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The Day I Became A Linguist

How one French lesson changed my life forever

I remember the exact moment French clicked in my head. It was one of those light bulb/eureka moments that will stay with me forever. Had it not happened, I very much doubt that I would now be a language teacher. I doubt I would have done half as much travelling as I have, and I’m fairly certain I would now have a BA in English instead of French and Russian. It’s astounding, the difference a single moment can make-to think that some of the biggest decisions I ever made can be traced back to a single lesson when I was fourteen years old.

It was the start of Year 10, and I had recently moved schools very much against my will. I had been placed in the top sets for most subjects, including French, but as the group was thirty-two strong, it was made clear that some of us would have to move down. Being both proud and stubborn, I decided there and then that I was not going be to one of them.

I’d liked French ever since I started studying it aged eleven. While many of my peers showed little to no interest, I found the lessons engaging and enjoyable. They made sense to me, and I was able to pick up new vocabulary pretty easily. However, it wasn’t until I moved school that my aptitude fully revealed itself. Up until that point, my best and favourite subject had always been English.

It didn’t happen immediately. Great Wyrley was a much better school than Sneyd, the students in the top sets much more advanced. Even for an avid learner like myself, the jump in the level of work was not an easy one to make. It quickly became clear that as far as French was concerned, I lacked a lot of grammatical knowledge. I knew the words and the order they went in, but I didn’t know why.

I remember sitting in one lesson, listening to the teacher banging on about infinitive verbs and not having a clue what she was talking about. In nearly three years of studying French, I had never heard anyone mention infinitives. This lack of grammatical understanding meant that those first few weeks were something of a struggle for me. I was still struggling by the time the lesson in question rolled around.

The topic was future plans, and we had been given a piece of homework to do in preparation. It involved matching pictures to the correct future tense sentence. Most of the vocabulary was unfamiliar to me, and as I didn’t have a French dictionary at home, I had resorted to random guesswork. Needless to say, I got virtually all of them wrong. Our teacher, Miss Gonzalez as she was then, was going through the answers with us and checking our understanding through follow-up questions. At one point she asked how we would say when I am rich in French, and chose a boy at the back to answer. He danced right into the trap by translating word for word from English: quand je suis riche. He looked surprised when she told him he was wrong, as did most of the class. Miss then said she would give a Dragibus (a French Haribo sweet) to whoever managed to figure out the correct translation. Realising that the answer had to be on the sheet somewhere, I turned my attention back to the homework, and that was when it clicked.

Every one of the sentences we had been given started with the same three words, quand je serai, followed by either a noun or an adjective. They were all in the future tense, and had translations along the lines of when I am older, I will have a nice house. The answer was right there in front of us, it was just that no one had spotted it.

I will never forget what Miss said when I put my hand up. At first she looked surprised, as I had been rather reluctant to speak up until that point. Then she said, ‘Lauren, if you get this, I will take back everything I’ve ever said about blonde girls.’ I gave her my answer: quand je serai riche. She smiled and proffered me the tin of sweets, before going on to explain that while in English we say when I am rich, in French you use the future tense of the verb.

This information was met with many a puzzled expression, but to me it made sense. There was an inherent logic to it that I could not argue with. I am not exaggerating when I say it was like a switch had been flicked on in my head. All it took was a single, well-aimed question.

Anyone can memorise words or phrases, but in order to really learn a language and be able to manipulate it, you have to understand the grammar. That was something the teachers at my first school never really touched on, which is why I initially struggled after moving to Great Wyrley. Lessons there were much more grammar-focused, and it was this approach that helped unlock my flare for languages.

From that moment on, I demonstrated an aptitude that surprised everyone, including myself. With my teacher’s guidance, my linguistic skills came on in leaps and bounds, and I went on to achieve an A* at GCSE with full marks in speaking and reading. Having fallen completely in love with what I now regarded as a beautiful language, there was no doubt in my mind about carrying it on. I chose it as one of my A-level options, and later as my degree subject along with Russian.

Why am I telling you all this? It isn’t just to show off, although I have always thrived on praise. It’s because that lesson was one of my Axis Moments. By that I mean it was one of those moments I can pinpoint as having changed my life irrevocably. When my world tilted on its axis before settling in an altogether different position. Such moments are rare, but when they do happen, they are profoundly magical.

Sometimes I wonder, if I hadn’t moved school or if I’d had a different teacher, would I still have discovered my love of languages? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I don’t think so. Had my stepmom not dragged me kicking and screaming from my first high school, I would now be on an entirely different path-one I cannot imagine having taken.

We’ve all had Axis Moments. Sometimes we don’t recognise them for what they are until years later, but we’ve had them. You never know when they’re going to come or what guise they’re going to take, but that’s the beauty of it.

So what are yours? Think about it. See if you can pick them out. You too might have some school-based ones, or yours might centre around something else entirely. This particular Axis Moment taught me that there is always more to discover about yourself. That what you think is a passing talent for something might actually be a real flare just waiting for the right person to light it. And when that happens, you will wonder how your original path could ever have looked like the right one.

Written by

Lauren Phillips is a language teacher and writer with a deep love of words in all their forms. She uses writing to help her process her own tangled thoughts.

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