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Posted on19 June 2018

How studying languages at A-Level has improved my global awareness, memory and highlighter collection

For many reading this blog post, studying for A-level exams will seem like a distant memory! Everyone who becomes a professional linguist has to start somewhere. And this week we asked our work experience placement Sam to write about some of her experiences. 

A-Levels in Languages

In an increasingly globalised world, being multilingual has the potential to be more of an asset than ever – yet there are ever fewer students choosing to study languages. Perhaps because government and industry campaigns to push STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) have been so successful. Perhaps because parents remember languages at school as unnecessary torture. Perhaps because it is considered to be more difficult to gain high grades in these subjects, where results may be skewed by native speakers. For instance, Ofqual estimates than half of A*s in German A-Levels are achieved by the 17% of students who are native speakers.

A-level, Sam, Atlas Translations, St Albans, Translation services, Translation agency, London, Herts, Clare Suttie

As a current A-Level French and Spanish student, I can see why some people avoid languages. They’re difficult. Intense. Disheartening.

And rewarding.

In no other subject have I ever memorised more terms and definitions and statistics. But then, in no other subject has everything I’ve learned been useful.

In no other subject have I been required to thoroughly understand both the history and the current state of anything. But then, in no other subject have I felt that I understand the issues as they are, not just how they appear in the textbook.

In no other subject have I used a greater variety of highlighter colours for the varied types of information I learn, so in no other subject have I had more aesthetically pleasing notes. Always a plus.

And although progress in my language skills day on day seems slow, looking back on the year I can see how much has changed. At the end of GCSE, I was regurgitating memorised phrases on topics as useful as the contents of my pencil case or the colour of my eyes. Now, like everyone in the class, I can provide spontaneous spoken or written analysis in a sustained conversation on any topic I’ve studied, including inequality in employment, freedom of speech or immigration. Hopefully, when I finish A-Levels this time next year, I won’t be restricted to the topics I’ve learnt about.

But I am disappointed that this has taken so long, that it has been almost six years since I started learning French and five for Spanish, and only now am I getting close to being comfortable with spontaneous conversation – and even now, I am constantly searching for ways to circumvent words I don’t know. That may be because ‘real’ language lessons did not start until secondary school for me; primary school languages were limited to counting to ten or naming food. I think that being shown how to actually speak in sentences comes far too late in the British education system, especially since according to the Linguistic Society of America, ‘researchers believe there may be a ‘critical period’ (lasting roughly from infancy until puberty) during which language acquisition is effortless. According to these researchers, changes occur in the structure of the brain during puberty, and after that it is much harder to learn a new language’.

My advice to foreign language students in the UK:

  • Little and often. Five minutes a day learning vocabulary and another five listening or reading to the news in another language goes a long way in improving the range of language you can use and how comfortable you are reading and hearing it.
  • If listening to the standard news feels too difficult for your level, build up to it with foreign language podcasts that you can listen to when you’re on the move, so they don’t take any time out of hard-core revision. For example, Coffee Break is a great podcast series where a native speaker reads out a text slowly and clearly, then they go through the meaning afterwards. This is available in a variety of languages with series called e.g. Coffee Break Italian, Coffee Break German etc.
  • As a step up from this type of podcast, some news providers release podcasts where they report on the headlines in simple language which is a little slower than the normal news. For example, the French news company RFI does a podcast called ‘Journal en Français Facile’ which has helped me a lot to familiarise myself with spoken French, and is available on the RFI website as well as on podcast apps.
  • Quizlet is your best friend. This website allows you to type in a list of vocab which you can then learn in the format of online flashcards, quizzes, match-up tests or quick-fire typing the definition or translation of the words that flash up on the screen. I have almost reached two hundred quizlets now, and when I knew them before
  • On-demand TV is your second-best friend. Here some of the most popular on Netflix, the first two being my personal favourites.
    • ‘Las Chicas del Cable’/‘Cable Girls’ is a Spanish romantic, feminist drama set in 1920s Madrid.
    • ‘Dix Pour Cent’ (Netflix sometimes calls it ‘Call My Agent!’) is a French comedy drama about a Parisian talent agency.
    • ‘Hibana:Spark’ is a heart-warming comedy drama from Japan about an aspiring young comedian.
    • ‘Historia de un Clan’ is a biographical Argentinian crime series (so in Spanish) about the Pucchios, a mafia-like family.
    • ‘The Killing’ is a thriller from Denmark.
    • ‘Stranger’ is a South Korean legal drama.
    • ‘Wallander’ is a classic Swedish cop drama.
  • You can also stream TV through apps equivalent to BBC iPlayer from other countries
    • France offers the app 6Play which I use to watch ‘Le Meilleur Pâtissier’ (the French version of the Great British Bake Off).
    • Spain has RTVE where I love to watch ‘Cuéntame Cómo Pasó’, a comedy drama about a family’s life will Franco was in power, then continuing with this family through the decade. Great context if you’re A-Level syllabus includes a unit on Franco, as many do.
    • There are equivalents to these apps for most languages.

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