The lot of the linguist

For many, Michaelmas term signals a return to a lifestyle we know so well that to describe it again would see innumerable clichés rehashed unnecessarily. Returning students, whether suddenly conscientious finalists or second years planning to make the most of college life with neither prelims nor mods to bother them, are joined by hordes of unsure freshers, baffled at the prospect of penetrating the bubble for the first time.Not because I cannot bear to leave the place, but because it seems all too much as if I have been prematurely ripped from a city I had not quite finished with. The majority of my friends will prepare for and take their finals during my year abroad; Oxford will move on without me, taking in two new sets of freshers before I return and only finally allowing me back as a frightened fourth year with nothing to look forward to but another marathon of exams similar to the twenty-four hour session I endured at the end of my first year.Nevertheless, if I have no choice in the matter, then I might as well make the most of it. If I have to be exiled then I plan to come back conjugating verbs better than a grammar book and with more utterly useless vocabulary than a bilingual dictionary. Mortals will gasp at my grasp of the most complex grammatical structures and my pronunciation will no longer be met with furrowed brows and disconcerting glances. This, however, will be thanks to me and the people who tolerate my pidgin tongue here on the Continent, rather than the tuition I have received in Oxford. It is no wonder that thousands of university students are churned out abroad every year to perfect their chosen languages. during the entirety of the last academic year, my college offered a total of eight hours of tuition in German conversation, during the majority of which I was either hopelessly hungover or stubbornly half asleep and where I had to share our one native speaker with on average five others, all equally desperate to try and remember how to speak German before, well, moving there.In my experience, complete immersion in a language is the best way to acquire it. On the days when I am not teaching english at school or I manage to resist the temptation to meet up with english-speaking friends, I even find myself thinking in German, although I still have to wait for that elusive first dream in a foreign language. My German flatmates ensure that even when there is nothing I would rather do less, every word we exchange is in the language of Goethe. My integration is almost complete, and it seems to have only taken a month. I appear to have even convinced myself that I look like a German as I ride to school on the over-efficient trams each morning at seven. Indeed, I have even been stopped twice to help with directions.Of course, there are difficult times: the delicate social situation of buying communal food becomes a headache several hundred times more throbbing when the key words evade you at just the wrong minute. The experience is all the more bemusing when despite studying the language for over nine years I have to admit to having no real affinity with the country or its culture. I am as indifferent to Germany as I am to any other country. I would rather look left first when I cross the road and could easily do without almost incessantly having to breathe in second-hand smoke.But as I become one of the people I begin to find them more and more charming. They are polite, in a different way. Pushing and shoving are fine, but woe betide anyone who forgets to offer their seat to a granny on the tram. You have to pay for plastic bags in the supermarket but people in the street will go out of their way to be helpful. And prostitutes are free to advertise in local papers.If this were Oxford, I would be in the fifth week of my first term. In all honesty, that is perhaps where I would rather be. Perhaps choosing a course with a mandatory year-long excursion was not my wisest move. But perhaps it is foolish to expect to achieve the near-native fluency required for the final oral exam without some sort of sacrifice. And perhaps, after a year, I won’t want to leave.However, it could be suggested that what characterises the first term of a new academic year is the noticeable absence of students who are no longer with us. All over the country, indeed the world, last summer’s graduates are holding down well-paid jobs, sponging off their parents or taking one last opportunity to finally discover the most far-flung corners of the world before inevitable immersion in a pre-planned career. But one other group of students are also nowhere to be seen this Michaelmas, and the vast majority of them will not be seen again until roughly a year from now.The year abroad has claimed its next generation of participants, whether willing or not. In schools worldwide, those working as language assistants are taking into their own hands the teaching of english of thousands of children despite being entirely unqualified to teach. elsewhere, others are registering at foreign universities, sitting in offices or calmly realising that, even after ten years of study, they are still unable to order a baguette. Personally, I am living between an Erotikmarkt and a cannabis accessory emporium in Freiburg, Germany, spending twelve hours a week as a walking dictionary in a nearby school. The obligation to spend a year living abroad is far from the mind of most future students as they leaf through the glossy prospectuses of Oxford’s language departments. even the reappearance of returned linguists fails to make the year abroad register as an inescapable future prospect. Once you begin to hear yourself referred to as a departing linguist, your tutors start to talk of nothing else but your plans for your time abroad and even people you barely speak to are keen to enquire as to how exactly you plan to split your time between Portugal and the Czech Republic. A fearful panic sets in, amplified by the fact that suddenly becoming a native speaker overnight is the only way to be excused from this obligation, and before time has been found to revise your irregular verbs you are sitting on a cheap flight bound for the armpit of europe or the crotch of South America. There are different reactions: while some are desperate to finally become the Spaniard they have always wanted to be others are to be found on the cobbles outside the Oriental Institute, crying in their sub-fusc.This might all seem like too much complaining. Many would jump at the chance to abandon studies for a full year to experience life in the shoes of a citizen of another country. Surely the possibilities are endless? But when your college’s only response to the fact that you have absolutely nothing planned two days before the end of Trinity is "Why not ask the fourth years what they did?" you begin to realise that this year of opportunity might just resemble an endless holiday you never wanted to go on.I stopped counting the number of times I heard "Oh yes, the year abroad was the best year of my life", quietly thinking to myself that perhaps some lives must be duller than others if the equivalent of being sent down for twelve months is able to stand head and shoulders above countless other years. Spending a year abroad is actually no problem: homesickness has never affected me (Surrey tends to stay with you wherever you go), I travel keenly and genuinely enjoy the challenge of making a home in a new place and carrying out daily life as if I were in a GCSe listening exercise. The reason I am currently overwhelmed with pessimism is not that I miss home, nor that I doubt my ability to teach German children how to speak proper english like I do, but rather that I would just prefer to be in Oxford.ARCHIVE: 5th week MT 2005