What is the point of a year abroad? Well, Durham’s editor of The Tab, despite presumably never having been on one himself, has his own ideas, as some of you will probably be aware by now. I have long-standing problems with The Tab as a publication, as I feel that it serves, for the most part, to do nothing but victimise, trivialise and generalise, and sadly his article was no exception. If you haven’t read the piece I refer to, it’s called “Linguists are feckless posers who don’t know the meaning of a real degree” and was posted around two weeks ago. In order to find context in what I’m writing, you may have to read that first, so I reluctantly attach it here: http://thetab.com/uk/durham/2015/10/09/language-students-are-feckless-posers-they-dont-know-the-meaning-of-a-real-degree-21241
Aside from the libel and bitterness which seem to be compulsory when writing for The Tab, this particular article was not only offensive to languages students such as myself (not least because of the needless and unfounded insults) but also almost entirely devoid of truth. It also offered some rigid opinions regarding what people do on their years abroad, which has led me to try to clear up what a year abroad is actually for, and how best to spend it, but I’ll get to that.
There was, strangely, a lot that I agreed with in the piece. From the cloud of abusive remarks (directed universally at every British languages student) came some slivers of sensical discourse, although unfortunately they were accompanied by a misappropriation of blame and an underlying display of hypocrisy.
He mentions the spamming of social media that students on their year abroad – myself included, naturally – are undeniably guilty of, and the fact that the year itself is funded in part by the university. I’m on side with him that the year abroad shouldn’t be wasted speaking English, taking snapchats and repeating the same routines as you would at home, but disagree entirely with his opinion that this is what every languages student does on their year away. It’s also peculiar that, whilst he claims that year abroad blogs make him “wonder why they tried to learn another language before they could write proper English”, his own article is stained with grammatical errors and poor vocabulary choices which intrude on the clarity of his argument.
Something which he gets spot on is that, in his own words, languages are “a life skill, something we should have all learnt at school, like literally every other nation on earth that teaches English”. I completely agree with the author on this issue, but is it really our fault that the British culture, so set as it is in the idea that our customs and language are superior to those of other countries, and our education system which reflects this, restrict us from learning a language to any decent standard during secondary school? Of course it’s not. I’ve long been a critic of the way that languages are taught in schools, but the blame for that does not lie with the people who have tried to pursue languages in spite of it.
He then goes on to say that “A skill literally anyone can achieve like learning a language should not put you in that much debt”. Again, he makes a valid point, but again I must question his views on the culpability of students, this time in regard to tuition debt. I, like many, see education as a right, not a privilege, but there’s nothing I can do about the fact that my university – presided over by the British Conservative government – will charge me £9,000 per year to do my course. It does the same for all subjects, as far as I’m aware, and none of us have any control over it. If, in the writer’s eyes, it is simply a question of getting your money’s worth, I must question why he believes that languages, which he himself regards as “life skills”, are of such particularly low value.
As has become normality with The Tab, the ignorance is astounding. For example, the claim that “most of these people will have been learning this language for quite literally decades” is total nonsense. Most of my course friends picked up an entirely new language at the beginning of their first year of university – two years ago – alongside their chosen course (be that in another language or something entirely different) and are now studying or working in other countries. One close friend of mine, for example, came to university to study Ancient History with next to no foreign language aptitude, took a module in Italian in his first year, now speaks it to a high level and is living in Rome on a teaching placement. The fact that this budding journalist knows one or two people that perhaps had an early exposure to a foreign tongue and never did anything with it completely undermines the far greater number of language students who have studied hard to gain a respectable level in a remarkably short space of time.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this editor has aspirations of working for The Sun. He seems to have all the necessary skills. He carelessly belittles and generalises, but also seems adept at making up ‘facts’ to prop up his vitriol. To pick one example, his claim that “every single German will probably leave high school speaking better English than your degree level German” is clearly false. In the real world, all indications suggest that, on the European Framework of Reference for Languages (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages), most Germans have between a B1 and a C2 level of English after their Abitur qualifications (their equivalent of A-Levels), for which – quite rightly in my opinion (and, if the article is anything to go by, in that of the author himself) – they are required to study a subject within the category of “Language, literature and the arts”, which obviously includes learning English. This is commendable of course, and as we have no such obligations in the UK, only around half of British students have as much as a GCSE in a foreign language, which is only equivalent to an A2 on the CEFR. Degree students, however, almost always finish their final year with at least a C2 level, anything above which is considered complete fluency, so this writer’s love for hyperbole has unfortunately led him factually astray.
