Winner of the student award: Encouraging school pupils to study languages, linguistics or area studies at university

Author: Daniel Finch-Race


The winner of the Subject Centre's undergraduate student essay competition 2010 is Daniel Finch-Race, a 3rd year Modern European Languages student at the University of Edinburgh. Daniel’s winning entry is a promotional article aimed at encouraging school pupils to study languages, linguistics or area studies at university.

This article was added to our website on 12/05/10 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Daniel Finch-Race

One very big adventure

A lot of people decide to give up learning languages because they’re never going to be useful; who really needs to know how to ask for a pizza in another language when you can just point to what you want, look at the total and pay? Who really needs to know how to ask for directions when you can just loudly say the name of the place that you’re looking for until someone shows you? Who really needs to speak another language when everyone you meet on holiday speaks English anyway? In the end, it comes down to this: “I don’t need languages, so why don’t I study something that’s going to take me places, like Medicine or Business?”

Let me ask you this, then: when was the last time that you went on an adventure? A real adventure? What if somebody offered you the chance to go anywhere you wanted, to do whatever you wanted, for as long as you wanted? There’d have to be a catch, wouldn’t there? What if there wasn’t? Welcome to studying languages; welcome to your global future.

Studying languages doesn’t seem like a very attractive option these days: it’s a lot of work, the lessons are long and boring, and it’s all completely pointless because everybody speaks English, right? Stop and think for a second, though: is the world that full of English speakers? There’s North America, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, most major European cities and some of south-east Asia’s tourist centres (if we’re lucky), but what about everybody else? What if you want to go off the beaten track? It’s going to be tough tracking down somebody who speaks English if you’re looking to get away from the crowds!

..."Knowing a modern language is the backstage pass to the biggest gig in the world"...


What about languages being pointless for your future, then? Okay, consider this: what if your boss could look at your CV and see that you had languages to your name? Wouldn’t you be the first choice to go somewhere exotic for meetings? Even if you never leave the country, knowing another language definitely puts you ahead: a doctor who speaks Spanish or a technician who speaks Arabic can work with a whole lot more people and in many more places than somebody who only speaks one language. You could, of course, try teaching or translating, but leaving university with languages can lead to loads of different careers, from financial work to social services, and there isn’t a shortage of companies looking for people with such “international” talent!

So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of why people avoid languages: they’re tough. Sure, starting out with a foreign language, it’s easy to feel lost; everything is hidden in darkness. You want someone else to understand you so that you can reach your destination, but the time it takes to order your thoughts stops you enjoying communicating. Unfamiliarity slows you down; you become particularly aware of the space between words and ideas. You need a certain “lingo” and way of seeing things, a connection. Why not download a few songs? Or watch a film? Or chat to people online? After all, why does learning languages have to be about being cooped up in a classroom learning page after page of grammar or vocabulary? You’ve got potential, so why not get out into the world and use it?

Why not try exploring a little? Why not peek out from behind the curtain of what you already know and step onto the international stage? Arriving on the scene from that angle, you’ll find yourself in a place that’s vaguely unsettling, but at the same time intriguing, perhaps even exciting: did you know that spaghetti, that Italian icon, comes from China? By exploring, you’ll understand the world better; you’ll be able to retrace your steps; come up with a plan; give directions to others. You’ll realise that there’s so much out there for you to see, so many mysteries to chase. Eventually, you’ll forget your worries; in fact, you’ll begin to feel almost at home. Nobody’s expecting you to be perfect, but anybody you meet will appreciate you trying to understand their culture and language. They’ll go that extra mile to help, showing you the road less travelled, sharing their culture with you, and opening up the horizon.

With enough exploring, you’ll find that what used to seem slow will become quicker; the effort to say what you want will lessen and you’ll even begin to think in another language. Okay, that moment’s not going to come overnight, but it’ll come, in the same way that a city like Paris seems to get smaller, depending on how often you’ve visited it and where you’ve wandered. You’ll get a certain expertise: you’ll slip into conversations and open up their possibility into a huge space of communication in which you can navigate without worrying, with so many possibilities that you can barely think of them all at once; a menu of choices, all of which you can understand. There are still going to be things hidden in dark corners, but it’s in these very shadows, waiting to reveal their secrets to the light, that you’ll find the most fascinating, beautiful things. Knowing a modern language is the backstage pass to the biggest gig in the world, with a view down the wings to the past, present and future.

So, where are languages going to take you? All it takes is a flash – the scent of fresh croissants; a snapshot of a man flinging a red cape in front of a bull; a stadium singing a national anthem – and you’re off down the rabbit hole into a wonderful world of people wildly waving their hands, the music of a different “lingo” and an atmosphere that’s full of possibility, with a different road waiting for every adventurer.

What’s keeping you?