Behind the Blogs

December 2011


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GUY MANCE kept two blogs to share the personal and educational realms of his experience teaching abroad in Belgium. Education Review meets the man behind the blogs, and his family.

The train slowly pulled into the spectacular new Calatrava-designed Gare de Guillemans in Liège. After 36 hours of travelling I had finally arrived. Here I was in a new country, a new town, a new culture, a different language. Liège, on the river Meuse, in south-east Belgium not far from both the German and Dutch borders, was to be my new home for the year. My journey had ended, my adventure had begun.

Having taught both French and German at Wellington College since 2000, by the end of 2008 I was looking for a new adventure. I was very happy in my job – I enjoy the challenges of teaching in an all boys’ school and trying to inspire a love of learning different languages, but life can become too comfortable at times and it is all too easy to fall into a routine. I needed a new challenge. I had seen the adverts for the Language Immersion Award and we had talked about it at home. I applied and had an interview. It was just before Christmas when I got the letter telling me I had been successful. By the end of January 2009 I knew I was going to Belgium.

In class I constantly referred to French culture and all that is France. Belgium, to be honest, didn’t get much of a look in. Belgium for me was a country you drove through to get somewhere else from England. Mention Belgium to most people in New Zealand and you hear the words “chocolate”, “beer”, “flat” and “chips”. Mention Flanders and people think of the First World War and the cemeteries around Ypres. Mention Wallonia and people just look at you. Wallonia, the French speaking region of Belgium, is the poor neighbour to the wealthy Flanders, the Flemish speaking region. Wallonia doesn’t get talked about much in your average French class. This was where AFS was sending me and my first thought was “I wish I was going to France”. Fast forward to the end of 2009 and a new award recipient was asking me about Belgium and I was able to tell her she would be going to an amazing and friendly place. I could not have had a better experience.

Professionally, the whole experience has reinvigorated my love of teaching and learning, it has inspired me to analyse what I have been doing in the classroom and to take both me and my students out of our comfort zones and to approach language learning in a different way.

Personally, the experience was rewarding both for me and my family. We decided very quickly that my wife and our three children would come with me. (If you receive an award for one year your family can follow you overseas after a few weeks.) We rented our house, put our belongings in storage, took the kids out of school and left. None of the family spoke French when they arrived. My three children left speaking it fluently and my wife confidently. As a family we had the chance to travel in Europe, but more rewarding was the chance to meet new friends in our little suburb of Mehagne and to be able to live like the locals. A year seems like a long time but it goes ever so quickly, though you do have the time to really make lasting friendships and become fully immersed in the language and culture. When you return after a year of amazing experiences, you soon realise that life in New Zealand has just carried on as normal without you. As one friend put it, “Not much has changed here, just the library books.”

AFS, who organise the experiences for the Language Immersion Award recipients, do a huge amount of work behind the scenes, most of which goes unseen. It takes time to foster these links between countries and find suitable schools and families. They do all the initial work but then it is up to you to make the most of what comes your way.

As a person who approaches life with a view that the glass is always half full and never half empty, I was determined to make the most of every opportunity. Belgium was not France but it offered a huge amount. Wallonia, as I soon came to realise, is a beautiful region, the Ardennes landscape is stunning and the little Wallonian villages are incredibly picturesque. Liège is the gateway to the Ardennes and while there are the steelworks and factories, there is also a beautiful old town. More importantly, it is the people with whom you share your everyday life that enriches life. By getting involved at every opportunity and by always accepting every invitation, we soon felt very much at home.

As soon as I knew I was heading to Belgium I began to look at possible courses that might be of interest to me. Liège was attractive because of the university there. I found such a course – Certificat en Enseignement de Français Langue Etrangère et Seconde, a Certificate in Teaching French as a Foreign or Second Language. I enrolled, was accepted and was soon heading off to lectures. Putting myself in the role of being the learner again made me appreciate what my students go through. The course took my language to a new level and was a real challenge. I studied applied linguistics which taught me about the processes of language learning. We looked at grammar and language acquisition. Another course was on the notion of culture and the teaching of culture. A keyword in language teaching today is “intercultural competence”. Culture and language are inextricably linked and one cannot learn one without the other. As language learners, students have to take themselves away from their own culture and to try and approach the new culture. Only then can they look at both cultures and appreciate the similarities and differences. The challenge of studying this in French was most rewarding, as was passing all my exams and completing the two teaching practices. Even as an experienced language teacher, these were a challenge because I was teaching French in French with no recourse to my mother tongue. In my first practice, I taught two three-hour classes to 32 beginner adults, 16 different nationalities and the only common language was French.

The other core part of my life in Belgium was my school. I was linked to a school in Ougrée, near Liège. Here I taught some English and had the chance to observe other classes. I soon realised my Belgian students learning English had the same problems as my New Zealand students learning French. As I studied the theories behind language learning in my course, I could apply my new knowledge to the practical school situation and also to my own family’s experience of learning the language.

A year soon passed by and now I am back in New Zealand. I taught during term 4 back at Wellington College and now I am preparing for the new school year. While the experiences have become memories, I now have new challenges to excite me. I am determined to adopt more of an ‘immersion’ language experience in my classroom. Too often people talk about their language learning and say they can understand some of the language but can’t speak it, or they can remember the grammar rules, but cannot communicate. My challenge is to take my experience and transfer it to the classroom, and take my students on a language journey away from the comforts of their mother tongue and give them opportunities to communicate effectively. We live in a globally connected world and I would like my students to appreciate that this world does not just speak English, and as New Zealanders we need to embrace foreign languages, not baulk at them.

The language learning journey is not an easy one, but it can be incredibly enriching. My train took me to a new life in Liège. If my students get on board, I wonder where it could take them.

Guy’s blogs: