Why I’m glad that I learned languages at school

I can’t contribute much to the current debate about whether the new language exams are too hard – I haven’t seen them. I do remember though, back when I did my school exchange with a school in Germany, and based on my experience of teaching current German students, that the expectations seem lower here in terms of what students should be able to accomplish in another language. Lowering the bar might make the subjects more appealing again, but overall, English students won’t have a competitive advantage in the job market if the language qualification doesn’t count for as much, or require as much effort as other European counterparts have had to put in.

I was at school before the decision was taken in 2004 to make languages a non-compulsory subject at GCSE. I think there are individual circumstances in which this makes sense, but overall I believe this was a step in the wrong direction. Since then, take-up of languages at A-levels has also been falling overall, with German falling by 45% since 2010 *see this article from the Guardian). Still, things are looking up for Mandarin!

I’m biased, because languages were some of my favourite subjects, but here are some of the reasons why I enjoyed learning languages at school.

They opened up a new world and new people to talk to

Knowledge is only really useful when you find some way to take it out of the classroom. Many people don’t do this or don’t have the opportunity to, which is why I think some students in the UK feel that learning another language isn’t relevant.

Once I got a taste for languages though, I started finding reasons to use them. My German pen-pals. My school exchange and the lovely host family. Some German relatives of local friends. Later new people that I met online. I got to travel outside my local town and discover other perspectives, other ways of doing things, and challenge some of my own ideas.

Something I could be good at

It wasn’t the smartest choice, but at school I always spent extra time on the things I was already good at, rather than using it for the things where I really needed more practice. But I enjoyed languages and however well I did in them, there was always more to learn and discover. There were things that I needed help with in everyday school life, but I understood how the languages we were learning worked, so I had something to offer others too.

I like patterns!</h3

I have creative moments occasionally, but languages made sense to me because if you take some time to learn the rules, you will be allowed to play the game, and importantly, not make mistakes. There will always be exceptions – “exceptions confirm the rules” was one of our German conversation teacher’s favourite sayings! But rules give things structure, and if you can understand the structure, you can understand the thing. There’s a logic to it – you just need to invest a bit of time at the beginning.

My blindness isn’t relevant

Ok, it may have been relevant for picture-based learning activities or watching movies, but we didn’t do much of that at school. My listening skills probably came in useful, and as long as I had access to the texts that we were working on, it was a completely level playing field, in a way that some more visual subjects weren’t. This may not have been the case if I’d been learning languages with different writing systems – there is always a way – but for French and German it certainly wasn’t a consideration. I did both at GCSE level and then went on to do a German A-level.

I think it was one of the first times I realised I could do something that the sighted people around me couldn’t do. I remember interpreting for some friends and feeling really good about being able to facilitate the conversation between people who would otherwise not have been able to communicate. They helped me get around the unfamiliar places that we visited, but I had a role to play too – and that made me happy!

Learning other languages helps you to understand your own language better

Training to become an English teacher definitely does that as well, but when you start learning about tenses, sentence structure, and ways to communicate ideas in other languages, it helps you to understand how your native language works too. If you’re a language nerd, it’s interesting to see the differences and similarities.

They were useful for my career

Well, German was. I haven’t done anything with my French since leaving school, but I remained interested in German. For many years it was just a hobby – something I did in my free time. Originally the only suggestions people could come up with were interpreting (too stressful), sales (not my idea of fun!), and translating. Translating was the most appealing out of the three, and I do some translation now, but I didn’t want to spend all of my time doing it.

I now work as an English teacher for adults, most of whom come from German-speaking countries, so I speak and write German every day. So the basic knowledge that I picked up at school is still helping me now, though it took longer for me to actually feel comfortable speaking.

Other languages

After finding out that I enjoyed learning languages, I tried a couple of others after I left school – Hindi and Turkish. German is the only one that I really kept up with, although I can still understand a fair bit of Turkish. I keep saying I’ll maybe go back to it some day.

I think understanding basic principles of grammar – having parts of the language that perform different functions, and the fact that you have to do things in a certain order for the language to work, also makes it easier for me to understand the coding languages that I’m learning in my IT degree.

So overall, learning languages opened up a lot of opportunities for me and it was one of my favourite things to do at school.

How was the experience for you? Did you love or hate your French or German lessons, or did you learn a different language? Have you used the skills since? Let me know in the comments.

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Mainstream or specialist school – my thoughts and experiences

This is often a subject that evokes heated discussions. Sometimes objective, sometimes verging on the aggressive. People seem so easily caught up in the “us and them” mentality, whoever the us and them happens to be at any given time.

I don’t want to do that though. I have strong opinions on this subject, but I’m certainly not here to tell other people what to do, and I’ll listen to anyone who can stay civil!

Originally, the plan was always for me to attend a specialist boarding school for blind children. I really didn’t want to go. I liked living with my family and couldn’t think of any reason why I would want to go and live somewhere else with people that I didn’t know. Who would do that?

However, Before the time I was due to be sent away, my family had a change of heart. Thanks partly to the new technology I received, I was able to attend the local primary school. I attended four schools in total and was the only totally blind child and Braille reader there.

