She has always liked French. For this simple reason Eva decided to apply for a bilingual comprehensive school. This very reason brought her to university, where she is now studying French. Trivial as it may sound, just a few years ago Eva had no idea how much her life was going to change.
Six years ago when Eva Lietavová was preparing for entrance exams to a comprehensive school, she was exhilarated. Five years later she graduated, feeling she would never go back there. “Right after graduation I felt, above all, a great relief.” Eva remembers her ‘high school’ times. She is twenty now, she studies at university and, despite everything, she has never turned her back on French.
Every year hundreds of students are accepted to bilingual comprehensive schools in Slovakia. Education in foreign languages attracts ambitious teenagers (and their parents) who see “better” alternatives to standard comprehensive schools. The benefit is obvious: foreign language competency at the level of a native speaker. But Eva argues that studying at a bilingual school is not always about benefits. “On the contrary, much of what the school gave me was also taken away from me.” This pertains mostly to the fact that most of these comprehensive schools are aimed at natural sciences. “I fully came to realize this in the second grade. Chemistry and physics were never my cup of tea. Especially when taught in a foreign language,” she explains. She used to be an excellent student with little or no need to study at home, but she soon turned into an average one, spending hours every day with schoolbooks.
Take care of your textbooks, vocabulary will come later
Such is life at bilingual comprehensive schools. Students are in everyday contact with the language they chose to study, as well as with teachers who are usually native speakers. So any Slovak student at bilingual comprehensive school is able to study the same way he or she would in, for example, Britain, Germany, Spain or France. “We had a French curriculum, some French teachers, and textbooks, of course,” Eva confirms laughing. “Our chemistry teacher would always remind us to take care of them, because the French would not send us new ones.”
Experiencing a foreign language on a daily basis affects people more than it might seem at first sight. A student at a bilingual comprehensive school lives in direct contact with a different cultural background without having to travel abroad. “It was sometime in the first grade when I realized for the first time that I speak and think fluently in French.” She remembers her first trip to ‘the Hexagon’ (France). To speak the language fluently is not everything though. “Even today I would have a problem coming up with a recipe in French. In high school, we did not spend too much time on vocabulary,” admits Eva. “We spent plenty of time, however, on natural sciences,” she says. So what is it that the bilingual school has taken away from her? “Mostly time. All those hours spent on biology or physics, subjects I will never ever come back to, that I could have spent doing something more useful to me. But studying for all those tests, there was never enough time for anything else.”
Eva: I have never wanted to leave for France
She clarifies just how much bilingual school has influenced her. “The fact that I’m studying French at university is no accident. My time at comprehensive school has affected me considerably. You do not want to throw away five years of hard work.” “On the other hand, it is hard to believe, but I would have probably ended up doing something really similar, even if I had gone to a standard comprehensive school.” Besides French language, Eva also studies theory of theatre. “Ideally, I would like to somehow connect both of these subjects. If not, I can always teach because I really enjoy it.” Eva contemplates the future. She is thinking of learning another language but, somewhat paradoxically, not a Romance language. She explains why she did not go to study to France after graduation like some of her classmates. “I gravitate towards the north; I am not interested in southern countries at all. I am actually more of a ‘Slavic’ person,” she reveals, and adds that she would like to study Russian.
It is mostly French literature that evokes funny memories. “We studied Ionesco´s Rhinoceros in the second grade. There was no background information or context; we just read and commented on excerpts of the text. That book was crazy, none of us understood it,” she laughs and remembers how she and her classmates used to entertain themselves during the classes by ‘performing’ scenes where characters were transforming into rhinoceroses. “I have to say that the book is really good. I have come to realize that, but definitely not thanks to literature lessons.” They were mostly studying written discourse and argumentation on various subjects, not literature as such. “We were required to read no more than one book per year,” Eva reveals.
Eva speaks French as if she was born in France but there are some bugs left. “Every time when I write “qu’est-ce que c’est”, I have to spell it first and then check if it is written correctly. After all those years! And it is probably taught in the very first French lesson,” admits Eva with mock embitterment. “On the other hand, I prefer to read Kundera (Milan Kundera, a Czech writer) in French.” Despite five years of slogging, nights spent reading textbooks and often feeling angry or weeping, Eva adds that the application she submitted in 2007 might not have been a bad decision. “I cannot say for sure whether I would do the same knowing how the school works. At the very least I would think about it more,” she finally admits. Apart from French, she has been taught one more thing – to be empathetic. “The solidarity and sympathy I feel towards every person who went to a bilingual comprehensive school, be it French, Spanish or German, never ceases to exist,” laughs Eva.