21:45 Leila Gunn 2 Comments

Today the Cambridge Language Centre ran a 'WhyNotLang@Cam' workshop, which was really insightful. The language seminars and tasters were structured around giving us an insight into the opportunities available when studying languages at university. We even had the opportunity to start learning another foreign language from scratch! (I tried Russian... and found Cyrillic utterly incomprehensible.)

The day also really made me think about the importance of learning languages as a whole. I've always loved learning languages, and study Spanish at A-level. I have often been questioned about this decision and met with (pretty ignorant) replies such as; 'What's the point? Everybody speaks English.' This frustrates me; not only because it's untrue, but also because I don't understand why there always has to be a 'point' to learning? What is the 'point'? To get the top grades? To get into the 'best' university? To get the 'best' job? I think we often get too caught up in our desire to succeed academically and 'better our life chances.' Of course it's great to aspire to be successful, but this often results in people losing that which is fundamental to learning - being passionate.

This word was referred to frequently in today's seminars, as learning a new language does require you to be passionate - you have to want to learn a language in order to be able to speak it. Unfortunately, a lack of passion towards learning languages means that many people in the UK remain monolingual. This, in my opinion, can only be a hindrance. Without learning foreign languages, we are unable to communicate with others and see things from their point of view/culture.

"A different language is a different vision of life" - Federico Fellini

Jocelyn Wyburd (Director of the University of Cambridge Language Centre) organised the workshop today, and delivered some facts and figures in her welcome speech which I found particularly surprising. For example, that 75 % of the world's population do not speak English and only 5 % of the world's population speak English as a first language. She then asked a question which I had never thought about before - even if people can speak English, why should they do so for us? And the truth is, people don't always speak English, which can create huge problems. Our language deficit costs the British Economy £70 billion a year, as a result of the UK's inability to communicate with those who speak in a different tongue to our own. This puts us at a massive disadvantage economically, which could be easily remedied, if only more people studied foreign languages.

Last year, the Government announced a change to the curriculum, introducing 'compulsory learning of foreign languages' for primary school children. This in turn, should improve the number of children continuing to study languages into Secondary Education, which I fully support. If taught correctly (i.e. in a fun and interesting way), languages can be fantastic in encouraging children to become more engaged in their learning. As a result, this provides children with a cross-cultural understanding, improves communication skills and aids employability in the future. Therefore, learning languages is not only personally enriching but beneficial for the economy too... a win-win right?

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." - Nelson Mandela

Languages provide us with the ability to move between different worlds of meaning, however perseverance is key. It's clear that in almost all languages, not only one word can apply to one object/meaning. An example given by Dr Vivien Kogut-Lessa-De-Sá today was that of the word for 'Camel' in Arabic, for which there are 5,074 words. This of course creates difficulties in translation. Although in our technologically-advanced society it is easy to look up words instantly using online dictionaries, whatever we gain in time we usually lose in meaning and understanding. In my opinion, one of the main reasons for the lack of young people continuing language study into Secondary education is that it's easier to give up than to graft - people often become frustrated and disinterested by that which they don't understand. Dr Viviene emphasised the importance of perseverance using the metaphor of a dark room. Although it may seem like you are standing in a dark room when beginning to learn a new language, the longer you persevere, the clearer things become.

Nevertheless, the thing that resonates the most with me after attending the 'WhyNotLang@Cam' workshop is how lucky I am to have the opportunity to learn foreign languages. Young people (myself included) often do take this for granted, and there are so many free online language teaching websites available to us. So if you've ever thought about learning a new language, give it a go! Yes it's difficult at first, yes it's time-consuming, but the benefits are well worth it.



  1. If it wasn't for my boyfriend learning English then I never would have known him! My boyfriends Bulgarian and lives in Bulgaria, I visited on a holiday where he was an animator and things started from there! He knows 5 languages and is studying Chinese which makes me feel incredibly lazy when I gave up as soon as I finished my French GCSE. I'm attempting to understand Bulgarian and to understand Cyrillic! But I just wish I had the passion for learning language like he does! Don't get me wrong I'd love to be able to speak completely to his friends and family but I just don't have the confidence! However it has shown me that language isn't a barrier and I consider some of my boyfriends friends my friends too.....even if we can only say hello! ps sorry but I'm bingeing on your blog right now :D xx

  2. Hi Emily,

    Hahaha quite alright. 5 languages - what a talent, and to be learning Chinese too! When I went on the Cambridge language day, they advised that if you take Chinese/Mandarin, you should study that alone rather than studying multiple languages because it is really difficult, so very impressive that your boyfriend is learning it on top of the other 5. I feel the same way as you do about confidence. I have a few friends who are Spanish and I study Spanish at A-level, but I would be anxious trying to have a serious conversation with them at this point, in fear of embarrassment! I guess like with all things, with a bit of practise, it'll get much easier.

    Leila x