What was it like?

I can’t make a comparison as some people can who attended a mixture of specialist and mainstream schools. Mainstream school was all I knew. I had my specialist equipment – at first a Braille machine and the old BBC micro. Later I updated to a Braille notetaking device from which you could get printed or Braille copies of work, depending on whether you connected it to a normal printer or a Braille printing device. Later I moved to a laptop, and this is what I’ve continued with throughout my working life.

My books and any worksheets that I needed were prepared by an assistant so that I had them in Braille. I also had huge Braille books for my lessons – the German pocket dictionary was 10 large A4 volumes! The books that I studied for English A levels were 7 or 8 volumes each. I had so much to carry – at one point I was banned from carrying books for more than one lesson at a time due to worries about manual handling and the strain on my back! Now I do a lot more electronically, but I still maintain that it’s important for children to learn to read in Braille. Nowadays, electronic Braille displays are much more common than they were when I was at school.

At the beginning I had a learning assistant with me all the time. This lessened as I grew older and in the end I only had the support for maths, or practical subjects where I might be let loose with an electric saw or equipment for experiments in the science lab. During A-level lessons, I didn’t need any support.

My favourite subjects were languages – in my case English, French and German. I preferred science and humanities to the arts. Maths drove me crazy, although I still got a decent grade, and PE and games were the worst. Not because I was lazy, but I thought some of the activities I was asked to join in with were pretty pointless. I became more interested when I was allowed to do things that made sense to me, like using the gym equipment or going swimming. Cross-country in the snow was just the worst, and I didn’t enjoy learning about games that I would not be able to play. I enjoyed school because I didn’t struggle academically. Games was a reminder of what I couldn’t do, which is why I was glad when I could go swimming instead. And of course I had my horse-riding outside of school!

I’ve since learned that there are team sports for blind people, but I’m not sure I’d have been interested if I’d known about them before – too rough – too dangerous – I’d rather have had my head stuck in a book!

I always had friends, but I preferred smaller groups of good friends to socialising with lots of people and being part of a big crowd. I was never bullied, but I was never that fussed about being popular either. Some people would like me – others wouldn’t. That’s kind of how I go through life now. I saw no point in changing myself to fit with whatever expectation was popular at the time, and my main point of being there was to learn.

Having said that, I made some lovely friends and have good memories of the things we got up to.

I was often resistant to socialising in the way people wanted me to – that shows in the school reports – but part of the deal there was that I just didn’t like being in the noisy lunch hall or outside.

Apart from some differences, such as art, where I was allowed to work with clay rather than to draw things, I did pretty much the same as everyone else. I had friends who helped me, but I helped them too. I gravitated towards specific roles in group work, such as presenting or writing, rather than gathering the information from inaccessible books, but at the end of the day, someone needed to fulfil that role and often others were happy for me to stand up in front of the class because they didn’t want to.

Teachers learned that my friends shouldn’t be used to compensate for their lack of preparation – I needed accessible materials and it wasn’t ok to ask people to read things to me that were still warm because they’d just been dashed off the photocopier! Supply teachers didn’t always get this, but I think on some occasions nobody had even told them that I’d be in their class!

Of course not everything was easy at school. I had the same exam stress, friend troubles, achievements and disappointments as everyone else. I was strong-willed and determined, which got things done, but didn’t always make me popular! It said on my year 7 report that I didn’t suffer fools gladly, and that included adults who thought they knew best, but were suggesting things that had no chance of working. But somehow this set me up for life in a world where things aren’t always accessible and you do sometimes need to stand up for yourself to get the things that you need.

As a younger child, I was always involved in the school productions. Acting wasn’t my thing, but I wasn’t scared of reading in front of a hall full of parents, and that type of job was always going to be available!

For the last two years (12 and 13) I moved to a different school because my one didn’t have a sixth form. I wasn’t the only new girl, but a lot of the other people knew each other, and I was welcomed accepted there.

Maybe there are a few things we could have done differently. I’m an “all or nothing” kind of girl – so I can’t be kind of interested in things. I either like them or I don’t. I think at some point I gave up with maths because I just didn’t get it, and maybe we should have stuck at it and found other explanations for me for the things I wasn’t getting. But hey, I did ok in the exam, and we can always come up with smart ideas when looking back! Overall my grades were above average and I got the highest grades in the things that really interested me.

Being different

I guess I was different, but I never had a hard time because of it. I think I sometimes tried to take control of the difference – to be different because of something other than my blindness. Something of my choosing. So I was Kirsty, the one who loved languages. Kirsty, the horse-mad girl. Kirsty who got top marks in the exam. Kirsty – the Hermione Granger type who annoyed everyone by learning lists of dates off by heart, but who could get a class credit to benefit the whole class by reciting them. My hyper focus could be annoying, and a problem when others didn’t share my interests. However, on more than one occasion, the history class asked me to engage the teacher in an in-depth political discussion so that everyone else could chill out for half an hour! I was happy to oblige.

