Belfast: Language Learning

I often lament being a product of American education in foreign languages. After two and a half years of French classes in high school and college, my pronunciation is atrocious at best and I can’t understand simple sentences from a native speaker. 

Studying at Queen’s, I’m surrounded by students with functional knowledge of a language beyond their native tongue. My peers from Northern Ireland are taught Irish throughout school and are commonly given the options of French, Spanish, or German later on. I have met many Erasmus students who are getting a degree in the English language and some who speak three or four languages other than their first. Meanwhile, I struggle to string together a sentence in comparison. 

When I found out about the language centre at Queen’s, I jumped at the chance to take a weekly French course. I enrolled in a level below my ability to work on my pronunciation in person. My previous experiences were completely online, and I hoped that a different format would help me improve. 

I learned so much thus far and learning a language in person rather than over Zoom or with a little green owl is so much easier. Many of my classmates are people from the community and people who have taken several courses through the program. 

Everyone is at various levels which helps my confidence. Some are learning as many languages as they can, others are picking up where they left off twenty years ago and some want to learn languages for travel. 

Interacting with more multilingual people than I usually do led me to wonder where we go wrong in the United States. My earliest memory regarding language learning comes from elementary school when my third grade teacher was the only one not teaching any Spanish. My classmates and I felt left out as the other students learned to count to ten and talk about the solar system in another language. 

I never took a foreign language until it was required in middle school to cycle through three months of German, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. I was too indecisive for my own good, and took a year of beginners German and Spanish before settling on virtual French courses for my sophomore and junior years of high school. 

So many studies show that the earlier children are exposed to second languages the more likely they are to retain it, so why do we wait so long? In my hometown, the issue may be a lack of need. There were few students whose first language wasn’t English, and there wasn’t a high demand for education earlier in life. 

With the popularity of language learning apps and how connected the world has become through the internet, I hope that a shift in language education causes it to take place earlier so more children don’t end up like me, struggling to communicate in another language after almost three years of effort.

Header photo: The Language Centre at Queen’s University Belfast offers weekly classes in 14 different languages for students and community members for anyone from beginners to advanced learners. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Tostrud)

Write to Alexandra Tostrud at

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