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26 Oct 2016

Studying and living abroad – a personal experience

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I am lucky. Why? I am fortunate enough to be married to someone who is not a native English speaker. I am lucky because my children will grow up to be bilingual. Although I am slightly envious because, while I can communicate in two other languages, including Spanish, my wife’s tongue, I am far from a master of either. I am envious of the fact that they can or will all be able to express themselves so well in both tongues and will think in either language without the need to translate one from the other. Their brains will wire themselves up to adapt to this new challenge and their mental capacity and cognitive ability will be enhanced.

English, the mongrel language that it is, with all its irregularities, is remarkable and unique because there are so many words and so many ways of saying the same thing. Such a wealth of options to choose from when expressing oneself, that only a bi or multi-lingual could fully comprehend. So many expressions and turns of phrase that it takes years to know what they all mean. My wife often says to me that she hears people saying things at work and while she understands all the words in the sentence, the sentence makes no sense. (English expressions is a topic for another article!). Having said this I have seen her develop, over the course of six years since she permanently moved to the UK, from being uncomfortable answering the phone or being with my family in the midst of a heated discussion, or writing reports about her students, to a level of near fluency. And yet daily she still asks me what things mean. The thirst to learn is always there and the depth of learning is endless. They say that English is an easy language to learn but a hard language to master.

You know you have truly mastered a language when you understand the comedy because you understand the nuances of sentences, how the words interplay with each other and also the emotional context. I remember going to watch Valérie Lemercier in Paris many years ago and being quite lost, even though I often understood the words she was saying, just not the context – the sum of the parts. Although I did have a laugh at her impression of the Québécois (now understanding different regional accents, that’s also another topic for another article!) I spent one academic year in France and only wish it was longer because I felt an exponential improvement as the time wore on, sometimes daily, but the trip sadly had to end all too soon as I was racing up the steep part of the learning curve.

We’ve hosted students from more than ten countries in our own home and noticed the same day by day improvement in them and seen them all grow as people. We have made many friendships along the way and we have already visited one of these students in his native country. Living and learning abroad is the experience of a lifetime and I can’t recommend it enough. I would do it again in a heartbeat and absolutely will as soon as time and situation permits. I don’t believe you can ever be too old to learn even though the majority of students that come to the UK to learn English are under 25. So, if you have the time and the means, do it. It will stay with you forever!

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