The Importance of Language Learning
Like many people in recent months, I have spent some time in lockdown tidying out cupboards, making decisions on what to keep and what to give or throw away, trying to put order on objects and spaces in an attempt, perhaps, to put order on what’s happening in the world outside. In my case, the exercise has entailed removing items from boxes, losing myself in memories, putting said items back into boxes, and returning boxes to their original position into now cleaner cupboards, under now tidier desks. I’m not much of a hoarder, but I do still have a boxful of photographs, letters from friends and diaries of the year I spent abroad as a student over thirty years ago that I cannot quite bring myself to part with yet.
I studied English and Italian at university, the former because I was passionate about books and words, the latter because I had not distinguished myself in my A Level French result and Queen’s University, at that time, offered First Arts students the opportunity to pick up a language from scratch. I had no idea, aged eighteen, of the repercussions of such a decision. In the third year of my degree, like all other language students at the time and many since, I travelled abroad to spend the academic year working as a language assistant in a post-primary school. I had been assigned to a town called Jesi, close to the Adriatic coast. I had never been to Italy before. My skills in the language after two years of study were limited. The teaching methods then provided us with a good academic grounding in grammar and the translation of classic texts. For the pragmatic vocabulary required for everyday life, the model relied heavily on immersion in the language during that year abroad. By the time I left for Italy, I could make a fair attempt at deciphering a line from La Divina Commedia, but I’d have struggled to follow instructions as to how to switch on a water heater or where to locate the outlet for the gas. My only other trip outside of Ireland had been as a volunteer helper to Lourdes with the Irish organization Cuairteoirí le Muire (Visitors with Mary) the year I turned seventeen. It in no way equipped me for a year of living and working on mainland Europe.
In Belfast, before we set off, we were given some rudimentary training on working as a language assistant, had been advised to bring with us print material in English, video material if we could get our hands on it, even recordings of songs. The latter proved to be the most effective teaching resource with the fourteen- to nineteen-year-olds in the Liceo Linguistico to which I was posted. With my first month’s wages, I bought a small portable radio and cassette player; I made out sheets of song lyrics in English with blanks for the pupils to fill in. By the end of the academic year the Jesi classrooms were filled with new fans of Everything but the Girl who could recite verbatim every line from “Lonesome for a Place I Know”.
My flat had no phone. The ancient television set showed only Rai Uno on a flickering screen. I was not an avid reader of newspapers. My link with the wider world was through my small stereo and the collection of tapes I bought in the town’s only music shop. It was not a wide selection, but I do remember buying and listening on a loop to Van Morrison’s “Irish Heartbeat” when it was first released. I lived alone in a sparsely furnished apartment that was big enough to house a family, leased to me at a reasonable rent by one of the teachers from the school. There were two rooms that I rarely entered. The windows had metal shutters, but no curtains or blinds. The floor was bare. There were no pictures on the wall. I printed off and tacked above my table a selection of photocopied black and white pictures of James Dean and all the postcards I received from friends. I had one armchair, a table and four dining chairs, a bed, a chest of drawers, and a wardrobe. All the light fittings were adorned with those elaborate faux glass teardrop chandeliers. The place looked and felt like the noir setting for a crime novel.
The teacher who owned the flat had a daughter a little older than me. She and her fiancé were kind. They invited me to dinner, as did the other teachers in the school. They tolerated my inadequate spoken Italian. When my Professor visited for a conference in Recanati some distance away, the school caretaker drove me, and the French language assistant, to meet him. The students were sweet and greeted me with enthusiasm when we met on the corso. One invited me to a birthday party, another to stay with her family for the weekend. The age difference was not so great. I turned twenty-one in January of the year I was there. School finished around 1pm every day. I spent many afternoons in my armchair, legs draped over the side, a cup of tea and a pastry from Bardi on the arm rest, reading The Decameron, listening to music and looking out at the street. The students attended school on Saturdays but I was not timetabled to be there. I lived for the weekends when I would take the train to meet up with my fellow students in Mantova, or Assisi, or Livorno, or they would travel to see me.
I come from a large family. I’m the youngest of ten. In Belfast I had shared a student house with seven other girls. I was used to having people around. In Italy, I was shocked to find that I was lonely and homesick a lot of the time. I never got used to the quiet that descended around midday, never reconciled myself to the closed shutters, to the muted sounds of cooking from other apartments, to the early afternoon air of repose. But what I learned during those months abroad was very important and has grown in importance with me ever since.
When you are required to live your everyday life through a language that is not your own, you begin to understand that translation is not simply an academic exercise; that language is, in fact, culturally dependent; that translation requires a flexibility of interpretation; that there is not always an exact equivalent phrase in the language you yourself speak. And perhaps most importantly of all, the exercise demands empathy. It forces you to search for the expression of an idea that will make most sense, not necessarily to you, but to your listener. It requires that you articulate yourself in the voice of someone other than you. And that’s an important lesson to learn – that people from places that are not your own go about their business in a different way to the way in which you go about yours; that their way of doing so is endemic to their culture and to their way of life, as is yours. I was brought up in a rural area of Northern Ireland, in an English-speaking community. So much of our entertainment on television and in cinema came to us via America and Australia. We could have been forgiven, perhaps, for growing up thinking that English was the default language for the earth. But at school we studied German and French, along with Latin and Irish. It was humbling to learn that English was one of many thousands of world languages; that there are millions of people who go about their business without ever speaking a word of it.
Language learning is no longer compulsory in Northern Ireland for pupils aged fourteen and above. A 2019 report by the British Council on Language Trends in Northern Ireland found that in the years from 2010-2018, the number of pupils learning languages at GCSE level (an examination typically taken at sixteen) had declined by 19%. In the same years, there had been significant falls in the learning of French (a drop of 41%) and German (a drop of 18%), while Spanish rose by 16%. The equivalent year’s British Council report on language learning in schools in England shows a similar overall decline. The England report cites that concern about the UK’s “language deficit” is mounting and it joins with the British Academy’s call in its report Languages in the UK: A Call for Action for a national strategy to enhance engagement with the rest of the world. This decline in language learning in UK schools is a worrying trend and one that Brexit is unlikely to do much to reverse.
In 2017, over 16,500 UK University students travelled to work or study abroad through the European Union ERASMUS scheme. In the same year, over 31,000 EU participating nationals travelled to the UK. In January 2020, MPs voted against an amendment to keep the UK in ERASMUS after the Brexit transition period was due to end on 31 December 2020. More recently, there has been talk of replacing ERASMUS with “a domestic alternative” as the UK government considers how to promote the country’s educational connections after Brexit. Understandably for advocates of the Erasmus scheme, there are worries around replacing a tried and tested system with an untested and limited initiative. There are fears that the programme will not be replaced at all. In my opinion, that would be a huge loss, to travelling students, to visiting students, and to the wider cultural and economic community that is impacted by what those students learn and by what they bring.
The learning of another language is about so much more than acquiring a new set of words. It teaches understanding; it widens horizons; it promotes tolerance; it celebrates diversity. The loss of that intercultural, interlinguistic awareness that is fostered by schemes such as the ERASMUS programme is one of many worrying prospects of post-Brexit UK. When I look at those photographs, letters and diaries that marked my time abroad, I catch a glimpse of a twenty-one-year-old whose life experience up to that point was narrow. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to have my views re-focussed through the lens of another language. And that capacity to view the world from multiple perspectives? It comes in useful, it turns out, for writing fiction as well.