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10 things you’ll understand if you’re a languages student

10 things you’ll understand if you’re a languages student
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You’re a linguist at university, and have therefore put yourself in a fairly niche group. Here are a few of the things you’ll undoubtedly be familiar with as a language student.

1. Oral Exams

We could all laugh about “oral” exams at GCSE, when the whole thing was scripted and barely mattered in any case. Once you’ve had to do two or three of these exams every year for the last five years, however, the childish allusion to intercourse soon wears off. You learn to live in fear of these stilted conversations. Students of other disciplines will never understand, simply saying “it’s only 15 minutes and all you have to do is talk.” I’d like to see you spontaneously give your opinion on the rise of populism in Europe, in a foreign language.

2. Being asked to “Say something” in your language

For starters, I’m not a dancing dog. I don’t recite classical Chinese poetry on the spot just because you’ve asked. You can consider yourself very privileged to hear me speaking the lingo at all, let alone on someone’s beck and call. Second, you wouldn’t ask a dentist to perform a root canal or get a physicist to prove relativity just because it’s what they study. Also, I love it, but I do spend all day studying it and sometimes I want a break.

3. “You’re not very good at Italian, are you?”

We’ve all felt our hearts sink a bit when we disclose that we study languages, only for someone to say, “Oh, I know some [insert language]”. This is normally followed by a mangled and unintelligible attempt at said foreign language. You ask them to repeat what they said, and then repeat again, and then maybe you get it written down or ask what they’re trying to say in English. Probably “My mother-in-law is a tomato” or something else nonsensical from Duolingo. You make an exasperated noise of understanding, repeat the phrase with perfect pronunciation, to a chorus of “that’s how I said it. You’re not as good at languages as I thought.”

4. Feeling like a demi-god when you meet a native  speaker of your learned language.

As linguists, we live for the moments when a language comes into its own. After all the haters and comments like “what’s the point, everyone speaks English anyway”, you now get the chance to build a cross-cultural bridge with your hard earned language skills, and maybe show off a bit as well. This is the reason you became a linguist. You know how to own it, and afterwards you feel like a boss.

5. Feeling like a failure of a human being when you meet a native speaker of your learned language.

As linguists, we fear the moments in which our lack of ability might be exposed. After all the comments like “what’s the point, everyone speaks English anyway”, you’re starting to agree and realise that your broken Chinese is more painful than helpful, and is earning you points for effort but certainly not building any bridges. This is the reason you wish you’d done a straightforward liberal arts degree. You messed that one up, and you are developing a love-hate relationship with your language.

6. That feeling that you should probably meet native speakers but you never do

Lecturers are always encouraging us to meet up with language partners, and we know that we should. It really is one of the best ways to improve, build confidence, and feel like you’re taking some big steps on the pilgrimage to fluency. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to be placed in awkward semi-dates with ambiguous purpose and a minefield of cultural misunderstandings. You will feel like you’ve achieved something after you’ve pushed through a language exchange, but if you’re being honest, you’ll probably never get that far.

7. Language Mixing

No doubt you spend a lot of time with other linguists, and from the mixture of world languages a new type of language emerges. Half-German-half-English phrases like “what are you machening heute Abend?” or “I got absolutely betrunken on the weekend” are not uncommon. Or describing an essay as really “mafan”. Some words are just better in foreign languages.

8. Knowing that there are words in your learned language which are more useful than English words

You say them all the time in your learned language, and when you have to switch back to English you wish you could take them with you. They are the interjections, the contradictory “doch!” of German, the brilliant french word for being fed up “ras-le-bol”, and the single Chinese verb which asks permission, says that something is OK, expresses possibility, satisfaction, or that something is correct, “keyi”.

9. Being asked if you’re going to be a translator or a teacher

It is assumed that I will become one of these things. Foreign correspondent, diplomat, global business person, NGO worker, United Nations officer, Brexit negotiator… As language students we know that the success of the modern world lies with the linguists, the ones who ‘get’ other cultures and actually speak the language. Good on those who want to translate or want to be teachers, but we know there’s a lot more waiting for our bilingual minds.

10. No one understands your choice of degree

And let’s face it, neither do you. You didn’t particularly like the look of anything else at uni, and because you half cared about languages you ended up choosing that on your UCAS application, throwing in something new on top of French or German, and banking on a year abroad. You get to study some literature, some history, some linguistics, a bit of film, and representations of Lesbian glass-makers in pre-revolution Cuba, and you like all of these things.

It isn’t such a bad degree. In any case, you’ll be bi- or trilingual by the end of it.

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