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Meet Our Head of Languages

10 October 2014

Sarah Ford’s passion for spreading the joy of language learning is palpable. Our new Head of Languages who joined the school this term, is also one of Nord Anglia Education’s Teaching Fellows, leading and mentoring the group’s language teachers around the world. We asked Sarah about her own language learning and experiences, and her plans for languages at BISS Pudong.

How many languages do you speak? When and where did you learn them?

My native language is English; I speak German fluently and French well enough to communicate in a variety of situations. I started learning both foreign languages aged 11, and continued both through GCSE and A Levels.

I studied a joint-honours French and German degree at Cambridge and my German got a huge boost through my 'year abroad', the 3rd year of a UK undergraduate language course which students always spend in the country of study. I lived near Hannover for a year and worked as an English teacher in a German high school.

To help with my French I took two residential courses in Nice where I attended French language school.  In addition, I speak a tiny bit of Italian and Japanese; I studied Business Italian alongside my A Levels, and I studied Japanese alongside our high school students when I first worked as a teacher in the UK.

Where in the world have you lived, and have you always tried to learn the language there? How are you going with Mandarin?

I lived in Germany for my student Year Abroad, and then in 2010 I moved to Prague. That was my first post as an international teacher and I studied Czech in evening school for three years. I managed to achieve grade B1 on the Common European Framework, which means I can deal with daily situations like banking, transport, doctors' surgery and post office in Czech. I'm quite proud of that!

I haven't started formal Mandarin lessons yet but I've learnt to direct taxi drivers and navigate the metro system, as well as some terms for foods and drinks. I'm planning to start lessons together with my husband now that we're into the second part of term.

You studied at Cambridge and then went on to Oxford. How did your time at these highly regarded universities influence your teaching today?

Studying at Cambridge really taught me the value of working both 'hard' and 'smart' in equal measure! Cambridge has a very academic ethos where you are taught that the success you will achieve goes hand-in-hand with the amount of work you put in, and this is something I try to instil in my students. Learning languages is definitely fun but for most people it is not easy - you simply have to complete the hours of study and of course make yourself practise!

My teacher training course at Oxford University was superb, and from my tutors there I learnt that enjoyment is key to language-learning. With this in mind, I try to keep my lessons active and interactive wherever possible.

Do you have favourite expressions or words in the languages you know?

Yes, definitely, sometimes I even feel like I can express myself so much better in a foreign language than in my native one. For example, in Czech, there is a great expression, “fakt jo!”, which means “Is it really?”… and you can say this with such enthusiasm when someone tells you something you really can’t believe. In German there is a favourite term of mine which is “Freizeitstress” which describes the feeling of having so many social occasions that it actually starts to stress you out. The other favourite word is “Kakerlake” and I like it purely because of the way it sounds and it means “cockroach”.

You are the Languages Fellow with Nord Anglia Education – tell us about the role and what you hope to achieve with language learning at BISS Pudong and the other Nord Anglia Education schools around the world.

My role is to act as Lead Teacher for Languages across the group and so I am here to support my language-teaching colleagues in our schools around the world. I organise and host monthly online webinars, each dealing with a different topic of interest for language teachers, but all focused on how we can give our learners the best experience possible in our classes.

I also moderate the company's forum for World Languages, where teachers come together to discuss questions or share ideas about their teaching. In addition I am designing a six-week online study course where language teachers can learn how to develop High Performance in their language classes.

And finally, I'm available by email and all language teachers in the group can contact me for help and advice. My aim for this year, in this part of my work, is to grow a really active online community of language teachers who regularly share ideas and resources, so that all of us can become better at what we do.

As a lover of languages and travel, how important do you believe it is for all of us to learn languages in this increasingly global village?

I believe it is 100% important for each of us to make an effort to learn new languages, however big or small that effort may be. It gives a very positive impression of us as tourists or expats, when we can speak a few words of the language to a local store owner, server or passer-by. More than anything, it's a great ice-breaker and an easy way to show that you're a friendly and open-minded person!

Here in Shanghai I've watched a friend shopping in the fabric market, who speaks enough Mandarin to communicate reasonably well with the store-workers - and it's not just about getting a bargain, but about treating people like equals and making the whole experience more friendly and fun. My pet hate as a language teacher is the idea that we must be able to speak a language perfectly - it's definitely better to try, get it wrong, have a laugh and try again, than not to try at all!

If you had to choose a language that you think is the one that will be most important for students this century, which would it be? Why?

That's a tricky question. I don't even think I could pick one language - my answer would be, learn a language that's different enough from your own, to open up whole new sections of the globe to you. For Westerners like me, learning Mandarin for example will enable us to communicate with a huge portion of the world that we just can't reach in the same way. For a Japanese student, learning English may well broaden their study horizons.

And aside from the economic and travel benefit of doing so, there is the 'brain-training' aspect too - it'll be increasingly important for students to be able to think flexibly and creatively, and there's nothing like a totally different language system to challenge your brain in that way! Czech is nothing like English, but learning it has certainly made me think differently about language. I think that ability to think flexibly is vital for success in university studies and beyond.

There has been a change this year to the way we talk about languages at BISS Pudong – notably we have stopped using the term “Modern Foreign Languages”. Why?

Part of my job as Head of Languages is to have an overview of all of BISS Pudong's language provision, including our taught courses, our native speaker courses, our self-taught courses and our after-hours Language Academy (CCAs and external language schools). I don't find the term 'foreign'  very helpful in talking about the work we do, because no language is 'foreign' to everybody! I believe we should be talking about levels of experience and proficiency instead, and providing a language service to our whole community - not just helping those who are learning a 'foreign' language.

You may be a linguist, but you also play the ukulele – what got you started, and are you good?

Ha! I don't play very well yet and indeed my uke is in storage in England right now. My husband bought it for me when we first started dating, with the dream of us becoming a vocal & uke duo after we watched a ukulele band together. I'm not very musical and I'm embarrassed about the fact that it took me two years to get brave enough to pick it up and play, but now that I can knock out a few chords, I really should get a new one here and keep learning. In fact, that's what I'll do - thanks for the reminder!