Somerset Times

Life of Language: Parlez-vous français?

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Somerset Times Edition

Week 3,
Term Two, 2016

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Learning other languages changed my life – sounds dramatic doesn’t it, but it did; well, changed the course of my life at any rate.

Studying French at high school and university, and then later on Japanese when I taught at another school, as well as learning some Dutch to facilitate basic communication when travel opportunities opened up in The Netherlands, provided me with an exciting career where I could put my passion for language into practice. Studying French at high school was a given for me; my mother had instilled a love of words early on and the prospect of being able to read, write and speak in another language seemed irresistibly appealing. That initial excitement remains just as vibrant today as it was then, and to be able to communicate and imbue some of that passion for language learning in my students, is a gift beyond measure.

As early as the 18th Century, the benefits of learning a language in addition to your mother tongue were recognised – von Goethe summed it up beautifully when he wrote ‘Those who know nothing of foreign languages, know nothing of their own.’ Learning a Language Other Than English (LOTE). does indeed teach you much about the functionality of your native language. To me, though, it is so much more than knowing the difference between an infinitive and an indicative pronoun. Languages broadened my cultural outlook, making travel experiences throughout Francophone countries such as France, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxemburg more meaningful and cultural exchanges more rewarding. Sharing these experiences with students is a privilege when you can see them travelling and thrilling to the same linguistic journey of communicative discovery.

I will never forget the impact of my first trip to Paris when I finished my degree. Nothing prepares you for that first tantalising glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, no matter how many times you’ve seen it depicted in glossy magazines and on television – and the incurable romantic in me is convinced nothing compares. Paris is a great city to just walk around soaking up the atmosphere (and a great excuse to sample pâtisseries along the way!), and the experience is all the more enriching if you can communicate with the locals. It also helps if you can order exactly what you would like to eat or drink and avoid cross-cultural mishaps like the unfortunate man who just wanted a café latté and ended up with six! This can be awkward, not to mention expensive!

It is difficult to imagine that my life would have been as colourful and rich without having been exposed to other languages. That travel opportunities would have been fewer and less rewarding is certain. My love of literature was intense from an early age and to be able to extend my cultural horizons by reading the works of amazing writers like Camus, Hugo, Flaubert and Sartre in the original text is thrilling. French language permeates cultural experiences across genres, with many novels, films, poems, plays and songs containing smatterings of French vocabulary. The listening, watching or reading experience becomes all the richer for understanding these words.

Australia, because it is so geographically isolated, has been culturally enriched by its migrant populations. Only a couple of decades ago, it was often an uphill battle to convince Australians the advantages of learning a LOTE. With the inroads of technology and increased globalisation, however, the benefits of learning other languages are self-evident. French is spoken widely throughout many regions of the world, not just in four European countries. It is wonderful that more people are now able to recognise the usefulness of being able to speak French and how it can also broaden empathy, foster greater tolerance towards different ethnicities, improve the cultural outlook of children as well extend their imagination and impact brain development in a positive way.

How I would love to have a ‘Midnight in Paris’ experience in which I could temporarily be transported back to the time when charismatic writers such as Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald and artists such as Dali infused the Parisien café scene and streets with the hum of their artistic conversations. Or to have been a fly on the wall when James Joyce was completing ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ in the Shakespeare and Company bookshop where he was working in exchange for lodging. The bookshop, although closed during the war, has relocated and remains just as intriguing with all its fascinating nooks and crannies today.

One thing is certain – it is never too late to learn a language. And making the first step has never been easier. If you haven’t tried it yet, give it a go. You won’t regret it!

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