I’ve spent the last four weeks on a CELTA course and it was pretty intensive.

For those of you not familiar with it, CELTA is an internationally recognised qualification that enables you to teach English as a foreign language. It was also a great opportunity to meet some amazing new people and learn from them. I sat the course at British Study Centres in Oxford, chosen on the recommendation of two friends who trained there a couple of years ago. Our schedule consisted of input sessions in the morning followed by an hour and a half of prep over lunch time before teaching in the afternoon. Seven of us saw the four weeks through together guided expertly and patiently by our two tutors.

I usually enter into new experiences with an open mind and expecting to be bottom of the pile and this was no exception, I’d been warned that it was hard work. But I was also hopeful that my prior experience of teaching and self-motivated and intensive working would stand me in good stead. It probably did, but none-the-less I can say with confidence that the experience easily sits among the most intensive learning experiences that I remember in my lifetime.

The CELTA tutors managed to confer a huge amount of knowledge on us during this short amount of time and by the end we were all putting into practice what we’d learned with a good deal of success. I feel that I’ve been given a solid foundation on which I can continue to build and develop myself as a teacher and I can’t wait to get started. As with any good learning experience, I learned as much about myself as I did about the course topic.

Learning is an identity-challenging exercise.

I’m pretty OK with the whole learning experience, I’m never happiest than when I’m soaking up information and putting it into practice and this course gave me ample opportunity for both. But it’s been a while since I’ve been a long way out of my knowledge – and consequently, my comfort – zone. It’s also been a while since someone else has dictated the pace of my learning schedule, placing me further out of my comfort zone than ever. This was obvious to me in the first two weeks of CELTA when I really struggled with the fact that I wasn’t on top of things. In no way did I feel like I was performing to the best of my ability and this threw me off balance. Learning requires openness and thoughtfulness, a willingness to change and to accept that we aren’t perfect and that we don’t know everything. It requires humility. I often find that with the accompanying and inevitable stress, I begin to lose touch with myself. My identity – so strongly coupled to academic achievement for so long now – can begin to crumble a little. Receiving constant feedback from peers and tutors alike whilst simultaneously berating myself for not doing things better was a bitter pill to swallow. Swallow it I did though. As I grow older, I realise happiness and success come not from eliminating this feeling of being off-balance but from accepting it, riding it and taking the insight it can bring. But the whole process reminded me that all learning challenges our identity to some extent.

If all learning challenges and changes our identity, I wondered what happens when you’re learning a language and doing so in a foreign country where you need the language to get by, as my students were. I was reminded of a girl I worked with for some time and felt that I knew quite well. She was Spanish and fluent in English, kind, shy and reserved, quiet and a little scatty. One day I overheard her conversing with a friend in Spanish. It was like listening to a different person. Even her voice sounded different and the personality she infused into her speech was all but unrecognisable to me. I was amazed by the confident, dynamic and effervescent person standing before me. Since then I’ve been fascinated by the intimate connection between our language and our identity.

And what happens when you don’t share fluency in a common language? The students I was teaching on the CELTA course were all adults, all intelligent, engaged and interesting individuals with stories to tell and experiences and insights to share. But their ability to communicate this identity to me was critically determined by their proficiency in English. It’s a very human thing to want to be understood and accepted, and language lends an efficiency to this process. I’ve questioned before the imperfection of language as a means of communicating the richness of our internal and very personal world, but I’d never really considered what it must be like not to have language to rely on. This is a challenge I will face repeatedly when travelling – how to connect with people when I can’t make myself understood nor understand them in return? For one who has spent their life connecting through language it will require a significant shift in practice. That said, I have often thought that language can be misleading. Engaging with the facts and words of a person rather than the way that person makes us feel and their actions can lead us up the garden path and cause us to make ill-informed choices. I’ve heard travellers say that you learn to listen and rely on your gut much more during long term travel and perhaps this is one reason why. Without the chatter of words ringing in your ears you can pay attention to what’s truly important – that which passes tacitly between individuals. I think it likely that we need a balance of both but perhaps it’s high time I throw myself off balance again and learn to rely on my gut more. It is a challenge that at once daunts and excites me. For now, the only thing I know for sure is that my respect has deepened towards anyone that comes to a foreign country without the language with a willingness to engage in the learning process. I hope I’m up to the same challenge. I think it would not go amiss in our current political climate to acknowledge this challenge and respect those who undertake it.