How languages changed my life: Farah Aden

How language-learning has changed my life: Luke Baxter

The last in our series of tales from language learning takes you on a journey of discovery to Somaliland. We hope these stories will help inspire your students to opt for a modern language (or two!).

  • Name: Farah Aden
  • University of Warwick: Masters, Conference Interpreting, The University of Manchester
  • Languages spoken:  French, Spanish, Catalan and some Arabic and Somali
  • Job title:  Conference Interpreter
Farah Aden on learning languages
Farah Aden, Conference Interpreter

The school bell rings. I go to my locker to get books for my next class. Just another day in Year 11. I slam my locker shut and standing right there is my Spanish teacher, frowning.

“Why haven’t you chosen Spanish for A-level?”

Not this conversation, again. Why was everyone making such a big deal out of my chosen subjects?

“I really enjoyed Spanish, but I’ve decided to take other subjects that I need to get into French & Philosophy at university.”

I was determined, decided. And yet, there she was, my wonderful Spanish teacher, looking disappointed.

“But you’re so good at Spanish,” she protested. “Is there no way I can convince you?”

There wasn’t. I had envisaged a career in translation. Little did I know how differently everything would turn out.

After having done my A-levels for a year, I realised how much I missed languages. Taking French was simply not enough. I decided to drop Philosophy and English and take both Spanish AS and A2 in one year. Naturally, my teachers told me I would fail. But being the stubborn student that I was, I proved them wrong. Of course I was nervous, but when you do something that you love, you can’t go wrong. Despite only having one year to complete a two-year A-level, I got an A* in Spanish and an A in French and Music. Never let anyone tell you that you’ll fail.

I studied French & Spanish at the University of Manchester. Studying languages at university is like entering a completely different world. It’s not the endless vocabulary lists and grammar rules that you do at school. It’s about culture, politics, literature, art, film, history. You choose what you would like to specialise in. I became addicted to this constant discovery of new worlds and took on Arabic and Catalan.

On my Year Abroad I attended a translation school in Brussels, where I discovered how tremendously boring I found translation. Sitting in front of a text and trying to find the perfect way to express it in another language was the death of me. As an undergraduate, there was a class that was closed to me: interpreting. Me being me, I was curious by the very thing I was not allowed to do. Whenever I asked, people would always say ‘Interpreting? It’s too difficult.’ Challenge accepted.

I completed my MA in Conference Interpreting two years ago now. I expected this degree to bring me to meetings at the EU and the UN, which it did, but I never imagined that it would fly me to Hargeisa, Somaliland and change my life.

One day, I was applying for an interpreting traineeship at NATO. For this, I was asked to submit a recording of myself interpreting a speech from English into French. So, I went on YouTube and typed in the first thing that came to my mind: Somaliland. The first result was a speech by a certain Dr Edna Adan Ismail on maternal mortality. Without much thought, I clicked on it, interpreted the speech and sent the recording to NATO. But I was left completely moved and speechless after hearing Edna’s inspiring talk. I had to get in touch with her.

Some forty years ago, Edna pioneered a worldwide battle against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). As the first qualified nurse and midwife of her country, first female Minister, former First Lady, retired World Health Organisation Regional Advisor for Nursing, and Founder and Director of the Edna Adan University Hospital, Edna still travels the world today to campaign against FGM. By some miracle, we happened to be in the same city at the same time. She was on transit in London on her way back to Hargeisa following an FGM talk in Oslo in September 2017. To my surprise, she replied to my text. I cancelled all my plans and we arranged to meet.

Everything happened so fast. She was impressed with my MA and my language skills and told me she was looking for an English and French teacher. In addition, she was looking for a Personal Assistant. I jumped at the opportunity.

 “Would you be able to move to Somaliland next week? We are planning a huge graduation ceremony for my university students.”

She had a university too?! Edna’s fervour never ceases to amaze me.

“Why not!” I laughed, astonished at my response. It was the most spontaneous decision I had ever made.

Sunset over the savannah

What followed was possibly the most incredible 8 months or so of my life. I learnt so much. A desk was set up next to Edna’s in her office at her hospital where as her PA, I managed her impossibly busy schedule and assisted with her multiple projects in healthcare, education, agriculture and more. Dinner was always story time, where all the staff would listen in awe at Edna’s adventures in life, many of which can be found in her newly published memoir, A Woman of Firsts. We travelled to Europe together to establish new links to help expand both the hospital and university. When we needed a break, we would go to the camel farm and watch the sunset in the savannah, sipping on camel milk with the farmers, and drive back to the city at night, dodging hyenas on the starry route home.

Back in London, I now volunteer for the Edna Adan UK Foundation and see Edna every time she comes here, whether it’s to receive an Honorary Fellowship for her lifelong commitment to humanitarian aid by London South Bank, or to be interviewed by the BBC, to be a keynote speaker at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and a long list of etcetera.

What a colourful couple of years it’s been! I never expected to have such incredible experiences. And it was studying Languages that had opened these doors to me; doors that I had never seen before, that I didn’t even know existed, that changed my life.

✔️ Read the rest of this series here

✔️ Additional resources on MFL including free resources here