Gide, Flaubert, Racine, Sartre, Beauvoir, Villon. For many people these names are remote, or even entirely unknown. They might make you think vaguely of obscure French poets and philosophers, long dead and consigned to musty libraries, but they are not likely to frequent your modern life.
For me, these writers represent the four years of my life that I spent studying French literature at university: hours upon hours reading, translating, attempting to understand their works, in lectures, in seminars, in tutorials, in the library, on the bus, in my bedroom at 2 am in the morning; hours of frantic revision, even tears in the bathroom between examinations. They were four long years of toil. And yet, what have I really gained from those four years? I’m not an academic and I’ll probably never need to know or talk about these people. They rarely crop up in conversation. I’ve never been asked about them in any job interview. What was the point?
Despite this, I do feel that, in some small way, I am better equipped to understand the world and cope with it. Studying each author, you realise that each one has a slightly different take on the world; each one perceives and represents reality differently, according to their environment and their own individual psyche. One author perceives the inherent comedy in the human condition, another chooses to depict its tragedy. When you’re faced with so many different visions of reality, which is the ‘correct’ one? Studying multiple authors makes you confront the truth that there is no one absolute reality, only personal interpretations of it. Whereas before I perhaps held much more dogmatic views about the world, I now have a much more nuanced view of things and a willingness to consider other viewpoints. I’m much less likely to dismiss them as ‘wrong’.
I’m also much more aware of how language is a powerful tool in its own right, something which has a role in shaping rather than just reflecting reality. Certain beliefs and norms are inscribed in our language and imposed by it; one of the most obvious examples of this is how the default pronoun in English and French is ‘he’, reflecting society’s assumption of male dominance. Women and other minority groups, it can be argued, are disadvantaged by the fact that language does not represent them equally: it is much more difficult to assert your power when the very language you speak also speaks of your marginalisation. Exploring topics like these has given me a better understanding of political issues surrounding language, whether it’s the controversy around the correct terminology for trans-people, disabled people or people of certain ethnic groups. I’ve become more sensitive about using the correct term since I realised it’s not as petty as I once thought it was; words are power, and they do make a difference.
There is also the knowledge that however bad I might sometimes feel, sometime, somewhere, someone has felt the same as me and they have written about it. A knowledge of literature gives you countless examples of humans getting to grips with living in an imperfect universe. If I hear a friend complaining about their boyfriend’s relationship with his overbearing mother, I think of how Racine depicted the Emperor Nero’s struggle for psychological independence from his mother Agrippine in his 1669 play Brittanicus. Victor Hugo laments the death of his beloved daughter; Césaire wrestles with the legacy of colonialism; Sarraute muses over the fickleness of memory; Annie Ernaux grapples with gender and class. There is something for everyone. Perhaps this is the most important thing that literature has taught me – whatever your problems, you are not alone.
Whether you are 18 or 80, or somewhere in between, deciding to learn a new language could literally be life changing.
It’s great to be able to go on holiday and converse with the locals. However, this is far from the only advantage of language learning. Here is a list of reasons for booking onto that language course today!
1. Learning a language can be a fantastic tool in defeating stress, anxiety or depression. If you’ve ever felt that things were getting on top of you, or felt overwhelmed by negative thoughts and feelings, you’ll appreciate how difficult it is to pick yourself up and keep going. Spending some of your spare time learning a language can be a welcome distraction from your worries, as it forces your brain to focus on the task at hand. You can also use language learning as a means of reaching out to others in your local community, perhaps meeting others learning the same language.
2. It can actually make your brain bigger!
Yes, you did read that correctly! The Guardian recently reported on the results of a Swedish MRI study on language learning, with Alison Mackey reporting that the ‘MRI scans showed specific parts of the brains of the language students developed in size whereas the brain structures of the control group remained unchanged’. This suggests that the benefits of language learning on physical and mental health are drastically underestimated.
3. It can help to keep you sharp in your old age!
Many studies have suggested that those who learn languages and keep their brains as active as possible will experience a much slower decline in thinking skills as they age. Some reports have even suggested that language learning can slow or alter the onset of dementia.
4. Learning a language can help to advance your career.
Whatever industry you are working in, learning a language can help you to reach out to clients or customers on a much wider basis. In addition, if you can add good knowledge of a second language to your CV, employers will be able to see that you are self-motivated, intelligent and have a strong work ethic. Even if you are not using the language directly in your work, every employer wants their staff to have those attributes!
5. It can equip you with better life skills.
Finally, as a more general advantage, the methodical approach that is taken to learning can be applied to your home life and career. Making lists, setting goals, and researching and reading are all skills that can benefit you for the rest of your life.
Since 2001, at the initiative of the Council of Europe and the European Union, the European Day of Languages has been successfully celebrated every 26 of September across 47 member states. http://edl.ecml.at/ The three main aims of such an event are stressing the importance of language, learning in order to develop intercultural understanding; promoting the vast linguistic and cultural diversity in Europe, and encouraging lifelong language learning.
