I guess the fact that my French exchange started 10 years ago last September means that I am now an Allef old-timer. Certainly doesn’t feel like it! But what have I been up to since then? Well first of all, I enjoyed my first experience so much that in 2006 I did a 6-month stint in Germany, again through Allef. I could tell you all about the short term benefits the exchanges brought – lasting friendships, fantastic extra-curricular opportunities and early-entry for GCSE/A-level exams. I don’t think this quite gives Allef all the credit it’s due however.
The wider life skills – confidence, human interaction, communication and most of all a breadth and depth of understanding one can only achieve by experiencing foreign cultures first-hand while still at such a young age, have set me up incredibly well. I have returned to France and Germany many times over the years; to visit my former-host families, to travel with my own family and alone, and also to take part in university-level language schools. I never fail to forget quite what it was that enabled me to get there.
True fluency in a language, something I believe is utterly impossible to learn in Britain’s schools, is a fantastic thing. It is something I find myself striving for at the moment as I write from Beijing whilst studying for my degree in Chinese from Oxford. I don’t need to point out the link between that initial enthusiasm for languages/cultures that Allef gave me and the course of study I currently find myself on. I wish it was as easy to learn a language at the age of 20! I spent all last year studying Chinese, and am now surrounded by it, but yet I am really very frustrated as to the progress I am making. I suppose objectively I have come on leaps and bounds, but having gone through Allef I know the potential within each of us, me included. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t soak it up like I used to – I think back to 2002/03 and wonder as to how I did it, and with so little effort!
If there is one thing that my degree course has taught me (apart from Chinese), it’s that there truly is only one way to learn a language, and it isn’t just to live in the country. It’s to live there at the right age. An 8-year old has a naïvety and innocence that combines extraordinarily well with their ability to just soak information up that makes them perfect candidates for language learning. So get them out there! There is nothing to lose, and so much to gain. I have never once looked back and never will. There is only one true moment in life to learn a language in such a perfect environment – I’m just glad my parents didn’t let that opportunity slip.