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Championing the study of languages

With the study of languages at school and university waning nationally, Trinity Fellows, Emma Widdis, Professor of Russian and Film Studies at Cambridge, and College Lecturer, Dr Carlos Fonseca, champion the many and varied benefits of a Languages degree.

During her Modern Languages degree studying French and Russian, Emma Widdis learnt about the experimental movements in both countries, particularly she says ‘the extraordinary art, literature and culture linked to the Soviet Revolution in 1917.’

Considering the relationship between 19th century-literature and painting in France sparked an interest in how visual images interact with words in cinema. ‘And when I started to look more at Soviet Russia, I realised how film – which was still a new art form in 1917- seemed by many to be the ideal art for the new world.’ A new breed of filmmaker was exploiting the nascent art form to persuade their countrymen and women of the benefits the revolution would bring – and that right was on the side of the Bolsheviks.

‘So not just to provide pictures for us to look at, but to make people look, feel and think differently. That is a constant in film – it is able to move us powerfully in the way that the filmmaker wants to – but it’s not something we are very aware of when we sit down to watch a Friday night romantic comedy!’

Professor Emma Widdis. Photo: Graham CopeKoga

In addition to teaching Spanish at Trinity, Dr Fonseca is an acclaimed author of Coronel Lágrimas (2015) and Museo animal (2017), and winner of the 2018 National Prize for Literature in Costa Rica. Dr Fonseca, who spent grew up in Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, and completed a PhD at Princeton, recalls the school teacher who inspired his career.

‘I must have been sixteen when I fell in love with literature. I had an excellent teacher at school that assigned wonderful novels. I still remember reading the first pages of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo or those of Clarice Lispector’s A Hora da estrela, and thinking: this is it, this is what I want to do! So I started mimicking them, writing like them. Until then, I was sure I would study mathematics, which had been my original passion. But things can change unexpectedly when you have a good book in your hands.’

Dr Carlos Fonesca. Photo: David Myers

In this Q&A, Dr Fonseca and Professor Widdis answer some key questions about studying languages.

What’s special about studying languages at university?

EW: A Languages degree is like an English or a History degree but with language – and so a world of other places thrown in. We learn the language to the highest possible level, of course. But we also immerse our students into the literature, cinema, history and culture of the places we study. So that they become insiders in a place.

In fact, it’s even better than that – students are outsiders and insiders at once. They can belong to a new place – be just like a French person, for instance – but with a better, more conscious, understanding of the meanings of the words, and signs and symbols, that they are using.

CF: Studying languages not only opens us to new worlds, but more specifically, grants us access to a breadth of cultures. This is something that our Modern and Medieval Languages students experience first-hand during their third year, when after two years of hard work they get to enjoy their Year Abroad: travelling to Colombia or Milan, they begin to see the world with new eyes. They enjoy not only books, but also music, sports, history, films. Studying languages goes being communication: it centres on culture as a way of understanding the world.

Does knowledge of another language give you a different perspective on your own culture?

CF: Definitely. I think learning a foreign language is an ethical gesture. It forces us to understand others in their own words, and in doing so allows us to see the differences and discrepancies that constitute our own culture in its living, evolving reality. Against the idea that culture is based on homogeneity and purity, the first thing we learn when we study languages is to value difference

EW: Yes, absolutely. Learning a language helps us to tune into how culture works. To how meanings are conveyed and shared across film, music, television, social media. So when we watch films from France, for example, or from Russia, or China, we learn about those places, of course, but we also learn to look critically, to think about difference, to understand ourselves.

I have become more and more aware of this through my research and teaching. I spend a lot of time teaching Soviet culture. We think about the kinds of images created in Soviet Russia as ‘propaganda’. But our students may be slightly less attuned to thinking about their own culture as itself a form of propaganda. They may not think about, or notice, the kinds of implicit messages and relationships that are present in even the most apparently innocuous romantic comedy or James Bond.

By learning to look more closely, and analytically, at visual images created in other places, and to read their meanings, we can learn to read the ones that surround us in our daily life too.

Aren’t languages about learning lots of vocabulary and difficult grammar?

EW: You do have to do that, of course. Though you’ll be surprised how much of a language you learn by reading, by watching films, and also just by talking and being in a place.

And languages aren’t just about grammar and vocab. They are also about shared understandings. You can learn as much grammar as you like, but you need more than that in order to really communicate with someone from another country. You need to understand what makes them tick, where they are coming from.

CF: It is actually a lot of fun! It is impressive how fast students become fluent and go on to tackle the many possibilities that the language opens for them: novels, films, music, among others. I recently directed a fascinating dissertation on literary representations of football! Language allows for the study of cultural contexts, and in doing so opens the space for political and artistic dialogue. Our students continue to work on their mastery of vocabulary and grammar throughout their time at Cambridge, but already from the first week, we pair this up with an exciting focus on different forms of cultural expression.

Doesn’t everyone speak English anyway?

CF: Not really. Just to give an example: I come from Costa Rica, where only around 10% of the population speaks English as a second language. So you can imagine that, unless you want to be treated like a tourist the whole time, speaking Spanish and understanding Hispanic culture goes a long way in the effort to put both cultures in dialogue. What our linguists understand is that even when English works as a lingua franca, language is not merely about the transference of information. Language is mainly about experiencing culture in its own right.

EW: If you speak the language in a situation, you control it much better. You are not at a disadvantage. You can understand not just the words but the meanings and the messages. For example, the world is very bad at understanding why Vladimir Putin is such a popular President with many Russians. But anyone who has done a degree in Russian in Cambridge will understand how Putin uses Russian history and culture to create a set of powerful messages that many Russians feel that they need. That’s not something you would ever get in translation.

Read more about Trinity’s access work for those interested in studying languages in an article by Outreach Coordinator Jon Datta in the June/July issue of The Linguist.

Watch Professor Widdis’ Masterclass, part of Trinity’s Subject Passion as a Teaching Tool, in partnership with World Class Schools Quality Mark.

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