Meet our new head of MFL who's the first to admit she wasn't a natural linguist

Bolingbroke's new head of MFL admits she used to sneakily read novels under her desk during her Spanish lessons - not an example she would encourage her pupils to follow!

For anyone who has ever struggled with conjugating French verbs or agonised over their Spanish vocab, our new head of of Modern Foreign Languages Camille Simmonet-Balchin, who took up her role at Bolingbroke after the Easter holidays, will provide some inspiration. She admits that she struggled with languages as a pupil, and it wasn’t until she went to university that she started to enjoy it. Now, though, she is passionate about the benefits of learning a foreign language, and wants to pass that onto her pupils.


Are languages something that have always interested you?

Not at all. I wouldn’t consider myself a linguist and back when I was at school I used to find my Spanish lessons very boring. I shouldn’t say so, but I spent a whole year reading novels under the desk – please don’t try this in my lessons! In part I found it difficult and there was also no attempt at making languages fun or engaging. However, I’ve always believed it would be useful so I kept at it and started to enjoy it more when I got to university.

What are the benefits of mastering a foreign language?

Where do I start? I may not have always enjoyed learning Spanish but I am completely sold on the advantages of learning foreign languages. It’s good for the brain and there are studies that prove it – for example, it can make you less likely to develop dementia. It’s amazing fun and tremendously rewarding to watch a film or series in another language or even overhear a conversation and understand certain parts or words. My holiday experiences in Spain are definitely enriched by the fact I can understand the passers-by quarrelling, order food, have a quick chat in a shop without reverting to English. I don’t feel as much of a tourist and I feel like I am taking in more of my surroundings.

Any other advantages?

Learning a language is also learning another culture and adopting a different way of looking at the world. It gives you a point of comparison, greater awareness to better reflect on your own language and the country you live in. I think that understanding that there are different ways of saying or doing the same thing makes us more open-minded and hopefully less prejudiced. Practically, you learn a lot of skills alongside the language itself. Working up the courage to say just one phrase can be nerve racking but it really builds your confidence and resilience. Learning languages at school improves literacy and vocabulary which has been proven to be linked to better outcomes in life. At A-level we learn group work, essay writing, university level research, presentation skills and more, which are all transferable to other subjects and later life. I could go on all day on why we should all learn a foreign language…

Where were you born and brought up?

I was born very locally at St Georges in Tooting and lived nearby until the age of 21 so I’m a London girl through and through. However, my mum is French and I went to the French Lycée in London thanks to which I am fluent in French.

What languages do you speak, and with what level of proficiency?

I am fluent in French and speak good Spanish. I have picked up a bit of Italian recently but this is definitely a work in progress.

What did you study at university?

I studied French at UCL.I know that probably seems like an easy choice given that I already spoke French but my real passion is reading and literature so most of my degree was about analysing French works of fiction. Instead of doing some of the French language components, I took Spanish and Philosophy modules.

What school were you at previously and what was your role there?

I formerly worked at Pimlico Academy where I taught most of the French A-level for a number of years. I also taught Spanish to GCSE and worked on the KS3 curriculum.

What attracted you to working at Bolingbroke?

I liked the idea of working with young people near where I had grown up myself and indeed as a child I went to Wix one of the feeder schools. I think I’ve made the right choice because staff, students and parents like have all been very welcoming so far.

Was it difficult starting a new job in the middle of lockdown?

I started after the Easter holidays right in the middle of lockdown and I have got to say it has been the weirdest time to start a new job. There has been a lot to learn about how things are done at Bolingbroke but also about teaching and working online. In a strange way I actually quite like the idea that I have started to get to know the students without knowing what they look like. Despite our best efforts we can so often judge people on their appearance! In the current circumstances, with the important debate going on around racism and BLM it's all the more important to think about our attitude to others and how we make judgements. 

What plans and expectations do you have for your subjects?

I would really love students to see Languages as something that can be fun and relate to other interests. That’s the idea behind the termly MFL Competitions for example. Of course, I also want all students to do as well as they possibly can in our subject and I want to nurture our budding linguists so that they have the confidence to continue at GCSE and A-level.

What would you say to pupils are considering choosing languages for A-levels?

It  can be hard but it’s definitely worth it. Not only does A-level languages enable you to leave the school speaking your chosen language confidently but it also complements other subjects so well and offers you the chance to develop a whole host of other skills that you will need for your other subjects, for university and for later life.

As mentioned earlier we learn group work, essay writing, university level research, presentation skills and more. A-level languages is all encompassing. As part of the course we look at current affairs, economics, sociology, history, art, literature, cinema, music, etc. There is something for everyone and there is scope to develop you own particular interest through a research project.

I’ll admit as with all subjects there are also boring bits and grammar. You cannot know how proud and impressed I have been to see students I have taught from year 10 to year 13 who had absolutely no French or Francophone background leave the school being able to conduct an extended conversation in French whether it be in a completely informal setting about everyday matters or a detailed explanation of existentialism in Camus’ L’Etranger using five tenses, relative pronouns, subjunctive and all the complex structures you can imagine. I’m not even exaggerating!

How do you relax in your spare time?

Anything from killer sudokus, crossword, reading a book, going for a long walk or cycle, cooking or watching TV. Nothing too taxing or original but that’s fine with me!