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Old Girl Talks Language Learning

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Old Girl Professor Sarah Mercer (Class of 1992) connected with Bolton School pupils via Zoom to speak about her experiences studying Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) at university, living and working abroad and her career in teaching English as a Foreign Language. Her talk was tailored for an audience of students in Years 9 to 12 from both Divisions.

Sarah studied French, German and Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and was able to share with the group her experience of the year abroad and all that it entails. She also gave a brief overview of her career, which has led her to become a Professor of English Language Teaching (ELT). She is now Head of English Language Teaching at University of Graz in Austria. One of the key messages in her talk was that it is important to weigh up what is important and what you want to do. She also pointed out that the people she studied alongside at university have gone on to work around the world in a wide range of fields.

After her address, pupils were invited to ask Sarah their questions. One student began by asking Sarah’s favourite German word (gemütlich, meaning pleasant and cheerful) and, with the ice suitably broken, the questions began to pour in.

Sarah revealed that she wouldn’t change the fact that she studied both French and German, even though she doesn’t use French much, because of the cultural perspectives she gained as part of the course. She talked about how literature, linguistics and cultural studies are all part of language learning at university. When asked if she was surprised by any of the opportunities that presented themselves in her career, she said that her whole career was like that because she ‘just kept taking the next step and ended up here.’ She said, ‘Follow your heart and your interests and it will take you that, because you’ll enjoy it and put the work in.’

Asked how she decided where to go on her year abroad, she talked about the structured plan needed for this kind of experiences and the kind of exchange programmes that are available through universities, as well as speaking more about the teaching assistant positions that many students fill in their year abroad. She also expanded on the kinds of fields her university friends now work in and the opportunities that can become available through MFL study.

Finally, she was asked about the hardest part of the year abroad, and answered that for her it was the fact that she was cut off from home, with letters rather than email used to communicate. However, she also said that this aspect of the year abroad might have been a good thing as it encouraged her to get involved in life in the new country. She advised those who might go on a year abroad in future to ‘say yes to everything’ and meet as many new people as possible, as this is the way to gain confidence and get the most out of the experience.

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