Learning Languages in the UK

Bonjour!  Je m’appelle Mathieu.  J’apprends le francais, mais c’est difficule parce que j’habite dans Grande-Bretagne.

…And that’s about as much as I can eek out from my limited knowledge of French.  Some of that was even possibly wrong.  What I tried to say was: “Hello!  I am called Mathew.  I am learning French, but this is difficult because I live in Britain.”  That’s poorly expressed, but my point was that our education system in this country leaves us at a disadvantage for learning languages because we start so late.  I first began learning French in school at the age of 10, years later than children learn a second language in other countries, and continued until achieving a standard grade at the age of 15.  It stopped being compulsory when I was 13, giving me a mere four years of compulsory tuition.  Two of these years, in primary school, consisted of just one hour a week.

Is it any wonder that our country is so monolingual?  This was particularly driven home during various pen-pal projects set up – across Norway, Sweden, France and Italy, if memory serves – when they would boast of fluency in their native language, English, and also a third language.  We always conversed in English, of course, but how I envied them.

If I’m so desperate to learn another language why did I drop French at school, you might ask?  I could have continued it to Higher level and even Advanced Higher level, with the opportunity for a school trip to Nice.  In retrospect I regret not continuing with it but at the time it had become so much of a chore.  Because we’d started so late and so slowly, by the time we really began gaining momentum our natural ability to pick up languages had been compromised.  I read once that this ability declines rapidly after the age of 11 or so.

Also, I really didn’t enjoy the pressures placed upon us by the constant preparation for exams.  Learning languages should be a fun, fulfilling process, and while our exceptionally motivational teacher did make the class more bearable than it might otherwise have been, the system really made me tire of the subject.  Assignments consisted of learning pages of speeches or questions/answers I didn’t understand – something which would be dull even in English; of straining to catch words on old tapes then being marked 25% again and again; of racing the clock to get enough words translated to make sense of a document.  It’s a wonder I ever managed to scrape a ‘1’ (Standard Grade equivalent to an ‘A’).

Since dropping the subject I have discovered the website Duolingo, which has rekindled my desire to learn French.  In the last 6 months I’ve been hacking my way through it, kept interested by its fun, game-like nature while immersing myself in the language through repetition which never becomes dull.  Things are making sense now, connections forging, which I never realised while studying the language at school.  I can now conjugate verbs and ask questions with ease, for instance, and I’m sure once I progress onto complicated tenses I’ll have similar epiphanies.  It really is a wonderful website.  To compliment this new régimen, I’ve been reading articles on Le Monde‘s website – a remarkably good source of news in general, and available in print within the UK – and watching live streaming of France 24.  Every now and then I’ll absorb the meaning of a phrase without needing to translate it, which is a wonderful feeling.

In summary, I do think that learning languages earlier, perhaps from the age of 7 or 8 – and far more frequently than one lesson a week – should be included in the curriculum for primary schools.  As it is now, my own experiences have convinced me that unless you’re given this early advantage, school really isn’t the most conducive environment to learning languages.

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State Schools Vs Private Schools

Here in Shetland, we have a surprisingly egalitarian society.  Though extremely wealthy and extremely poor people do exist, it’s never something which is displayed at the forefront of social interactions.  During high school I never even considered the wealth of my peers’ families.  I was both shocked and incredulous to discover that, in some state schools, kids can even be bullied for coming from ‘the estates’.  We do, of course, have some areas which develop a reputation for being dodgy, but this is never a prime consideration in creating social relationships.

And, quite significantly, we have no private schools.  Every child who grows up in Shetland to adulthood, as I have, will only ever have the option to experience state schools.  We use a junior-high model*, in which schools are dotted around rural areas, gradually becoming more centralised as you progress up the ladder.  There are dozens of primary schools, seven or so high schools, and two schools which offer Highers and Advanced Highers for 5th and 6th years.  Fortunately, I believe these state schools to be among the best in the country**.  We always had access to teachers, who were generally excellent; the schools were wealthy enough to provide us with all resources we needed; and everyone could expect to leave school with decent qualifications.  I have been fortunate enough to see state education at its best.

