So this is the second part of the third part of my series of posts on stuff I used to do. It might help to read ‘the first part of the third part’ for this post to make sense. It may, or may not, help to read parts 1 and 2. Then again, it could be quite optimistic to assume that any of this makes sense.
But let’s, for the sake of argument, assume that it does make sense. If you recall, at the end of the last post (part 3a) I’d just moved to Paris (narratively speaking of course, it was some years ago, in October 2002, that I actually moved to Paris) to begin my degree course in French Studies as a mature (but really not that mature at the age of twenty-three) student.
Starting my course wasn’t easy. Nearly everyone else on my course spoke French better than I did, through a combination of having only just finished their A-levels (whereas I hadn’t spoken French in any capacity for two years) or, in some cases, having French parents (which seemed like cheating to me but who am I to judge?).
The standard of accommodation I could get for my money left something to be desired too. I lived in squalor with a nightmare of a flatmate for the first year and in further squalor with a different but equally nightmarish flatmate for the second year. There’s no time to describe either of them in this post, but I’m certain I’ll circle back to them in future posts.
I was still drinking heavily for much of this time and I discovered a love of red wine to go with my love of beer. My French improved but not quickly. I managed to acquire enough French to cope with the basics of surviving in the country but not enough really to meet the requirements of the course. Most of my course mates were also British so I spent too much time speaking English and not enough time getting out and meeting French people. I would have tried harder but I had no money. My student loan was eaten up by the high Parisian rent and my French just didn’t improve enough for me to get a part-time job. Or at least it didn’t improve enough for me to be confident enough to apply for a part-time job.
The first summer I returned to the UK to work, but by the end of the second year I realised that I might not, in fact, have enough money, even with another summer of working, to pay for a third year. Also my failure to improve at French had meant that, although I passed my second year, I was not flying particularly high academically.
So, although the main point of choosing this particular course had been to complete it in three years, I decided to take a year out.
It was a miserable year, working in a series of dead-end jobs but it did allow me to get my head on straight and so I returned to Paris to complete my studies, a year later than intended, but with a clear focus on what I needed to do and how I was going to do it.
The main advantage of my year out was actually that most of my friends had graduated in my absence and left Paris, which may not seem like an advantage, but having fewer friends meant less distractions from my studies. There were a few familiar faces, some boys I played football with in my second year that were good for sharing a few beers with from time to time, but I was able to focus more on the task of actually completing my degree. Also, one of my friends from the first two years had lived in a flat owned by his parents and they let me live there at a much cheaper rent than I would otherwise have managed to get. More pertinently I was living alone and without nightmare flatmates keeping me awake I was able to focus on my studies properly. I also started learning Italian again in evening classes, which helped my French too, because I was learning alongside French people as opposed to just hanging out with British people in France as I’d spent my first two years doing.
I also started watching lots of French television. Watching French TV is great for helping to improve your French. Watching French TV is pretty much awful in every other respect.
That year I went from being not bad at French, to genuinely being quite good. I’d even say fluent. I could have been even better, plenty of my course mates were still significantly operating at a higher standard than me, but I felt genuinely able to communicate and, more importantly, I felt able to access the material I needed to understand in order to pass my course.
I also managed to find a girlfriend during that year. She wasn’t French though. She was from Essex.
But in defiance of all ‘Essex-girl’ stereotypes, she was also the smartest person on the course.
In fact, she was the smartest person I’d ever met.
She is still the smartest person I know.
I mean she married me, so perhaps her faculties aren’t fully up-to-speed, but she’s still pretty clever all things considered.
But Mrs Proclaims is so good at French that I find it hard, even with a reasonable level of competence, to claim to be anything other than ‘adequate’.
Mrs Proclaims also speaks Spanish really well, and picked up Italian to a level comparable to my own in just a few weeks of studying it.
If I claim to enjoy learning languages, I’m really a charlatan compared to Mrs Proclaims, who, in the time that I have known her, has also studied Latin and German for fun.
We both left university and indeed Paris with degrees. Mrs Proclaims with a First Class Honours degree and I with a slightly different classification. Mrs Proclaims went on to study her MA in eighteenth-century French literature.
I got a job not dissimilar to the one I’d left before I went to university. It was all very depressing.
