And finally – No 5

My A level choice was a little more considered than O levels, although I don’t remember consulting my parents about it or being offered any significant careers advice from the school.  I think one thing about boarding school and slow, old fashioned communication was that I learnt to make decisions on my own very quickly.  So it was French, German & Latin with French S Level (whatever happened to S levels?).  This was the point when I suddenly discovered the joy of learning for its own sake.  O levels had been fine but they were really rote learning; A levels I actively enjoyed, a concept that would seem very sad to my children just at the moment!  It seems strange to write this now, from a huge distance, but I loved doing translations into Latin, I thrived on literary analysis and I read everything in French I could get my hands on.  I still remember it being like a whole new world opening up.  We were talking about things like this over Christmas and my husband commented that he only really started to enjoy learning when he was doing his MSc. 

I went on to read French and Italian at University and was fully intent on becoming an interpreter but, by this time, I had learned to dive and was a confirmed addict.  There were very few arts students in the diving club for some reason but plenty of biologists who were quite happy to help me figure out the names of everything we saw underwater.  As the first year progressed, I found that although I loved the time researching old books in the library, I was becoming disenchanted with that literary analysis that I had so enjoyed.  I began to feel that it was a very destructive exercise – taking something that someone else has created and dismantling it but not constructing anything myself.  I eventually came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a scientist and set about persuading the biology department to let me in.  I do have to say that telling the Professor of French that I now thought his subject was a waste of time was not the most tactful statement of my life and I still cringe when I think about it!  Well, I did find a sympathetic ear in Dr Crosby, a lecturer in botany who studied primroses, and he guided my way into the department.  I taught myself enough basic biology over the summer holidays to pass the 1st Year General exam and there I was.  Oddly enough, one of the biggest hurdles to my entrance to the department was not my lack of science A levels but the fact that I didn’t even do Chemistry at O level.  

It would be nice to say that I was now an internationally renowned, multilingual scientist but I’d be lying!  I am a jobbing marine biologist specialising in inshore marine communities in the UK and, despite the fact that I was once on the verge of fluency in French, I have barely spoken a word of it since I moved disciplines.  I do remember an occasion when I translated a couple of papers from French for an Iraqi research student; he came into the lab the following week with a paper in Russian and was very surprised when I turned that one down.  But my early linguistic training perhaps partly explains why I enjoy the detective work that is scientific nomenclature and my main claim to fame may be The Species Directory.

That is the last of my 5 things you’ll all be glad to hear.  I should really apologise for my self-indulgent ramblings but I have really enjoyed writing these little pieces.  I would like to think they have some small relevance to the Excel site as my educational history has had a big influence on my perception of my childrens’ education.  So they’ll both be doing Chemistry, then!  That’s another post-in-waiting but first I want to write one on school/parent communication partly in response to a comment I saw on Don’s blog a while back. 


4 thoughts on “And finally – No 5

  1. Me too!

    You loved doing Latin translations. Pause to consider. I was desperately trying to translate a bit of English into Latin for a blog post and gave up. Visions of my old Latin teacher reading it and chanting ‘nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative’ at me.

    I do love knowing the etymology of words, and seeing the Latin in them.

    Here’s a question from Chris’ blog (
    What is that white sea foam that sometimes gets blown up onto the sand or further afield? We have decided it is spume (think that must be latin based too-foamy? asti spumante?)
    Is that the right name?

    Thank you for posting your 5 things. Great reading!

  2. Very much enjoyed your top 5. Glad you can join our exc-el “open” group. Can you drop me an email so we can let you know the dates.

  3. Sea foam – definitely spume. I think it’s an aerosol created in rough conditions and may (can’t quite remember) also contain material like dead diatom shells.

    Writing in Latin – I don’t think I could get any further than amo, amas, amant these days. I think the main contribution from Latin was giving me some understanding of English grammar, which I’m sure we didn’t learn in English. It does help me to remember the Latin names of wee beasties, though, if I can at least partially understand the meaning or derivation of the names. And I too love etymology.

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