And yet, still it pales in comparison to what I hear about private schools: one-to-one tuition; studies in Latin, Greek, most sciences imaginable; after-school clubs; exceedingly high performance rates?  I’m sure private schools like to claim they have the best students, and that it’s purely coincidence that these academically ‘gifted’ young people also happen to have wealthy families.  The concept of receiving a better education if you’re ‘willing’ to pay for it is completely alien to me and, frankly, abhorrent.  I don’t wish at all to glorify private education, but they really do seem to get results.  Not just during school, but afterwards; the impression I have – perhaps wrongly – is that private schools are determined to successful alumni in all fields, and that they often achieve this.  Therefore, having a wealthier and more privileged background very probably means you yourself will lead a wealthy and privileged life.  This strikes me as utterly unfair.

But I don’t intend to lament the supposedly superior quality of private schools.   I regret nothing about my state education.  I’m confident there are infinitely more benefits from sending a child to a state school than private.  It exposes them to a variety of views and backgrounds in the natural diversity you find in all state schools.  State schools probably give students a much healthier view of themselves; that they’re neither privileged nor handicapped, but have the exact same opportunities and potentials as their peers, and any results they achieve are solely through their own effort.  Teachers will be there because they genuinely care about education and teaching, rather than simply seeking a well-paid, comfortable career.

I do recognise that many state schools across the country are of a lower standard than the education I received, which makes me very sad.  A year or so ago, a teacher told me about a school in a rough area of Aberdeen she used to work at which was clearly failing its pupils.  It’s an imperative necessity to improve the quality of such schools, to provide a free, high-standard of education for all.  We mustn’t let wealth and privilege determine the quality of a child’s education.  If I ever have children of my own, you can be quite certain that I’ll proudly enrol them into a state school.

*The council currently seeks to close many of these high schools, much to the outrage of many in these rural communities.

**They’re also among the few schools in the country to not have school uniforms.  It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that allowing more freedom of expression produces better results all round.

Fringe Vlogs

So, I’ve decided to start a vlog!  You can see it at FringeVlogs on Youtube (I only have one video uploaded thus far).

My reason for doing this is that I’m beginning to see how the written format of WordPress isn’t ideally suited to charting interesting things in my life.  It has its place but I think I’ll be more encouraged to observe and be excited by the world around me if I’m carrying a camera around and filming things.

I originally wasn’t planning to start vlogging until I began university (this September – 48 days!) but I thought I’d sneak a bit of home in first.  Please take a look if you have the time.

What Do Adults Do With Their Lives?

So, four weeks ago today I left school.  I had feared that an unfillable void would consume my life for the following three months until I left for university in September (Edinburgh, to do English Literature and History – extremely exciting!).  Such a void didn’t immediately come to pass due to a couple of social events in the first week and then being involved with a great play.  However, in the week since that play finished I have found myself at kind of a loose end and I realised that I have no idea what one is meant to do with the rest of their life after they finish school.

Ideally, upon entering this adult world an individual would find a job.  In the last few months I’ve applied for a handful of jobs and asked in a multitude of local businesses if they were in need of temporary staff.  Of these, one turned me down (Boots, because I failed the online test – apparently stating men and women should ignore gender labels on perfume and arguing that make-up is pointless makes me undesirable?), and the rest simply didn’t get back to me.  Of these, I found out that one wasn’t hiring temporary staff so I’m hoping that’s the reason for the rest – I can’t really blame the national youth unemployment of rate of 20% because we’re generally lucky with low unemployment in the area I live.  So, yeah.  I’ve kept my eye out for vacancies but I’m starting to think there’s really no point getting a job for two months only to then move 300 miles away.  Instead, I’m planning to volunteer.  I’ve applied to the local credit union who will hopefully take me on but failing that I might stalk the charity shops.

As a result of this unemployment, I really have entered a mild state of panic as to what adult life actually entails.  Even with a job, unless it’s a dream job – which is unlikely – I’m envisaging adult life as a constant struggle for fulfillment.  I’m sure it isn’t, but I’m allowed my adolescent moment of terror for adulthood, right? (If not, how else do you explain The Catcher in the Rye’s popularity?  Certainly isn’t its groundbreaking narrative!).  For the remaining two months I’m planning to piece together various idea to try to fill up time.  Make crépes, travel to the northernmost point of the country, write a novel/dragged out short story, make more crépes… Oh, and I’m getting a piece of work published in an anthology at the beginning of September (probably)!