There are 24 official languages, 5 semi-official, 39 minority and 27 sign languages in the European Union (European Commission, 2006). English is the most widely spoken language and, according to The Guardian (2014), the UK is in the top five countries where people are least likely to be able to speak any foreign language.
In order to mark this event, thousands of activities took place in schools across the EU. For instance, at Bridgwater College, a tertiary college in the UK, an international lunch was held. Students and staff have been able to taste a veritable European menu from its restaurant, including Italian meatballs with penne, Greek gyro, boulangere potatoes, Danish braised cabbage and Belgian waffles. The Spanish students created posters to highlight the importance of learning languages and also gave away copies of the booklet 1000 palabras en español, which was created by them last October in order to support the 1000 foreign words challenge which urges the UK population to learn at least 1000 words in another language ( http://www.bridgwater.ac.uk/news-article.php?year=2013&id=1608 ).
• European languages day official website: http://edl.ecml.at/
• European and their languages, European Commission, 2006. http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_243_en.pdf
• Most Europeans can speak multiple languages. UK and Ireland not so much, The Guardian (published on Friday, 26 September 2014). http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/sep/26/europeans-multiple-languages-uk-ireland
• Students take part in 1000 words in Spanish project (published on Friday 8 November 2013) http://www.bridgwater.ac.uk/news-article.php?year=2013&id=1608
• Vocab Express Competition 2014 https://www.vocabexpress.com/championships/
By Itziar Simo Arroyo
Itziar is a Spanish tutor with Oxford Home Schooling
The UK exam system is set to change quite a bit over the next three or four years. Both the A-level and GCSE systems are going through significant changes, starting with A-levels. What does this mean for current and prospective students?
As long as you take all your examinations by June 2016, you are unlikely to be affected by the changes. So, for instance, you might aim to do your exams in June 2015 and then defer to June 2016 without noticing any significant change – you will be following the same specification, doing the same style of exams, etc.
It is only if you are planning to study through to June 2017 ( or beyond ) that you need to find out the timescale for changes and work out how these will affect you. Indeed, if you want to take GCSEs only, those exams will still be the same in 2017 and it is only in the June 2018 exam series that the changes to specifications will bite.
The A-level situation is more complex because of the nature of the exams (currently in two parts, AS and A2) and because the specifications are not all changing at the same time.
The most important change is that although there will still be AS exams, these will NOT count towards the full A-level qualification. They will be separate stand-alone qualifications. At the moment, you can carry foward your AS results as half your A-level. In future, students will have to do the whole A-level at the end of the two-year study period. The first of the new AS exams will be held in June 2016 but the old-style AS specifications / exams will also be held for the last time in most subjects at the same date.
A good summary of the timeline of changes is on the AQA website at http://filestore.aqa.org.uk/admin/library/AQA-W-REFORM-TIMELINE-ALEVEL.PDF.
Looking at that, you will see that those “old”-style AS results cannot be carried across to the A2s in 2017 (in Phase 1 subjects). To get the full A-level in 2017, you would effectively have to start again, with the specification that has not yet been released. So, unless you are clear that you want an AS qualification ONLY, we should strongly advise against aiming to defer AS studies to June 2016 (in Phase 1 subjects) – unless you’re doing A2 at the same time and/or you are clear that it is the last chance for the A2 as well.
The list of Phase I subjects includes most of the subjects taught by OOL and OHS. The only subjects (Phase 2) where we all have an extra year are Maths and languages (e.g. French and Spanish). There may be fewer centres hosting old-style AS exams in June 2016, of course.
Right now, our general advice to all prospective A-level students would be to make sure you finish your AS studies in June 2015. Then you will have a choice between stopping (having passed your AS exams) or carrying your marks forward to the full A-level in 2016. Then make sure you finish the full programme in 2016 or you may find that the specification has changed radically.
The situation is not quite so complicated for GCSE candidates. The main change to the GCSE system will be that (for most purposes) you will only have ONE chance to sit your GCSE exams. You won’t be able to do GCSEs a module at a time. Instead you will have to sit the entire GCSE in one exam-sitting. It is likely that there will also be rather less coursework in a number of subjects, with more stress placed on exam-performance, but the final details of this have not yet been confirmed. Teaching to the new GCSE specifications will begin (in schools) in June 2016 for first examination in June 2018, so the old specifications still have quite a bit of shelf-life.
Even if the new GCSE arrangements do not suit distance learners, there will still be ample opportunity to sit the IGCSE (or Certificate) alternatives to GCSE. The IGCSE / Certificate specifications are not planned to change at all and they will continue to have the same value as GCSEs and they will remain a more practical option for many distance learners in the years to come.
Good luck in making the right study choices!