The Interpreter speaks to this year’s president of the School of Modern Languages.
Why did you choose St Andrews? What do you particularly like/dislike about the town?
To be honest there wasn’t much thought that went into my application to St Andrews, I had never even been here when I first arrived on the Saturday of Freshers’ Week. I think it was luck more than anything. I knew a few people who had studied here in the past and absolutely loved it but that was it really. I applied to Cambridge and a couple of others and was left with Durham and St Andrews – in the end I decided that I preferred the flexible degree structure in the sub-honours years, as that allowed me to change my degree from Spanish, French and Italian to Spanish and Arabic.
I mean St Andrews isn’t known for its tropical climate, and I do quite like to be able to buy clothes from somewhere other than New Look and H&M, but we really are pretty fortunate to go to university in such a beautiful place. I think running along the beach is what does it for me personally.
Why study languages?
Good question – it’s still an answer that I struggle to express in a more eloquent way than “I just like languages and kind of understand them”.
Aside from the words and the grammar, I suppose it’s the wealth of cultural knowledge you are equipped with. Suddenly you can communicate and engage with so many more people in a whole host of situations. Languages are a practical skill and something I use in my everyday life. Whether it’s eavesdropping on the tube in London or arguing with the police in Madrid (don’t do it!), they can come in quite handy sometimes.
Which languages do you study? Do you speak any others?
As I mentioned, I study Spanish and Arabic here at St Andrews but while I was at school I studied French and Spanish to A-Level, as well as Italian to AS-Level in my own time.
I could also probably just about manage to count to 10 and say “My name is Oscar” in Japanese too – I spent 5 years of my childhood in Auckland, New Zealand where they often teach Japanese as the first foreign language at school. When we moved back to the UK, I then carried on with it outside of school and did my GCSE Japanese exams at SOAS in London – not exactly sure why though because I’ve forgotten most of it sadly.
Portuguese is the next one – I’ve even signed up for evening classes in St Andrews this semester so I’ve got no excuses!
Where did you go on your year abroad? What advice would you give to outgoing students/ students deciding between British Council vs study abroad?
I spent my third year studying at the Universidad de Granada in Spain which was an incredible learning experience. It sounds horrendously cliché to say that it changed me as a person but I genuinely think it transformed the way I approached things when I came back to St Andrews.
One piece of advice I can offer you is accommodation related. Don’t live with English speakers, however tempting it may be. I benefited so much more from living with a Spaniard and a French girl because we could only communicate in Spanish. Use Facebook pages to find flats, don’t pick the easy option by living in overpriced university halls with all the other international students.
In terms of the pros and cons of the British Council (WIYA) and study abroad programs, my views are slightly biased as I can only comment on the study abroad option. The opportunities open to students on the WIYA programme are endless, working as an English language assistant is by no means your only option. I sometimes wish I had chosen the 5 year programme but hindsight distorts things I guess.
Be adventurous. Use your contacts. Send prospective emails to organisations in Peru or even Côte d’Ivoire – who cares if they say no or don’t reply? Start looking for year abroad placements early.
That said, it completely depends on what you are looking to get out of your year – do you want to experience a different academic culture and be going to the library and lectures as most students do? Or do you think you would prefer to use the year to get some real-life work experience while improving your language skills at the same time? It’s up to you to decide but speak to other students about their experiences. I am organising an informal year abroad session soon so please do come along to it to find out the do’s & don’ts from students that have recently been abroad.
What are you planning to do after you graduate?
Another very good question. I have thought about the Foreign Office, moving abroad to somewhere like Jordan or South America to work in the charity sector, or perhaps even studying Law in London. I also fancy myself as a BBC Foreign Correspondent working out in the Middle East, although I’m not so sure what my mother would say about that. I’ll get back to you in a year or so with an update!
What motivated you to run for presidency of SoML?
I suppose it comes down to the fact that I will have spent several years studying here by the time I graduate. I have come to know the university and the School of Modern Languages so well, both the good bits and the not so good. The role of President is about representing the views of the student body and ensuring that they are heard by academic staff and those who make the big decisions within the university. I like change and I like knowing that my suggestions are being noted. I have experienced the teaching. I have been through the year abroad and subsequent grade conversion process. So one day I thought, well surely everyone else must have just as much to say about all these things as I do? Why are we all talking about them amongst ourselves and not voicing what we have to say? This is when I realised that I should just go for it and take the opportunity.
What do you like about SoML? What is it about St Andrews modern languages that you find unique?
