This month we talk to language tutor Timothee about why it’s important for children to learn another language, how he suggests students improve their linguistic skills, and which language he’d choose to speak fluently.
Can you tell us a little about your background – where did you grow up and what did you study?
I grew up in Grenoble, the ‘capital of the Alps’, in France. My mother is French and my father is German, so I’ve always been in a bilingual environment. I went to an international secondary school, where I completed my baccalaureate, after which I moved to London. I’m now in my fourth and final year of studying Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London, and I’m also in my fourth year of learning Japanese.
Why did you decide to become a tutor?
It started in secondary school, when some friends and I found we were having trouble keeping up with the pace of some classes. So we organised study groups, where the most confident one in each subject would help the others. I realised then that we didn’t always have the opportunity in class to show our best, and that by taking some time outside of school we could achieve so much more.
Why do you think it’s important for children to learn another language?
For children from bilingual homes, I think it’s a really important way to connect with their own history. I’ve seen many children unwilling to speak the mother tongue of one of their parents because it wasn’t the language they were speaking at school with their friends – so they felt uncomfortable speaking it at home. It’s such a shame to lose the opportunity to learn a language for free, and to see a child disconnected from a whole branch of their family.
For everyone, learning a new language unlocks new ways of expressing yourself. Every language comes with its own degrees of freedom and a whole new range of expression to convey your message. I think it’s very beneficial for children to gain this additional freedom of expression – it’s similar to learning a creative art, like singing or dancing.
For me, as an engineering student, I look forward most to my Japanese class. I find learning languages fun, and it’s a welcome break from my daily studies. It’s so much easier to learn a new language when you’re young, so it’s a shame not to take advantage of this if you can.
Do you have any top tips for students wanting to improve their language skills?
One of the best ways to gain confidence is to stop thinking about what you want to say in your native tongue, and then translating it in your head before you speak. Every language has its own way of building up sentences, and there are rules to follow. However, although it’s important to learn these rules, the trick is to stop trying to be perfect and recite from the textbook. Instead, make mistakes, listen to the language until you ‘feel’ what’s wrong or not – you’ve got to start thinking in the language straight away and go with your guts. It’s not easy, but as soon as you make that leap of faith, you will see so much improvement over time.
You should also try to experience the language in your day-to-day life. So watch a cartoon on German satellite TV, watch Japanese reality shows, or read your favourite book in French instead.
Finally – if you could be fluent in any other language, which would it be, and why?
I’m hesitating between Mandarin, Arabic or Serbian. I have very good friends who speak those as their mother tongue, and I feel like understanding the language would help me understand my friends better. However, in terms of practical use, I would love to speak Mandarin fluently.