I assessed my options. I applied for a few graduate recruitment schemes but to no avail.
I probably could have worked my way up through the job I had, but that made me question the point of having gone to university at all, because I could have had a similar career some four years earlier and surely the point of my studies had been to find something better.
I pondered and then I pondered some more and in the end I decided to become a French teacher.
Because, I reasoned, you can’t be a French teacher without a degree in French.
If I went into teaching for all the wrong reasons, I like to think that I have at least stayed in the world of education for the right reasons. For, although paying my mortgage remains my main motivation for getting out of bed on a Monday morning, I am quite good at what I do these days and I enjoy it for the most part.
It was not always the case. I did not take to teaching straight away. In time-honoured fashion I took longer to complete my teacher training than I should have done, although it could be argued that for this particular course it wasn’t entirely my fault.
I did struggle through the course though, and found little enjoyment in the whole experience. Since qualifying I’ve met very few teachers who enjoyed their teacher training but I think my course was particularly bad.
One of the lecturers was doing her PhD at the time and we spent much of the course being her guinea pigs. Her PhD, by the way, was in ‘Languages Learning’. I’m not sure that can even be a thing. Surely, even if you’re talking about learning more than one language it would still just be ‘Language Learning’. I’d have thought if you needed to emphasise the plurality of it all you would need to rephrase it as ‘The Learning of Languages’. I mean she’s now known as ‘Doctor’ and I’m still plain old ‘Mister’, but I’m sure I’m right. Mrs Proclaims agrees with me and she’s normally pretty spot on about these things.
This same lecturer used to make ridiculous sweeping statements like how, because we were all linguists, we were probably bad at maths. Which is patently untrue. The offense I took at that might well have informed my future career choices a little.
I passed my teaching qualification without much fanfare and set about trying to find work.
At the same time Mrs Proclaims also qualified. She applied for a number of jobs and was offered an interview for every single one of them. She turned down the first interview in favour of the second, got the job and then had to rebut requests to reconsider her position from the third school to offer her an interview. It has been ever thus for my other half since she joined the profession. She’s yet to apply for a job that she hasn’t got.
I, on the other hand, found my initial forays into my chosen sector to be less than fruitful. I would never compare myself to my darling wife, she has an academic record that has potential employers salivating as soon as she deigns to fill in an application form. She’s in that position partially through natural talent but also no small amount of hard work.
Conversely I, while possibly of moderate-to-reasonable talent myself, have never been all that good at ‘hard work’. My academic record by this stage was adequate certainly but not especially strong in relation to other graduates. Plus, as far as British secondary schools were concerned, I really only had one language to offer, which was French.
Most secondary schools these days offer two, and unless you can offer a combination of French and Spanish or French and German, it can be difficult to find work as a language teacher. I could have offered Italian, my A-level made me more than qualified to put that on my applications, but I couldn’t find a single school that wanted that.
So while Mrs Proclaims obtained a job in a high performing school (it was technically a state school too, although it had boarders, was selective and in a fairly privileged part of rural Kent, so very much not the kind of state school that I attended…) I had to settle for a while being a supply teacher, while I worked out how I could add an extra linguistic string to my bow.
However, it was while on supply that I discovered that just because you train to be a French teacher, it doesn’t mean you have to actually be a French teacher. There are some schools that are so desperate for qualified teachers that, if you’re willing and able to stand in front of a class full of stroppy teenagers and blag your way through teaching a subject that isn’t your specialism, they will let you do just that.
There was a high literature component to my degree so I thought that maybe a natural move, if I couldn’t get a job as a French teacher would be to teach English. And my first professional assignment was just that. I taught English for a term. I quite enjoyed it, but the thing about being a supply teacher is that all jobs eventually come to an end and after a term they’d filled the position I was covering and I moved on.
My next assignment was in a school that had been in special measures and was two terms away from closing down. It was literally on its last legs. A new school was being built to replace it and a lot of the teaching staff had already jumped ship. Plus, a lot of the kids, the ones from nice families with parents who cared about their education, had also moved on from this atrocity of an educational establishment.
Only the bad teachers and the crazy kids were left. It was a scary place to be and my job this time was to teach maths. I knew I was good at maths but there was nothing on my CV to prove that. However, this school just wanted someone who could deal with feral teenagers. And I’d done well enough on my first assignment for my agency to throw my name into the mix.
