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How learning a language as a child opened up France and the world to me

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How learning a language as a child opened up France and the world to me
The world is your oyster with a language. Photo: AFP
17:40 CEST+02:00
Moving to a foreign country as a child and learning a new language wasn't easy, but for The Local's Evie Burrows-Taylor it opened up new horizons and set her on the path to the French lifestyle she enjoys today.
In the summer of 1996 - when I was nine years old - my family moved from south London to Spain.
 
I had been on holiday to Spain once before - a package holiday to Mallorca which my mother had made sure was equal parts kids fun (pirate shows and chips) and exploring the villages on the island, which back then was really more of her idea of a good time. 
 

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Just two years later, we moved to Cartagena in the south east of Spain, where my mother was going to teach English as part of the British Council scheme, with about five words of Spanish between the three of us.

 
 
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La Manga 1996/97

Cartagena is a beautiful port city, with an abundance of Roman ruins, but an English family moving there in the mid-90s was a novelty. 
 
Before making the move I'd started reading basic children's books in Spanish. I had also practiced speaking it with a WH Smiths language course - complete with cassettes tapes (this was in a pre-Duolingo age).
 
I still remember the pride with which I announced to my mother in those early days that I'd already learnt a Spanish word - shouting 'Hola!' with a very hard 'h' at her. This is just to stress how much of a beginner I really was. 
 
So in September I started the local school armed with a digital pocket dictionary and the full confidence of my parents that I would pick up Spanish in no time.
 
They were not alone in this thinking. Many of our readers move countries with their children and believe that - unlike them - their children will find the challenges of learning a new language relatively stress free. 
 
Of course in many cases this is true, with children generally integrating more quickly because of school, as well as the major advantage of having a mind like a sponge. 
 
While parents are sitting around desperately learning how to conjugate regular verbs, children have often learned those rules without realising it and are off busy having in-depth chats about the new Spice Girls sticker book (at least that's how we did it in 1996). 
 
Nevertheless, on the way to this and other similar displays of linguistic prowess, it was a bit of a bumpy ride.
 
For one thing, there was a lot of gesturing - something I was lucky my peers seemed more than happy to get involved with - as well as a few months when I  didn't have a clue what was going on during lessons. 
 
This was not always a bad thing from a nine-year-old's perspective - I didn't do homework for the first week of school because I didn't know what deberes written on the right-hand side of the board, meant. 
 
There were also some interesting side effects of not being fluent in the language the teachers were using.
 
 
Having been very average at maths when I was living in London, suddenly I became a comparative whizz at it because it was so much easier to understand than most lessons for which understanding Spanish was more integral.
 
I also became very enthusiastic in music lessons for the same reason - although this didn't seem to lead to any real musical ability, unfortunately.
 
Cartagena, Murcia in 2018
 
When it came to socialising, there was one particular tradition at my school that was essential to making friends - during breaks and lunchtime, the children in each class would play one big game together, often baseball. 
 
To this day I'm not sure if it's something that is common at Spanish schools, was common then or if I just happened to luck out. One thing I do know though, it was ideal for someone who didn't relish the idea of more hand gesturing but did want to make friends. 
 
As time went on my Spanish improved and I was more than happy to go over to friends' houses for dinner and chat with them and their families over the dinner tables.
 
By the end of my year in Spain - after a shaky beginning and many tears of frustration - I was fluent.
 
But living in Spain wasn't just about the ups and downs of learning a new language, everything about it was a great adventure. 
 
I fell in love with the fun of shelling a prawn before eating it - and to this day I don't think a meal is quite as much fun if there isn't a bit of work involved even once it's on the plate - going to the beach and swimming all day, the sunshine - and just a few days of terrible storms - and the people. 
 
I went back to school in the UK when I was nearly 11, around the time most British children start learning a foreign language - at my school it was French.  
 
It was then that I discovered another advantage of learning a foreign language before most of my peers - not only did I find French classes easier than most of my classmates because of being able to speak a relatively similar language but because of my experience learning Spanish I wasn't afraid of sounding strange and instead could focus on discovering another language and culture.
 
This led to a degree in French, a year abroad in Paris, and yet another British person falling in love with France and moving there. 
 
In Paris, 2018
 
If I hadn't lived in Spain I might well have stayed in the UK not having the courage or opportunity to live abroad without already knowing it could be done. 
 
 
I don't think living abroad necessarily means leading a more fulfilled life but that year in Spain expanded my horizons in ways that I will always be grateful for - and not only because of the lasting love of fresh seafood it gave me. 
 
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