Student Spotlight

Meet our student from Discovery Languages, Fraser, about his motivations for learning French

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a retired dentist living in the Dundee area. Married with two grown up children, who have both flown the nest, and I enjoy using my free time to indulge my passion for taking part in lots of outdoor pursuits.

Why are you learning French? Why are you studying for an exam?                                                             

My sporting endeavours keep my aging body in reasonably good shape but I wanted to keep my brain active as well and hours of sudoku don’t do it for me. I had always struggled with languages at school and thought I was one of those people with Van Gogh’s ear for foreign languages! I wanted to prove to myself that I could actually learn to speak French. There is plenty of evidence that learning a foreign language, or a musical instrument, helps to keep the brain healthier for longer and so there is that as an added incentive. I like to spend time in France and so being able to speak the language gives you more confidence approaching the locals, even if they do end up talking back in English!

I find the discipline and the deadline of an exam suits my learning style and gives more structure to my French learning. It focuses your learning on areas of French that you will use in real situations and less on random grammar rules you will probably never come across. The DELF exams test all 4 parts of your language knowledge from speaking, listening, writing and reading. There is a tendency for people to shy away from an aspect of the language they find difficult but knowing you are to be tested on it forces you to confront this and try to get to grips with it. 

How does your tutor help with the language learning process?

Having my tutor, who is a native French speaker but lives in the UK, is invaluable as she is able to explain what French people would actually say in real situations rather than what you may have thought was the case from your self study in French text books. She is endlessly patient, as I make the same mistake for the 5th time, full of good humour and adaptable when it comes to organising the schedule as we near the exams. She knows the areas I am struggling with and so is able to concentrate on trying to help me improve them. She also doesn’t send you to the Headmaster’s office if you’ve forgotten to do your homework.

Have you studied French for a long time? If not, and you have returned to language learning after a [long] period of time, what advice would you give to people wanting to do the same?

I used to buy “Learn to speak French” self study books but I would always end up giving up at around chapter 6 and of course I wasn’t able to speak any French other than to ask where the train station was even though what I wanted was a pint of beer. Four years ago I enrolled at Tayside Language Centre, now Discovery Languages, in a night class for French beginners. I was really nervous and at the first lesson couldn’t even spell my name out loud in French. However I stuck with it and four years on I’m a lot more confident, although I still struggle with the letter e.

My advice would be to spread your learning across different platforms but I would definitely enrol in a class like those at Discovery Languages to help consolidate your French learning. We have had a number of native French speaking tutors over the years and they have all been fantastic at helping us improve our language skills. There are a number of online courses that you can use to help to revise certain subjects, or to take you through a whole grammar course, and some of these are free to use and very comprehensive. However, being able to spend time speaking to the tutor, and your classmates, is invaluable and a definite must in my opinion and it helps enormously with your pronunciation. Lastly, don’t worry if you think you’ll be the worst in the class as we all have to start somewhere and everyone will be very encouraging. Embrace the fear and do it anyway! 

What is your favourite part about learning French?

There are two. Firstly, it’s great fun and a great laugh at the classes. Over the years we have become friends and have even been out as a group to see French Cinema films for example.

Secondly, there is a great deal of satisfaction of being in France and being able to conduct a whole conversation in French whether it be buying your bus or train tickets for your day trip or ordering your meal.

Earlier this month we caught up with Barry Ferguson, who has been learning Mandarin with Discovery Languages.

Photo credit: Jen Owens

Why did you decide to study Mandarin?

“This coincided with lockdown, supporting my son who also needed something to focus on. I would like to visit China in the future and learn a bit more about it. It will maybe come in useful in my job. It’s a bit different! I could have chosen an easier language, but this opens up the culture, for example learning how the characters are formed.”

“I expected to do just to ten weeks and then that would be it, but I kept going. My son will be sitting the Chinese HSK1 exams. I see it as a really positive experience, and it has kept us sane during lockdown. During the full lockdown earlier in the year, it provided an anchor point in the week and some structure.”

What is your day job?

“I am charge of fundraising at V&A Dundee. We are a charity and need to raise over £1 million per year towards the running costs.”

How might the Mandarin lessons help you with your job?

“At V&A we fly the flag for Scotland internationally. There are opportunities when the Chinese Consul General has visited the museum, and there will be future exhibitions. There are big markets in China for Scottish companies. China is the world’s second biggest economy and it is important to develop business links and cultural business diplomacy. They are potential partners, and it would be useful if there are Mandarin speakers from the V&A side.”

How did you find online learning?

“I’ve never done online learning and it took a while to get into to. It’s a slightly different way of learning but you definitely get used to it.”

“There are mental health benefits and a general focus that takes you away from work for 90 minutes. You need to concentrate but afterwards I feel rejuvenated and refreshed.”

What about the tutor?

“She is such a nice person, cheerful and smiley. The lessons are a joy – even when the topic is difficult! She is a large part of the enjoyment. In normal times there would have been more social events and experiencing things that we are talking about in class. For example during the Moon Festival, she told us she would have made moon cakes for us in the class. The plan is to go for a meal to a Chinese restaurant when the lockdown is ended and all the students will order their meal using Mandarin!”

What happens in a typical lesson?

“In a typical lesson there is often a video about an aspect of Chinese culture. We use a standard text book from the Confucius Institute, HSK1. We do exercises in the book and also quizzes and additional vocabulary. The lessons are not just about passing the exam but this is an option. It would be very useful if I went to China for work.”

“The language is like nothing else that I have experienced. In European languages there are usually some words that you recognise. With Mandarin, there are no similarities. The tutor adds a lot of her own experiences and the sessions contain a good mix of activities. For ninety minutes you must concentrate really hard.”

Is it difficult?

“Yes, it’s difficult. This is because it’s so different to what we have experienced. It looks different. First you have to learn the pin-yin system which is a phonetic version of the sounds in Mandarin. We learned it in three or four weeks.  In this way you get as close as possible to pronouncing the sounds. Mandarin has tones, and the same word can be pronounced completely differently and have a different meaning. Mandarin grammar is easier though as the vocabulary is more important. Now I am starting to recognise Mandarin characters and it makes sense. It’s so interesting and the initial hurdle is outweighed by the fascinating aspect of the language.”

Are you good at learning languages anyway?

“I’m not particularly good at languages. I have done French before and I can get by in France. Learning Mandarin has given me confidence that if I can learn this, I can learn other languages.”

Would you recommend learning Mandarin with Discovery Languages?

“I would definitely recommend it! It’s really interesting, a good brain workout, and you learn about a different culture in a deep and meaningful way.”

“Mandarin is the language which English speakers should be learning now!”