Abroad thoughts home in on benefits of Russian year

January 2, 1998

Twelve months learning the language and culture of another country sets students up for life - and work, says Pieta Monks

MY "Russian" year abroad in the early 1970s was interesting: five months of Russian courses in Bulgaria, three months in Leningrad. In Bulgaria I learned that I could not ski and that Bulgaria has wonderful food and wine. Slivovitz, the plum brandy, was also popular after a cold day tussling with skis. Russian became my lingua franca with the Bulgarians and I made friends there with whom I keep in contact to this day.

My three months in Leningrad created much less of an impression - there is a big difference between five months and three. I did not like Leningrad. It was draughty, I did not make any proper friends, and the Russians, unlike the Bulgarians, kept correcting my Russian.

In retrospect, however, it was tremendously useful. I realised the enormous differences in culture between the Soviet Union's satellites and the dominant power. The standard of living seemed lowest of all in the Soviet Union and political control tighter. I also realised that I needed longer than three months to come to grips not just with the language, but the culture and politics.

That chequered year abroad gave me an abiding interest in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which impelled me to carry on studying and travelling to Russia after my first degree. This equipped me for work in different areas connected with Russian including translation, interpreting, teaching and journalism.

Now the year abroad, until recently considered an essential part of a language degree, is under threat, especially at the new universities which are more vulnerable to the effects of the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of grants.

Applications for places are already significantly down on last year - so an alternative being considered is to drop the fourth year for language courses and, instead, to send the students away for a semester and summer - to offer a language degree in three years, even for students starting from scratch.

This is especially bad news for students studying languages such as Russian whose culture and language are so different from ours. At the University of North London we have just set up an excellent exchange with Moscow State University.

Teaching and general conditions are excellent. Nevertheless, without exception, the students find their first few weeks there very hard. It is only in the second semester that they can really enjoy the excitement of living in a big anarchic city, with the discernible pulse of power throbbing away at its heart. Only then that they can consolidate and enjoy friendships struck up with their crazy, hospitable and open Russian hosts.

Of course, it is quite impossible for students to reach the same level of language competency without the year abroad. It is so often at this time that they take off. But not only the language factor, but the degree as a whole will certainly suffer.

And there are other losses as well. James Coleman, of the University of Portsmouth, has done a special study on the value of the year abroad, which concluded that it brings tremendous improvements, not only in language proficiency, but also in motivation and in transferable skills that benefit employability. However, once the possibility of doing a four-year course in three exists it seems highly likely that precisely those people who most need a four-year course will feel the pressure to opt for a three-year one.

Universities are keeping their cards close to their chest: competition is sharp, so it is difficult to ascertain how widespread this new system will be, but there is no doubt that it will be on offer in some places at the beginning of the next academic year, and, if successful in attracting significant numbers of students, will then be adopted more widely.

We are meant to be going into Europe with open arms and a skilled workforce to compete there. Some hope! Our degree courses are among the shortest in Europe, while we are notorious for the poor quality of our foreign language speaking. And a move like this will make it worse. Tony Blair may now be the president of the European Union but as a nation we cannot operate effectively in Europe or elsewhere if we cannot speak foreign languages and do not understand the diverse cultures of our world.

Universities are under pressure, but to cut the quality of language courses is not the answer. Far from jettisoning the year abroad, universities should be promoting and exploiting their unique advantage. The year abroad should attract and equip students to work in their chosen field. It is priceless for students and employers. This is the message universities should be sending out. Sell it - do not kill it.

Pieta Monks is Russian language coordinator at the University of North London.

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