Book review: How languages changed my life / My language story

‘The decision to learn a foreign language is (…) an act of friendship’ John le Carré

It’s a fascinating read which should be compulsory for those studying/learning/living with foreign languages. The book “How languages changed my life” (Project MEITS) contains 26 stories written by people whose lives were transformed by languages. It made me think how languages changed my life.

First, it was English, then French and then a bit of Russian and Latin and finally Czech. I remember feeling this excitement when I finally managed to converse in a foreign language. It made my willpower grow and gave me the strength to move on and continue the journey of mastering a foreign language. After completing my A-levels in Poland, I went to study Slavonic languages. I fell in love with the Czech language, Czech literature, Czech cinematography and Praha (Prague), of course!. During my studies, I had the opportunity to spend some study time in Plzeň (no, I didn’t spend the whole time in the Pilsner Urquell brewery 😉 ) and the beautiful little town of Olomouc at my favourite library, where I spent hours reading/writing and preparing for my IELTS exam. During my study in the Czech Republic, I met some wonderful people from around the world (my closest were from Taiwan). I needed to pass the IELTS exam to start my post graduate study in the UK. I managed to succeed in the test and was accepted by Bristol University. The one-year study research was one of my most difficult years. My language skills were very good, but to write and read academic texts is a completely different story. But, I worked super hard and managed to graduate from the university a year later. Then the economic crises came. No jobs, no internships, no opportunities. I remember sitting in a local café and thinking, what next? And then I got an email that somebody wanted to learn Polish and then another person English. I thought OK, let’s follow this pathway. I got a job at the UWE to teach Polish and a European Union module (oh yes, feeling sentimental now), then I was employed by Bristol University. Meanwhile, I studied translation and interpreting at Westminster University and Cardiff University and passed the DPSI interpreting exam. So I was a language tutor, translator and interpreter. But something was still missing… I had a tiny operation which went completely wrong and, instead of spending one day in hospital, I stayed there for 7 days (!!!). This prolonged hospital stay gave me time to speak with other patients and hear their opinions and to think about what I wanted to do next. Here the business side of me was born and I founded Bristol Language School in August 2012. We started super small with a few languages and very few students. Now I’m a mum to two daughters who are raised bilingually (Polish and English) and who are exposed to other languages, too (through friends, travels and language classes). And the language school? Well, I’m proud to say that we now offer 10 languages as group courses and 17 as individual tuition classes. I’m even more proud that, via the school, I have a chance to meet some amazing language tutors. That’s my story.

Below you’ll find my favourite quotations from the book:

“I miss that working at Westminster. In fact being back here is like swimming against the internationalism of my life hitherto. I miss the opportunity, the pleasure, the luxury of being able to bump into a colleague in the corridor and just drop into another language.” (Stephen Kinnock, p. 6)

“When I speak Russian, I’m a slightly different person from when I talk in English. That’s a wonderful thing to find out about yourself, and other people recognize it in you too.” (Bridget Kendall, p.17)

“Linguistic diversity is the human cultural equivalent of biodiversity.” (John Fraser Williams, p.34)

“(…) [W]hatever you end up doing, being able to speak other languages means you’ll do it quicker and better. (Paul Hughes, p.50)

“I like to think that one day I might enjoy the luxury of sitting under a tree and studying Chinese without having to instrumentalize it. It’s such a poetic language, incredibly distilled: a whole episode in history, can be evoked in just one four-character four-syllable phrase, like an explosion in your brain.” (Carrie Gracie, p.74)

“To learn a different language is to encounter a different logic, a different cadence, a different sequence of words. It prepares you to think differently and to adapt (…).” (Martina Navratilova, p.173)

And finally, if you still think that after graduating from a university with a degree in languages your career path is either being a teacher or a translator, this book will certainly change your view as, in fact, when knowing languages the possibilities are truly endless. Enjoy reading!

Kinga Macalla

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