I feel language learning in itself is very unique. In classes and literature seminars you simply can’t get away with sitting there without saying a word, and as such, the bonds you form with your peers are so much stronger. You have to get over the fear of conversing in a language that is not your own and this requires a huge amount of courage on your part, and tolerance from fellow students. I think it is the sense of broadmindedness, understanding and patience that sets us apart. Despite being the largest university School in terms of student numbers, I’m sure you’ll agree that the SoML is one of the most welcoming and inclusive. It has an almost community-like feel to it.
What is your vision for the department?
For those of you that didn’t see my Presidential manifesto at the end of the last academic year, I plan to focus on increasing student participation and engagement in and out of the classroom – I aim to encourage social interaction between students as I feel this is one of the main obstacles we face, in language classes especially. If we all just knew each other a little better, it would make things like oral presentations and contributing in class just that bit less awkward. Why don’t we all go out for drinks or coffee as a class at the start of the semester to break the ice?
As I mentioned earlier, I plan to hold a few year abroad related events as I feel this is one of the major areas for improvement in the School of Modern Languages. I want to put pressure on the university to diversify the range of options/destinations, increase transparency when it comes to grade conversion and encourage those returning from a year abroad to pass on their wisdom to outgoing students. I started this process at the end of the last academic year – a few collaborative feedback meetings were held between the Study Abroad & Collaborations office and Modern Languages students. These addressed some of the main issues with the current system – a few university policies have subsequently been reviewed as a result and more changes are in the pipeline.
That’s not to say I don’t have any other plans but revealing them all to you would spoil the fun!
Do you have any tips about university life in general and the town for the freshers?
You get out what you put in. Make the most of all the opportunities that are given to you. Join societies that interest you and go to their events. If you have always wanted to pick up a bit of conversational French or build on your GCSE German that you abandoned years ago, why not sign up for the university evening language classes that run each semester? They work out at about £5 per hour of tuition – absolute bargain.
In addition to the academic side of things, it is these different elements that ultimately make St Andrews the diverse institution that it is. Plus, you will be so grateful that you got involved from the very start when it comes to dreaded job applications and interviews. Keep that CV of yours in mind.
How do you juggle learning two languages?
Everyone asks this. “Don’t you get confused between languages? Isn’t it really boring learning lists of new words?” Language learning really shouldn’t feel like a chore. There are so many different mediums through which you can be improving your language without even realising. I very rarely sit down and learn a vocabulary list, instead, I find it much more productive (and much less taxing for that matter) to listen to the news everyday just as I would in English, but in the language I want to work on. It’s a question of preference and my mood at the time – sometimes the thought of listening to Radio Nacional de España’s news bulletin bores me so I’ll watch a Spanish film instead. You soon become accustomed to switching between languages and doing what you would normally do in English, but in a foreign language.
How many countries have you visited? Which was your favourite? Which didn’t you like?
I hate questions like this, but 21 so far I think. My rather ambitious plan is to visit one new country per year which should keep me busy until I’m 196!
I wouldn’t say I have a favourite country as such because everywhere has it’s pros and cons. How can I say I have a favourite when I haven’t experienced all 196 of them? But to save me narrowing down my choice to just one, I would prefer to categorise things slightly. What makes a country, in my view at least, is the landscape, the people, the cuisine and the language.
Of the countries I have been to, the best landscape has to be that of New Zealand – it really is how it looks in Lord of the Rings. The Palestinians I met while I was in Israel and the West Bank a couple of summers ago were some of the most hospitable humans I have ever come across. As far as food goes, it has to be either Greek or Lebanese (or Levantine to be even less specific). And Spanish for language, because the dialectal variation in both peninsular Spain and Latin America is pretty fascinating.
As I said, it’s pretty tough to pick a favourite country and the same goes for a “least favourite”. You find good and bad everywhere.
What would be your dream holiday?
I think driving from the southern tip of Argentina to Mexico in a bashed up old 4WD would be pretty high up on my list. Although I could quite easily lie on the beach in the Philippines with a mojito in my hand too..
What’s your favourite foreign swear word?
In an attempt to keep this PG: Te voy a dar un galletón que te vas a enterar – I’m going to hit you really hard! (Literally, I’m going to give you a really big cookie! The Spaniards are an odd bunch.)
If you could master any language, which would you choose?
Swedish – for the beautiful people;
Mandarin – to find out what is always so funny;
And Arabic – because it’s realistically impossible to master because of the sheer diversity of dialects.
In your opinion, which language has the best accent?
It depends whether you mean the best foreign accent in English because that would definitely be Russian – it commands authority yet it’s ever so slightly comical at the same time.
Or the language itself, which would have to be Brazilian Portuguese or Colombian Spanish. So effortless.
It’s the night before a language grammar exam and you’re feeling unprepared … what’s your last minute cram technique?
My mother always told me to put my books under my pillow when I go to sleep so that all the information gets absorbed overnight. I still do this in my fifth year of university, at the age of 22.