Runner-up of the student award 2010: My future employability: the benefits of a languages, linguistics or area studies degree

Author: Ciaran Roe


Ciaran Roe, a 4th year Italian and English Literature student at the University of Edinburgh, was a runner up in the Subject Centre's undergraduate student award competition 2010.

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Ciaran Roe

How I learned the value of the subjunctive

“Please, take a seat,” the interviewer offered. As I sat down, having recently completed my degree in English Literature and Italian in Edinburgh, I felt a nervous dryness cling to the back of my throat. I croaked a stuttered “Thanks” back across the varnished table.

The numerous previous candidates had all seemed more at ease with the opulence of the surroundings. Paranoia, who by now appeared to be a well-informed confidante, convinced me that they were all better qualified as well.

As the man who was deciding my future employment reeled off predictable questions – questions which had lost any meaning through their dull repetition – a thousand thoughts raced through my head. Not one of them provided me with an appropriate answer. Why had I not taken advantage of more on offer in Edinburgh? Why had I not joined the student paper? Why had I ignored the Film Society's continual plaintive e-mailed pleas? Had I really been too cowardly to join the Boxing Club?

My eyes darted around the room, deliberately avoiding contact with who I now perceived to be my tormentor. He looked concerned: not for my potential as an employee but for my mental health.

He sighed, scribing something in his near-empty notepad. “Well ... give me an example of how you've dealt well under pressure.” Without any previous indication that my brain would come to my aid, a rogue synapse tapped into my memory, gracefully selecting an anecdote from my Erasmus year.

“Actually, there was an instance – during my year abroad which I spent studying at the University of Bologna – when ...” The eyes across the room perked up, suddenly intrigued.

..."The policeman looked impressed with my ability to use the pluperfect subjunctive"...


“‘Is that not the oldest university in the world?”

I affected my best debonair Humphrey Bogart, “Why, yes.”

“So you're that rarest of things in Britain: a candidate who can speak a foreign language? It's a dreadful shame how under-funded languages are these days ... Am I right in saying one isn't even compelled to learn one at school?”

“Yes. It's an embarrassment. That policy's rooted in the short-sighted belief that we can get by without learning about other cultures. Anyway, this is a popular hobby-horse for anyone who's been on Erasmus ... but having encountered so much last year, it's frustrating to see so little impetus in producing language students here. The EU gives you free money to go! They fund you to escape British weather!” I faltered; I realized that I was letting out too much. I qualified myself: “I must resist the temptation to stray, but I feel quite passionately about the subject!”

He had tilted his head, returning to psycho-analysis, but at least I now seemed motivated by something. “Yes, well, please continue. None of the other candidates could speak another language ... that sets you somewhat apart ...”

Invigorated by a blush of hope, I continued. “As I was saying, there was an occasion last year when I had to react very quickly under pressure. I was unlocking my bike, when I was approached by two men who asked me where I'd bought it from. I told them it was none of their business; that I'd bought it from a second-hand bike store. They grabbed my bike, and attempted to wrench it from my grasp, but I resisted. They then said that the Carabinieri – the military police – were on their way, and advised me to leave. I doubted their story; I held firm. The Carabinieri didn't arrive. But by chance, a crowd of policemen appeared on the next road, and the suspicious characters and I all went up to discuss the situation with the officers. By this point, they'd realized I wasn't Italian, and were shouting, ‘Thief! Thief!’ without reproach. At this point, in a foreign country and with native speakers calling me a thief, I could've crumbled under the pressure. I remained calm though, coolly explaining to the policeman – who understood the reality of the situation – that ‘if I were to have stolen this bicycle, then why would I have returned to the scene of the crime?’’’

I paused, and considered all those hours I had spent wondering when the dull repetition of grammar textbooks would become useful; when I could utilise the skills developed in class. They had all seemed worthwhile in that perfect moment of fruition. Satisfied with my self-indulgence, I continued with the story:

“The policeman looked impressed with my ability to use the pluperfect subjunctive. My line of reasoning obviously appealed to his logic… as much as my grammar did to his ear. He dismissed the claims of the shady duo who’d accosted me.”

The interviewer looked at me, transfixed by the drama and excitement of the story. “It sounds as if you had a life-changing year! Would you be prepared to work abroad?”


As I left the room, with the interviewer having gone on to ask countless questions about my year abroad, without making even the briefest of inquiries about the rest of my degree, he had finished by stating enthusiastically: “The Erasmus scheme really makes one stand out from the crowd, you know? We always look at the willingness of candidates to work abroad, and their capacity to learn new skills quickly. You've really shown us those talents today.” It was a superbly English phrase: he had referred to himself in the plural, and to me both indirectly and directly, all in the same breath. What a complex patchwork of a language we have.

I had no time to ponder though. I was about to return to Edinburgh to perform in the University's Italian play, Pirandello's Così è (se vi pare) (which roughly translates as “As You Like It”). It focuses on Pirandello's favourite themes: the refracted nature of the human character, and the constant battle between truth and reality that thrives in the modern world. While waiting in the wings, I considered my time in Bologna. I thought of the new facets of my character I had discovered. It was an opportunity that only language degrees offer: to put the theory of learning into thrilling practical reality with such fullness that it inevitably becomes an overwhelming experience: one of unbounded discovery; one that I will never forget, or regret.