In 2014, around 60 Language Assistants worked in Northern Ireland, hailing from all corners of the globe, including from China, Chile, Mexico and Switzerland.
They included French Language assistant Régis Billamboz, who is originally from the Auvergne Province in south central France. He was embarking on his second year living and working around Newcastle, Co Down, working in three secondary schools — Shimna Integrated College, Newcastle; Kilkeel High School, Kilkeel and St. Louis Grammar, Kilkeel — covering all our different educational sectors
But why would someone from France want to teach in Northern Ireland, and specifically in Co Down?
34-year-old Régis said: “My wife and I originally came to Northern Ireland on holiday three years ago and immediately fell in love with the place. We were happily surprised, and having previously lived in Scotland, it felt like a home from home.”
Visiting the tourist spots of Londonderry~Derry, Belfast and the Giants Causeway, they knew they would like to come back someday. And shortly after returning to France, Régis, who had been working as an archaeologist, and his wife, an English language teacher, packed their bags for a two-year stint in Northern Ireland.
Régis said: “I’ve always heard things about Northern Ireland and having studied both History and Geography at university, the place has always fascinated me. Unlike France, Northern Ireland is currently facing an exciting transitional period. France has a lot of history – but that’s just it – it is history. Nothing happens anymore – so I’ve always been fascinated with a country that is going through change. Obviously we had heard about the conflict, but I wanted to see how a country goes on the path of peace, and it’s been an exciting place to be.
“There’s also a strong identity in the cities and towns here and a sense of the individual. In France, you’re automatically French, but here you can be anything you want to be. Many may view that as a negative, but for me, it’s pretty empowering.”
Régis specifically wanted to work in a rural area, and certainly got that living in the seaside town of Newcastle.
He said: “I wanted to be somewhere where I could be part of the community - though I’m still perfectly happy to be recognised as a foreigner – something I’ll always be. I appreciate the way of life here, everybody has been very welcoming, happy and always says hello. This sort of thing doesn’t happen in France – people are stressed most of the time and are preoccupied by work.
“My weekends were spent travelling in and around Down and I spend a lot of my time taking pictures along Newcastle promenade, in Tullymore Forest Park and around Dundrum Bay. My wife and I also liked to visit traditional tearooms and we hope to set one up as a business venture someday.”
Régis’ day to day working life was pretty simple. He spent one and a half days at each of the schools, mostly teaching small groups of sixth form pupils.
He said: “My classes were usually small groups or one-to-ones. I really liked it as it gave me a chance to build trust with my pupils and develop some kind of bond.
“When I taught the younger ones, say in year 8 or 9, it was mostly playing games or role plays, but it’s always a lot of fun. There’s one rule though in my class - no English!
“I try and make my teaching as exotic as I can, to build interest and retain a little mystery – hence the hat! They become more curious and you can see in their eyes that their world is getting bigger.
Régis however doesn’t feel there are many differences between Shimna Integrated College, Kilkeel High School and St Louis Grammar.
“I honestly feel that school life in all three is pretty much the same. My pupils were all extremely keen and everybody has been nothing but welcoming,” he explained.
Asked what he thought about European Day of Languages and its importance, Régis said:
“Learning a language is vital. It opens you up to an entirely new world and is the easiest way to form a new life for yourself. If you can speak another language, you can think in another language and form different thoughts. When I dream in English for example, I don’t have the same kind of dream I would have in French.
“The most important thing about languages is how they change perceptions. They alter your world view and open up so many new possibilities. For me, coming to Northern Ireland as a language assistant is like being on a two-year holiday – I feel like I’m taking two years off to live a completely different life and this is what a new language can do for anyone.”
When it comes to learning a foreign language, as a nation Northern Ireland can be guilty of avoiding it. But languages are vital for Northern Ireland’s future in the world, with global trends suggesting we need more students to learn - and use - many more languages.
According to Régis our lack of uptake is more a confidence issue than anything else.
He said: “At the start students here are very self-conscious. You see it in the classrooms and when they get to a certain age many drop out and stop with languages all together. I tell all my students that it’s not about technique or grammar, it’s about making the effort, and if you speak to me in French that’s all that really matters.
“I wish all my students could see that learning a new language is a gift to yourself and lets you enter a new world. French for example, isn’t just France, it’s also places like Belgium, Quebec and Senegal - It’s bigger than a nation. In my classes, I try to work outside the boundaries of France and teach from a world view. For me, being a French speaker is more important than just being French. And if France opens you up to a new world, think what Korean, Japanese or Mandarin could do!
Finally, as Régis goes back home to France, what will he miss most about Newcastle and Northern Ireland?
“I know this may sound unusual, but definitely the food. My father was a chef, so it’s something that’s always been important to me and family. I think the food here is exceptional – it’s so fresh and for the quality, what you’re getting is really good value.
“I’ll also miss the landscapes and my journeys to work – Newcastle is very beautiful and reminds me a lot of where I grew up. I love the weather here too – it’s nice to be somewhere where you can experience such mild seasons where it never gets too hot or too cold.
“Obviously though, I’ll miss my colleagues and pupils the most – they’ve made my time here extremely special and made it an experience I will never forget.”
Régis was in Northern Ireland through British Council’s Language Assistants Programme which is supported by the Department of Education. It is just one of a number of schemes available through the organisation that creates international opportunities worldwide. For more information visit http://nireland.britishcouncil.org orhttp://www.britishcouncil.org/language-assistants.