Languages – You can if you think you can

debbie4-1024x817 I am a great believer in teachers going back to the classroom as learners from time to time, something I do every week when I train in the karate dojo. My training paid off at the end of last year as I gained my black belt in Shorin Ryu karate, of which I am immensely proud. I want to say a little more in this blog about my black belt experience because my message has a real bearing on learning a new language.


On Saturday 6th December, whilst most U4 girls were packing their bags for the Cologne departure later that evening, I was on a train to London with several karateka friends from our Northampton dojo, all hoping to gain our first or second Dan levels in the sport we have all come to love. We travelled to the SOAS dojo for the grading by Hanshi Professor Stephen Chan. We were all incredibly nervous and yet, as I entered the dojo where I had already trained a number of times, I firmly believed that I would leave as a first Dan. This is not arrogance; I simply believed in my own ability to achieve what I once thought was out of my reach. I had trained long and hard since my last brown belt grading, three times a week for 18 months, not to mention the hours practising at home.


I knew my katas, had honed my self-defence moves and had worked hard on my weakest area, sparring, to a point where I almost enjoyed this aspect of my karate. There had been blood, sweat and tears, one million bruises as well as the odd broken bone along my karate journey. But there had also been a great deal of fun and laughter and real camaraderie and it has often struck me over the years that learning a martial art has much in common with learning a language. How can that be? I hear you say. Let me explain.


  • There is a lot of repetition in a martial art until the moves become second nature and muscle memory kicks in. The many drills can be repetitive and dare I say sometimes boring, but are essential to achieve good muscle memory, not unlike the necessity of learning your verb endings and key vocabulary so that you can communicate your message in a foreign language.
  • You have to be prepared to go out of your comfort zone and perform in front of others, just as you have to do each time you have to respond to a question in the target language in class. Sometimes this will be ordinary classroom practice, and sometimes this will be for assessment purposes. The more you do these things in class, the less daunting this will be when it comes to a karate grading, or indeed a Languages controlled assessment.
  • Sometimes, you have to take risks: I do this every time I put on my sparring mitts and shoes. I know my opponents will inevitably be taller, stronger, often younger and quicker and yet I know I am not going to improve unless I constantly stretch and challenge myself. So girls, when the Languages staff want two tenses instead of one, when they demand a greater variety of vocabulary from you and longer, more complex sentences, you might groan. This involves more thought, more effort, but is the only way you will improve.


Last year the Learning Development Group in school devoted a lot of time and effort discussing and presenting the concepts of growth and fixed mind sets in learners. In her best-selling book entitled “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, Stanford Professor Carol Dweck introduces the concept of the “Growth Mindset” where individuals believe that their abilities can be developed. A fixed mindset, on the other hand, is when individuals think that they just have a certain amount of ability and that’s it, there’s no more to it. For example, telling yourself that “you’re not talented at languages” and making no effort to improve is a classic example of a fixed mindset, and it can have devastating consequences. It’s amazing how changing the way you think can change the way you learn and indeed the way in which you approach life.  As teachers, when students try to emphasize just how bad they are at something, we are at pains to make them think again and actually turn it into a challenge: “Well, you know what, I’ve never put that much effort into getting better at this, but I’ll try my best and see where this takes me”. This has certainly been my approach to my karate over recent years and key to my success.


Sometimes girls say “I can’t do languages” (fixed mindset) when what they really mean is “I find this hard, alien, different”, all of which can be true of learning a foreign language, or indeed a martial art. You have a choice: you can continue to say you can’t, or you can work on your weaknesses and go on to succeed. December 2017 is the earliest I can attempt my second Dan grading. I will achieve second Dan. Why? Because I believe I can.


