Look where languages took me?

Two former pupils from schools who took part in a visit to Tuebingen in Germany, organised by the county council, share their stories about how languages changed their lives.

Anne McElvoy and Fiona Hill

Languages have been a huge part of my life, both personally and professionally – and the roots of that were the chance to study modern languages at school in Lanchester – and especially the motivation of the school exchanges I took part in with France and Germany in the late 1970s and 1980s.

For one thing, they grounded early-stage language lessons, which can feel remote and barely relevant to real life in places where we could meet and mingle with cultures and make friends of our own age.

I always tell those setting out to learn languages now that the early part is often the hardest – because the effort-reward ratio feels offputting.

But slog through the vocab and grammar lists and you will find yourself, miraculously, able to have a conversation with someone fun, or get something done a lot more quickly than shouting, gesticulating and (nowadays) trying to navigate Google Translate.

For some of us, languages became the academic challenge we enjoyed. I sat my Oxford entrance papers in French and German and leant a lot on the experience and curiosity those early exchanges had awakened in me.

The practical benefit of learning languages

I know a lot of pupils will be wondering what practical good languages are. To that I can only say that I have had a far richer professional life, with much more variety – living in Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia – because my languages enabled me to get up to speed easily in a new place. 

And once you have learned one or two different tongues, the language mountain feels easier to climb – so I took on Russian and ended up as Moscow Bureau Chief for The Times. Coincidentally, my professional life brings me into contact with Fiona Hill – another ‘alum” of the County Durham language exchanges who has forged a path to the top of US security and Russia analysis and we’re both proud to share this background and have gained so much from it.

It’s easy to think that the business and diplomacy  world speaks English. But that leaves you on the terms (or at the mercy) of what others want to translate for you.

Being fluent or even able to get by in a language is a different level of contact and familiarity with a culture – and it always opens doors. I once wrote to a German footballer who was a star at the time in the Premier League – and got the interview ahead of competitors because he read a note in German before a pile of applications in English.

Languages really are a door to many different worlds and you don’t have to be a genius at  them to reap benefits. 

Anne McElvoy

  • Senior Editor at The Economist
  • Author of The Saddled Cow, East Germany’s Life and Legacy

I grew up in Bishop Auckland and learning languages at school not only opened up new experiences, but set me on my career path.

I started with French and German at school at Bishop Barrington Comprehensive and took part in several Durham County Council exchanges as a teenager.

I went to Tübingen in Germany when I was 13 and to Ivry-sur-Seine in France when I was 15. My whole family became friends with my host family in Tübingen and we had many holidays together over the years and are still in touch. They took me all round southern Germany and into neighboring countries—Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland—while I was staying with them.

An international trajectory

Those two exchanges set me on the path of studying international affairs not just languages.

Although Russian wasn’t available at my school, Durham County paid for me to start the language from scratch when I got to university (St. Andrews in Scotland), and I later ended up helping the County with its exchanges with the Kostroma region of Russia, including acting as a translator for visiting groups.

I moved to the United States for graduate school and continued with my Russian studies.

To the White House and beyond

I have worked on the topic of Russia for all of my career. I most recently served in the U.S. government as the top official for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council in the White House—using all the languages that I started out studying in school. On a couple of occasions, some of the people I have interacted with professionally, I actually met on County Durham’s exchanges when we were all a lot younger.

Studying languages can take you a long way in life—and sometimes to some very surprising places!

Dr Fiona Hill

  • Specialist in Russian and European Affairs
  • Academic and author
  • Deputy Assistant to the United States President and Senior Director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council 2017-19

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