Despite this, he goes on to attempt to patronise languages students about their knowledge with the fact that he himself knows a bit about other cultures, which only serves to further unravel his poorly constructed fiction. “We all read Der Vorleser, we all know a bit about Russian Constructivism”, he claims. But that has little to no meaning with respect to what we learn about, or to anyone else’s individual interests, and his use of exaggeration again lets him down. I doubt, in reality, that the vast majority of his readership, or indeed my own, have a clue what Der Vorleser is, nor do they most likely know anything about Russian art, and he’s simply using this article as a platform to promote his own cultural awareness, which ironically is the kind of self-propagation that forms a large part of his problem with linguists.
It’s not simply the hypocrisy that I take issue with, but the obvious disregard for the truth. Who got hold of a writer from a top university and filled him full of lies? He gloats that we’ll all have difficulty finding jobs when we finish our degrees, due to the fact that our course is “totally useless”, and yet even mentions himself that “several million people” use the skills we’re learning on a daily basis. He also implies that Barcelona (where I currently live) and Lyon are somehow culturally obsolete. I suggest he comes here and tells that to the locals, although he might have to learn Spanish first, and if he wants to present himself coherently to the people of Lyon he’ll have to do better than the subheading of his piece, in which he misspells ‘où’ as ‘ou’ and so writes ‘or is the train station?’ instead of ‘where is the train station?’. He seems to think that, simply because we meet other English speakers on our years abroad (true enough – most of my friends here are Irish), we therefore do not meet or speak to any locals, and therefore the year itself is futile. I’ll ask the lads who I play football with if they reckon I’ve involved myself enough in their culture, but I’ll obviously have to ask them in Catalan.
So, why then, if the article is nothing more than fallacy and hate, am I bothering to give it respect by contesting it? Well, firstly, to stand up for myself and my classmates, but more importantly, because a lot of people unfortunately read The Tab and will have seen this and believed it to be somewhat factual. Languages courses are already seeing application levels fall on the whole, partly again due to the lack of promotion in secondary education. In a country which is becoming increasingly hostile to foreigners, I feel that more people should be taking on languages and engaging with the outside world, so we don’t need any more negative press. I can only suggest to the writer of that barrage of abuse that he considers the negative effects of his creationist storytelling before he writes again. I’m more than happy for someone to send this on to him, incase he wants to defend himself, or better yet, apologise, and to tell him that si quiere responderme en castellano o en catalán, por mí está bien.
His piece, though, did raise an interesting question about years abroad and about how best to spend one. Now, not to shirk my responsibilities, but I don’t have the answers to that – there is no perfect way to do a year abroad – but I can offer some brief suggestions.
Speaking the language is obviously key. If you study, your lectures will be in the target language; if you’re on placement, everyone there will speak it. That’s the nature of it. But that won’t be enough if you speak English whenever you’re not at work / uni. As I said, nearly all of my mates here are native English speakers, most of them with only a basic grasp of Spanish. But this in itself has its benefits: whenever my landlord (who I’m not ashamed to say is probably my best Spanish-speaking friend here) needs to talk to my Irish flatmate, he has to go through me as a translator, and we see him every day. Whenever we’re out, I’m always the on-hand Spanish / Catalan speaker, which means that I get a fair bit of practice. Newspapers, radio and just walking around eavesdropping are also great ways to immerse yourself, even without meeting any locals.
The language is a bit trivial, though, if you don’t take advantage of physically being in a different part of the world. Every time I leave the house I’m forced to appreciate Barcelona: my nearest metro station is Sagrada Família, so I see that huge unfinished cathedral every single day – hasn’t got boring yet – but as excited as I am to go to Peru in February, I haven’t yet explored this city to the extent I would like. You get this opportunity not just to improve your language skills but also to discover new places, which in turn leads you to new people and speaking the language more. Quaint how that works out. Before I leave the Iberian Peninsula next I’ll have hopefully visited Valencia, Granada, Bilbao and Girona, but I’m also praying that by Christmas I’ll be able to walk around the barri Gòtic without getting horrendously lost.
The key thing about a year abroad though, is, in whatever way you can, to learn. I don’t just mean books (although definitely buy some books). Go out and do a load of things you’ve never done. You might as well – you may not get the chance again. This is why the article that I’ve just spent around a thousand and a half words berating irked me so much: it was somebody – who, due to their choice of course, never had this chance – lashing out at people that he barely knows, on a purely one-size-fits-all, stereotypical basis. Everybody does the year abroad differently, but everyone learns a lot about places and people whilst away, and regardless of the relevance of that to what they’re actually studying, it’s a life experience that languages students have the privilege to enjoy. If I were to allow the cynicism of an envious stranger to dictate the way I lived my life, I’d never do anything, so I’m not going to feel guilty for enjoying being here. It’s ok to take pleasure in something pleasurable, it’s alright to be social about it on social media if you want to, and it’s fine not to take advice from an article on The Tab. You’re not harming anyone if you learn new things, meet new people and live in new places, but you’re harming yourself if you don’t.