Well, I’m sure I’ll have more to do which interests me once I arrive in Edinburgh.  Museums, libraries, societies, the parliament, studying… Ahh… Also, I was wondering whether I should start making ‘vlogs’ when I get there.  My reasoning is that there will be so many visuals of my new life I’ll want to show off which words alone won’t be able to do justice.  I’m not that great a speaker, but perhaps vlogging would actually help with that?  Anyway, I’d put them onto my Youtube account if I do decide to go with that.

Stay tuned!

Leaving School

Having sat my final exam (Higher Religious, Moral and Philisophical Studies), I have now left school. This is so incredibly difficult to comprehend! 13 years of my life, now standing aside to let me onto the next, far more uncertain, path. I’m really not sure what to even write here; it can’t really be summed up in words. I felt a strange kind of nostalgia leaving the school for the final time, returning to memories I had at various locations, imagining the ghosts of people I used to speak with and enjoy the company of – some of whom left school a year ago. And this is just for the school I’ve been at for the last two years which, strangely, I’m much sadder leaving that I was the school of eleven years.

Still, university beckons.  I’m not *really* leaving school, just advancing on to the next stage.  And I have four whole years to figure out how to avoid actually growing up and becoming an adult for the next time I’m forced out of a stage of education!

A Quarter to Freedom

Just finished my first exam!  Advanced Higher History, 3 hours – not fun.  Here are the essay questions on the South Africa section we’ve studied, if you’re curious (in bold are the ones I chose):

1.  How important were the demands of the diamond and gold mining industries in determining South African government policy, 1910-1939?
2.  To what extent was disunity amongst resistance groups the main factor in undermining the effectiveness of opposition to segregation before 1939?
3.  How far can it be argued that the unique sense of Afrikaner identity was the main reason for the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism before 1948?
4.  How valid is the view that the policy of Separate Development after 1959 was apartheid by another name?
5.  How significant was the United Nations in influencing the foreign policy of the South African government, 1960-1984?
(all worth 25 marks)

The first could have been better but I rambled a fair few points and remember a lot of historiography.  The second was close to the subject of my dissertation (which I’ll upload after I get my results on 6th August!) so that was a rather pleasant experience!  And I got to criticise Thatcher and Reagan, which is always fun.  Just realised I spelled Reagan’s name wrong in the exam…

The source questions weren’t so good.  Basically, we have a 16 mark question to compare the views of two sources, and add recall; a 12 mark ‘how useful’ question to analyse the provenence of a source, and add recall; and a 12 mark ‘how fully’ question, to interpret the points of a source… And add recall.  Unfortunately, after 90 minutes, noisy people on BOTH sides of the room, noisy rain falling onto the fragile roof and a bell INSIDE the exam room (great idea), my nerves were a little weakened and I fell apart a little bit on these questions.  Hopefully not majorly, but… Oh, and we had to fill in a page’s worth of details whenever we needed new sheets of paper.  Does the SQA want us to pass?

Anyhow.  Moaning aside, hopefully I passed.  I have three exams left, the next being English on Monday.  Not too worried, as it’s only worth 30% of the overall grade (along with a dissertation and two creative writing pieces), so I’d be satisfied just to ramble together something passable.

Basically, this post is an update to say my blog posting probably will be low for the meantime, but I think I’ll continue with my reviews; I’m seeing Star Trek: Into Darkness tomorrow and I *have* to review Saturday’s The Name of the Doctor.

I’ve also been feeling inspiration begin to return, now I’m nearing the end.  Perhaps I’ll have an array of stories and poems to show off by the end of the Summer.

The End of an Era

Yesterday was my final ever timetabled day at high school.  13 years (75%) of my life, and it is now over.  Sure, I still have a month of revision and exams ahead before completely being chucked out, but… Wow.  I really can no longer claim to be a child any more.

It’s both fascinating and impossible to impartially reflect on these years.  I am incredibly grateful to have received an education and tried to never take it for granted, but there have been many times I’ve had reason to criticise the system.  It’s inescapable nature, either through design of peer pressure, to discourage individuality and push for uniformity; the unfair and unrepresentative use of exams as often the sole form of assessment; and the sheer stress it places on young people, are all aspects I would like to discuss in detail but don’t have the time or willpower to bring together the well-planned arguments this topic deserves [these exams are draining].  The point about peer pressure is definitely one I would like to speak about at a later date.

But of course, there are huge benefits to schooling – state schooling in particular – I’ve experienced.  The range of teachers and pupils to interact with, the friends I’ve made, the opportunities… It’s been a rollercoaster 13 years.