The following article comes from Catherine Warwick, Deputy Curriculum Leader for MFL in West Yorkshire, UK.
Cultural capital is a phrase that is currently centre stage in the UK education system and not without good reason. Culture defines us, as does our access to it (or lack thereof).
As a 14-year-old I was lucky enough to have a cultural experience that, without exaggeration, changed the course of my life. It was the mid-1980s and the Bristol-Bordeaux exchange was a thriving partnership.
I vividly remember mixed excitement and terror as I was driven into Bordeaux by a family I knew little about, speaking a language I barely understood. They were a lovely family but for the first week I had no idea what anyone said to me and dealt with every interaction by nodding politely and saying “oui”. The first full phrase I understood was one used to describe me by the mother of my host family “Elle parle français comme une vache espagnole” (she speaks French like a Spanish cow). Back then the exchange lasted three weeks so this was a baptism by fire! In those three weeks I suffered agonising homesickness and told my French family that my country was missing me in a dramatic misapplication of French grammar.
I experienced life in a French high school, was blown away by the French “bendy buses” that took us to the city centre and by the stunning shopping street of rue Sainte Catherine – 1980s Bristol this was not! I discovered Brie, blue steak, vinaigrette, fresh French coffee and praline. And slowly my perception began to change.
I saw French being used by actual people, toddlers speaking it and adverts selling real products. This stuff I’d been learning at school started to make sense and it suddenly became real. I returned home 3 weeks later a changed teen with confidence, humility and resilience. The world had opened up in front of me and I had met it without disaster!
Without this experience I’m not sure that my life would have taken the same path. My new love of French took me to A Level, to a disastrous experience as an au pair in Switzerland then eventually to university in Liverpool, where I added Spanish to my language skills and a whole new passion was born. An intensive Spanish course in Valencia followed, then later my year abroad and Spanish took over from French.
Without this experience I’m not sure that my life would have taken the same path.
I was so lucky. I had access to student grants and European funding that young people in the UK don’t have today. I was able to travel freely, and I grew up in an environment where new experiences and different cultures were seen as positive.
Many of today’s teenagers are emerging from 3 years of isolation, encouraged to distrust what they don’t know, not only for reasons of infection but through years of anti “other” rhetoric served up with political unrest. In the Yorkshire towns and cities where I have worked as a teacher for nearly 20 years, generational poverty, politics and Covid have created a wall of ambivalence towards anything different and language teachers face an uphill battle fighting perceived irrelevance to everyday life.
How many of our young people could experience the same as me and discover a whole new world with just a small nudge? Nowadays the push may not be quite as severe as 3 weeks in a foreign city but a postcard exchange, a video project or a school trip could be enough to reassess beliefs and set a new path in motion. Now more than ever we need to embrace as many opportunities as possible: where poverty and travel restrictions are barriers, technology alongside passionate teaching can help break these down. This is where I hope the power of the Global Schools Network could lie and I look forward to investigating further.