Speaking in foreign tongues

Degree focus: Learning languages, and how to go about choosing the right course for your future
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The Independent Online
The British are notoriously bad at learning languages - either at school or in later life. Which makes it all the more surprising that the universities are persuading an increasing number of undergraduates to go back to language learning at degree level - with some surprising successes.

Language degrees have changed. Thirty years ago most involved the study of literature rather than a spoken language. It was possible to emerge from university with a graduate understanding of the works of Goethe or Racine, but still be unable to order a sandwich in Paris or Frankfurt.

The growth of language studies in the newer universities changed all that.

Increasingly, languages came to be studied in the context of business studies or the politics, economics and culture of the country or countries concerned. Even sciences can now be studied in conjunction with a relevant language as a component part of a degree course.

The objective is to produce graduates who can function effectively in the areas of the world where the languages which have been studied are spoken.

With the number of prospective students equipped with A-levels in languages falling, universities have increasingly begun to teach a wide range of languages from scratch. As a result, prospective students, who may not have thought of themselves as linguists until now, do have that option amongst the many modular, combined and joint degree programmes on offer.

It is important, though - as Abbie Tatton, who is studying history and Portuguese at Leeds University, warns - to make sure the course for which you apply meets your particular needs.

She enjoys studying languages for their own sake. She is less interested in literature, and, because Leeds emphasises literary studies, she may not continue with her language work when she returns for her third year in October.

"You really do need to decide what sort of language course you prefer before you start, and make sure you apply to the right one," she says.

The new approach to language teaching can bring un- expected success. Jonathan Howard, who has just graduated with a first class honours degree in German from Middlesex University, got only a C grade at GCSE and dropped the subject entirely in the sixth form.

While working in local government for a couple of years, he visited Germany and became very frustrated because he found the language hard to understand and speak when he made German friends. He found the Middlesex course ideal for his particular needs.

"The whole approach is to start from where you are when you arrive. Classes are in the target language, and there is lots of support, lots of role play. You soon lose your self-consciousness and begin to speak." The Middlesex course takes a non-literary approach with topics both contemporary and historical.

Jonathan spent a year of his course working in Switzerland. "That was brilliant. You get a real feeling of satisfaction from surviving in a foreign environment." He was humbled by the Swiss, though, who regard it as normal to speak the country's three official languages and who often speak English as well.

"Speaking a language fluently is regarded as a matter of pride there," he says. "It's time we learned to be a bit more open to language learning."

Jonathan is now hoping to go back to do an MA, and eventually train as a translator. He has an eye on the coveted translating jobs in Brussels, although he admits that even with a first that this is a tough objective. "But there are good jobs for language graduates, and anyway, I've found becoming a linguist very enjoyable."

Starting a language without any prior knowledge is now perfectly feasible at many universities. Abbie Tatton started her Portuguese course on the strength of a gap year spent in Latin America. What she did not realise (until she was lucky enough to get a scholarship to spend a month in Lisbon) is that Portuguese Portuguese sounds very different from Brazilian Portuguese. That she says, was an astonishing learning experience in itself.

At Bradford University, Andrew Yap is tackling Japanese from scratch, as part of his business management course. That involves not only the language itself, but getting to grips with three different alphabets - two phonetic and one, like Chinese, ideographic.

"You have your first couple of tutorials and you wonder whether you are ever going to get your head round it," he says. "But in reality the amount of learning is not that overwhelming and you do get to the point, as with most languages, where everything falls into place." For a business career, he thinks, his new Japanese skills will be invaluable.

In spite of some struggles at school, all these students have found languages at university an enjoyable and worthwhile experience. "There is nothing quite like the day you realise you are making youself understood," Abbie Tatton says. "And people in other countries are so amazed and delighted that you have made the effort."

Maureen O'Connor