. People kept telling me how good my French was. It seemed like a very hollow compliment. Then my parents came to visit, and I was forced to see what the average English person’s level of French was. It turns out I’m actually pretty good! And that’s no longer subjective! I am at least B2 standard.

Speaking a second language almost always feels awkward, and unwieldy, unless you are constantly required to use it with native speakers for years on end. I saw the extent of this at the end of my year abroad, when my supervising teacher asked me to proofread my glowing evaluation and shyly asked whether her English accent was any good. I was stunned. She’s a professional, and her English was perfect.. And yet, she felt the need to ask.

So I know I can speak French, but it’s now my final year, and I’m faced with the idea that I will soon be asked to walk into a room and say “I speak French” with the full knowledge of every error I’ve ever made playing in front of my eyes. My journey with language learning will never really end.


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Barbara Dawson

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Lovely tasty dish. Try it you won’t be disappointed.

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Aunty Liz

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Very tasty and cheap. I often have this for tea!

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Such an interesting article!

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