german-exchange2-summer-2015-683x1024 Talk of taking risks and coming out of your comfort zone reminds me of the wonderful German exchange visit to Amberg, Bavaria this summer. We received the warmest of Bavarian welcomes from everyone we met: host families, teaching and auxiliary staff at our partner school, the Dr-Johanna-Decker Gymnasium. The weather was glorious, the scenery in and around Amberg breathtakingly beautiful and our trips to Munich, Regensburg and Nuremberg were enjoyable and incredibly informative as we were fortunate to have excellent tours in each of these cities. Our High School girls were, as always, a joy to travel with, and it was particularly rewarding for Mrs Morgan and me to witness the girls getting on so well with their partners and growing in confidence as they adapted to a different culture, school system, cuisine and communicating in a different language, mostly without the help of their teachers. Exchanges are perhaps not for everyone, but if you want to make real progress with a language, total immersion is without a doubt the best way! We are already planning our next German exchange for the academic year 2016-2017 and are also involved in an international project with our German partner school and schools in Turkey and Poland. We hope that those girls continuing with German will want to be a part of our exchange and this exciting international project.




french-exchange-2015-football-1024x579 Similarly, Mrs James comments on the French exchange which took place earlier this year:

It has been a very exciting year indeed; we ran the French Exchange for the second time and thanks to the wonderful experience that we had, we are hoping that it will take place once again in 2016.  Visiting the beach and playing a football match against the boys of NSB as well as a bike ride around L’île de Ré in torrential rain were just a few of the many highlights.


Looking ahead, the Faculty is offering two new trips this year, to add to our impressive offer: Mrs James, our new subject leader for French, is leading a Paris trip for GCSE and A level French students this December. The Christmas lights of Paris await the group in under 12 weeks.  Having had a peek at some of the photos of Paris at Christmas, we know that the group will be in for a treat. The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre are but a few of the places on the itinerary, as well as “un chocolat chaud” at Angelina’s in Galeries Lafayette!


Miss Mason in the Classics department is organising an exciting trip to Rome, together with Mr Laubscher in the Art department. Last year’s joint Spanish and Art trip to Madrid was a huge success and it is always a pleasure for us to combine our Language trips with the Art department, broadening the appeal of these richly rewarding cultural and linguistic residential experiences. The Rome trip will involve visiting world famous classical sites in Rome as well as the Vatican. We hope that girls participating in this trip will return with an appreciation of the influence of the Classical world on European art and sculpture, as well as soaking up the atmosphere of one of the most exciting cities in Europe. Add these to the already established joint German/History trip to Berlin, the German/Classics trip to Cologne in U4 and the whole year residential to Normandy for our L4, which offers the girls so many rich cross- curricular experiences.



One must also never forget the enormous personal development and social aspects to such ventures, whether during residential trips abroad or the day trips to Bath, Cirencester and Oxford with the Classics department. If this were not enough, Mr Watson, who has recently returned to the High School as subject leader for Spanish has begun a search for a Spanish exchange school.  I am hugely indebted to all members of the Languages faculty for devoting so much time to organising these trips which are so enriching for our girls and extend learning far beyond the classroom.


Closer to home, I would like to welcome Madame Orvoen to the Languages Department. Mme. Orvoen comes to us with a wealth of experience teaching French and Spanish and has brought many exciting ideas for using new technology in the classroom. We are about to launch a new initiative in the department, “The Language Leaders Award”.  Those girls chosen as Language Leaders will be Ambassadors for Languages within our school community.  They will help to deliver clubs to younger students and help to pass on their love of languages to others in NHS.  Being a Language Leader will require commitment and dedication and in turn, this will be a very enriching year for them.  We hope to introduce them to you in High News in a few weeks, so watch this space!


Mrs Holland is delighted to announce new developments in the Classics department this year including the introduction of GCSE Classical Civilisation which is now available for current U4 pupils as one of their GCSE option choices. This new GCSE will provide an excellent foundation for girls wishing to pursue their study of the Classical world at A level. This year we are also offering an enrichment programme for U5 Latinists to broaden their knowledge of the Classical world, covering topics such as Art & Architecture, Drama & Philosophy.


I wish all our girls a successful year ahead, in and beyond the classroom, with lots of“I can do this” moments. Bon Courage à tout le monde!!