Kirsty who had the cool tech! Ok there were the obligatory “can you make the speech software say rude words” questions, but in time some of my friends were learning Braille too, and if a teacher’s talking, you can get a lot more down when typing on a laptop than you can with a pen and paper.

I wanted to own the narrative, and not just be different because I was unable to see. Obviously this was a big difference, but thanks to the good support I received and my friends, I didn’t feel at a disadvantage because of it.

Knowing what I do now about additional needs, I wonder whether other things were missed as my differences were generally assumed to be visual impairment related. I don’t think they were entirely. But neither do I think that I missed out on any help that I needed – I either asked for the help, or said all the right things and then continued doing things my own way (“I will try harder to socialise more…”)!

Advantages of attending mainstream school

I think for me, the biggest advantage was that a mainstream school set me up to thrive in a world that isn’t only made up of blind people. It’s a world where the edges aren’t rounded off for you and you will come across inaccessibility, things that are twice as hard for you as they are for others, and things that you need to speak up about.

Overall, I had a lot of really nice, kind, motivated teachers. However, none of the classroom teachers had worked with a blind person before and I had to work with them to establish how we would do things. I did lock horns with people in the education system at times, but it was never these classroom teachers who were doing their best to make their lessons accessible.

When I was about to leave high school, one teacher admitted how she had been apprehensive about working with me and how I would learn in her class. But we did it together. We tried things out, and if they didn’t work, we tried something else. Teachers learned to dictate as they were writing on the board and describe what they were doing as they demonstrated things in the science lab. I’m aware that this was extra work. One teacher used my report as a place to point this out, which wasn’t the appropriate place for it, but in general, most teachers did the extra work willingly and in doing so, made their lessons more inclusive.

I actually enjoyed working with people who had never taught a blind person before. They don’t think they know everything and are generally more willing to listen. Ok, they may not have the experience of blindness that teachers in a specialist school would have, but everyone is different, and one size doesn’t fit all.

So as well as the teachers learning about inclusivity, my classmates also saw someone working alongside them. Maybe I didn’t do everything in the same way as them, but unless there was a really graphical element to what we were doing, I was expected to meet the same standards as they were. I just did it with a laptop and huge folders of Braille!

They did absolutely help me – whether that was getting somewhere unfamiliar, reading inaccessible information, or doing visual parts of presentations. But I can also remember trades, such as me giving help with German in exchange for having my nails painted (I still can’t do it now!) or someone explaining what’s going on in the German video whilst I tried to translate and tell them what was being said.

I think it’s really important for non-disabled children to learn alongside children with disabilities so that the idea will be nothing new when those same children grow up to be adults in charge of recruitment. We can’t expect to have inclusion and integration if it doesn’t start at school.

I wouldn’t want to be segregated because of other characteristics. Most of the time I thought boys were annoying, apart from the quiet ones who wanted to learn stuff, but I wouldn’t have wanted to go to a school just for girls.

In year 12, we had a Japanese exchange student join our class for a while. We became friends and she taught us about Japanese food, language and culture. I had had no experience of any of these things before, and as well as improving her English and learning about life in the cold UK, she taught us a lot too. Diversity is a good thing and we can all learn from different perspectives, or people who do things differently to us.

Specialist schools

I can’t write a lot about this because I didn’t go to one. I know some people who did. Some of them are not that different from me. Maybe it was easier for them because they never had to think about anything being accessible. Their teachers were all familiar with blindness-related things. But bullying can happen anywhere, and blind kids can be as mean as sighted ones. As I’ve listened to other people’s experiences, I understand that it’s not as nice and easy as we may think.

On the plus side, these young people had more exposure to the blindness community and specific activities that had been organised for blind children. Fro mmy point of view though, I never missed this.

Then there is another group of people that seem to have difficulty adjusting to life after specialist school. They didn’t make sighted friends as a child, because there weren’t any around. They don’t know how to respond to people who are different to them because they only knew the homogenous group where everyone else was blind. They can then find it harder to socialise or integrate into the sighted world, or to cope when things go wrong. This isn’t true for everyone of course, but I’ve seen enough examples of it to identify a pattern.

Even though it may be uncomfortable at the time, I’d argue that it’s better for a child to learn how to self-advocate from a younger age, than to have all the obstacles taken away from them, and then fall at the first hurdle after school.

Specialist school may be good at developing blindness and other independence skills, but I’m not convinced that it prepares people as adequately for what comes next as a well-supported mainstream school experience can.

Children today

So, where does that leave us now?

I think choice is important. If mainstream education would be detrimental to a child’s learning, then of course there should be alternative provision to help them reach their potential. This could either take the form of specialist provision elsewhere, or a unit, allowing for some classroom time and some work in smaller groups or one-to-one.

If the local educational authority is not providing enough support, then I can understand why a parent would opt for an alternative. I was lucky. I got the hours of support and the equipment that I needed. It makes me sad to read how some children nowadays don’t. Ultimately though I believe we should strive to have a system that allows children with additional educational needs to learn in a mainstream classroom, both because of the skills they can develop there – skills that have nothing to do with academic learning – and because I believe an inclusive society starts in the classroom.

What are your thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments!

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