I loved that job. Every day was a challenge but I learned more about building relationships with teenagers and managing bad behaviour in the two months I worked there than I ever did on my teacher training course.
Plus, I discovered that, for me at least, teaching maths was much easier than teaching French.
And I knew that, rather than trying to learn Spanish or German, what I really needed to do was finish off my maths A-level at the earliest opportunity because good maths teachers are like gold dust in the South-East of England. If I could find a permanent job teaching maths, I’d be set for life.
Unfortunately, I still had the small matter of completing my first year as a Newly Qualified Teacher (or NQT). Without a piece of paper saying you’ve done that, it’s hard to do very much in the profession.
So when the agency pulled me out of the crazy school because they’d found me a maternity-cover role teaching French in another school, I had to take it, because much as I loved the crazy school, I wasn’t going to be able to complete my NQT year as a supply teacher in a school that was closing down.
So I moved to my new school and started teaching French again. I knew, however, that I’d only be teaching there for six months because the woman I was covering for was definitely going to come back. So I formulated a plan.
I asked the head teacher if I could sit my maths A-level at that school. He agreed but was curious as to why I wanted to do so. I explained that I’d taught maths previously and thought that switching from French to Maths was a move I might like to make in the distant future.
He looked like all his Christmases had come at once.
“You want to teach maths?” he asked.
I replied in the affirmative.
“But you know we’ve got a maths vacancy here?”
I pointed out that until I’d passed my maths A-level I wouldn’t actually be qualified to do the job.
He waved a dismissive hand and ‘strongly advised’ me to apply for the job.
I did apply, but without much optimism.
I was up against two other candidates. One was the person who was covering the position while they recruited (she clearly hadn’t made much of an impression), the other was an experienced maths teacher (although quite clearly an alcoholic).
Against such ‘stiff’ opposition, the job was mine for the taking. I did my A-level the summer before I started. I passed it but not brilliantly. It didn’t seem to matter – no-one even looked at the certificate (and even when I’ve taught maths in other schools since, no-one has bothered to check that particular qualification).
I taught maths for two years in that school and in many ways my time as a linguist was over.
I’ve subsequently changed career direction again and I’m now no longer classroom based and work predominantly with students who have special needs. I’ve boosted my academic record with further qualifications – I’m currently a dissertation away from an MA, which should have quite a respectable classification, but I can’t say I’ve actively attended a language class for years.
I’d like to improve my French further. I’d like to bring my Italian up to the same level. I’d certainly like to add German and Spanish to my repertoire. Then again, in honour of my heritage I’d really like to have a go at learning Punjabi and these days I’ve got much more appreciation for the benefits of learning Welsh.
I think, in fact that the bit of my CV that says I love learning languages is not actually a lie at all.
Mrs Proclaims insists that I should try. She tells me that for someone who puts so little effort in to maintaining my French, I’m infuriatingly good. It’s high praise coming from her.
It’s just that at the moment I’ve got no time to commit to it and if the happy day comes when I do have an evening free to dedicate to the cause, I’ve got no idea which language to focus on.
A full audit of my linguistic skills would be as follows:
|English||Awesome – almost as if I’ve been speaking it my whole life.|
|French||Pretty good – I have a degree and I lived in France. I’ve sat through more than a few French films and understood them without the need for English subtitles.|
|Italian||I can order a meal and understand people who speak slowly. I studied it to A-level|
|Welsh||Very rusty, but I understand some words and sentences and I can count to twenty. Maybe even higher than twenty if I think about it.|
|Spanish||I can communicate a little bit. I did ok when we went on holiday to Madrid.|
|German||Picked up a few phrases. Managed to order coffee a few times in Vienna.|
|Punjabi||I can say about three things. I barely understand anything when people talk to me in it. Which hasn’t stopped numerous relatives from trying.|
I’d like to get better at all of them. Plus, there are so many other languages in the world to learn.
Maybe I need a holiday to inspire me, but Brexit has put paid to my plans to travel abroad in the near future. Well the demise of sterling has anyway.
Anyway, there ends my two-part missive on how I used to learn languages but don’t anymore.
Tune in next week to find out what else I don’t do now that I did do in the past.