Get to Know a Reading Module: Travel in the GDR

Ever stopped to think about why you travel, where and how? Dr Alison E. Martin has.

Dr Alison MartinA specialist in travel writing, with a main focus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel narratives, Dr Martin offers a module for second-year students, GM2OPT3, which explores travel in quite a different period – the twentieth century – and examines travel in Europe and beyond during the Cold War.

Her seminar has several missions. One of these is to revise the commonly-held views that travel writing is not proper ‘literature’ at all – in the sense that it is not creatively crafted – and that it is nothing more than coffee-table reading, merely seeking to entertain,
with little ‘meat’ and message to it. She also aims to make students understand how travel is intimately related to all sorts of things we do in life – not just get to work or go on holiday. Where we go and how we travel has much to do with the community to which we belong or the social group to which we aspire, our dreams and aspirations or our fears and concerns.

RathäuserWhile in this course we adopt the time-honoured position of the ‘armchair traveller’, undertaking voyages with our authors to places as disparate as Siberia and Brighton, America and Cologne, we do so with a critical eye as we examine how the writers in this module use a wide range of different textual strategies – the use of first-person narration, direct speech, factual enumeration – to create a seemingly authentic, immediate and above all engaging picture of the foreign.

Life of a Lecturer: Academic in August

It’s August, and many of us in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies have taken a brief holiday. How do academics spend their time off? Here’s an update from Dr Daniela La Penna, Associate Professor of Italian Studies.

I am writing this quite late at night. In the next few hours, I will have to print boarding passes and take the plunge. I will go on annual leave, and in my case this year at least it means that I am heading towards my home country, Italy.

SandcastleHolidays are fraught with stress for academics. I know, it seems exaggerated and self-important but it’s true. Whoever is involved in this trade knows that every action and thought that is not directly connected to research, pastoral care, and teaching is welcomed by anxiety, anguish, and an overwhelming sense of guilt. “Oh my! I am actually enjoying this film!”, you think with a mixture of surprise and sweetness, only to be assailed by the thought of that unfinished book review or that sentence that you still have not nailed for the ending of that paragraph, and the feedback to that student… Holidays only extend the agony of self-inflicted guilt.

How so? When I was sans child, it was not uncommon for me to spend weekends in the office, to ruminate on this and that, or finishing articles. But when I had my child, my ‘free time’ that I often and contently occupied with research and directed reading was now claimed by the sweet smile of my little daughter, who wants to discover the world with her parents. This was a paradigm shift, and I had to adapt to this structural change quickly, and I did so in a heartbeat. My holidays are her holidays and I need and want to engage with her desire to enjoy herself. However, I am a whole person, and this means that I am still a researcher obsessed with the things I do, I care deeply for my dissertation students and my postgraduates. And of course, you have 24 hours in a day, and you cannot always build sand-castles. But boundaries are a healthy and necessary thing, so if you are not naturally inclined to switch off on command, you better create fences and obstacles. Because I realised that I go ‘cold turkey’ if I don’t check emails regularly, and in order not to fall into temptation, we decided to holiday in an island near Naples that has notoriously bad reception and where wi-fi is still a thing of the future.

Sunny treesHolidays means for me rehab and re-education. In a sense, I needed to be educated in the art of watching your thoughts float aimlessly, and resist the temptation of arranging them into rational systems to see them printed in written form. The art of leisure is for some an acquired taste. I don’t think this is bad (or good), it is just the way it is. My daughter has been in this case a true inspiration and a veritable teacher, and from her I learn every day. In my suitcase, I have packed a few books I would like to read, and I confess, there is one I am due to review. But only during the holidays I can actually read freely and beyond my immediate research interests.

I have packed my luggage and alongside a few Marcia Williams adaptations (Shakespeare and Greek Myths are high on demand!) and Oxford Reading Tree books with alluring titles such Splash and Squelch and an all-time favourite, Elephant Ears, I have managed to squeeze a few of my own. I look forward to leaf through Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, a gem of Hungarian literature recommended to me by my friend Rajneesh Narula. Will I manage to plough through the 800 pages of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a book my husband enjoyed terribly and set in his native New Zealand? It all depends on how I react to the first pages…But I confess I have my eyes set on Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. I gave this book as a present to my friend Chris Wagstaff a couple of years ago and did not manage to finish it, and now I am going to do it. Kahneman contends that there are two types of thought: one type is fast, automatic, frequent, reactive to emotions, led by stereotypes (apparently these increase decision-making efficiency but not efficacy). The other type, and the one that underpins research, is slow. As those engaged in research know, this type of thought is effortful, alas infrequent, demandingly logical, and conscious (perhaps because you lie awake waiting for it to appear!).Island in the sun

This is going to be a special holiday, and one that I am determined to enjoy. For the first time it is unencumbered by the thought of a yet-unfinished book. This academic year has been very challenging and extremely busy and amongst the things I am pleased to have done is to have published my book on trilingual and diasporic poet Amelia Rosselli, an endeavour that has kept me company and given me nightmares for more than ten years. I need to recharge my batteries. Next academic year will come sooner, and it will be no doubt both challenging and hilarious, I hope in equal measure. I better build some sand-castles now, as winter is coming!

Student Life: Cerys Rees

It’s August and that means that many students are making plans to begin attending university in the autumn. This is an exciting time, of course, but it can also be a little nerve-wracking as well. We thought we’d share some reflections on beginning university from one of our recent graduates, Cerys Rees, who finished her degree in French in July. Here’s what Cerys has to say:

IMG_18800 (2)After not doing as well as I had hoped in my French A level, I was nervous to begin my studies at the University of Reading. However, at Reading I was given the opportunity to refresh my knowledge of the French language from scratch. This, together with my experience on my Year Abroad allowed me to build my confidence and offered alternative ways of understanding various elements of the course. The lessons that take place in Reading are small and intimate which enables tutors to build a rapport with students and give individual support which I found to be invaluable. The support and opportunities offered to me at the MLES department within the University of Reading gave me a platform from which I was able to excel and eventually led to me finishing amongst the top of my year group in my finals and establishing a position on a PGCE course in the future.

To find out more about studying in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, visit our website. We’d love to meet you in person to speak with you about studying languages: consider scheduling a campus visit, or joining us for an official visit day. And when you’re ready to apply, here’s the information you’ll need.

Reading Reacts: Ab initio language degrees

min-c-legluWhen modern languages are in the news, Reading Reacts. In a regular feature, we’ll invite members of the Reading community to comment on current events, sharing their insights about what is happening in the world beyond the university. This week, we’ve asked Professor Catherine Leglu to respond to an article in the Sunday Times of 27 July 2014, ‘GCSE enough to take degree in languages’. Here are Professor Leglu’s reflections on the important subject of who can and should study languages at university.

We are delighted that the University of Reading was approached to give its views about the well-publicised fall in applications to post-A Level degree courses in Modern Languages in the UK. However, a number of substantive points were made in this article that do not correlate with the situation here in Reading, or indeed, we believe, in the rest of the HE institutions that offer ab initio languages to degree level. An ab initio language degree involves learning the language from scratch, at beginners’ level, but going on to complete the degree at the same level of knowledge and fluency as students who might have a GCSE or A-Level in that language when they began their degree programme.

First and most important is the fact that introducing ab initio degree programmes is not new. Many languages are taught from beginners’ level in many UK universities. Arabic, Russian and Chinese are normally acquired without a requisite prior qualification in the language, and these graduates remember spending their first term learning a new script. It is equally normal to study Latin and Ancient Greek from scratch after the age of 18, or in the case of postgraduate students, from any age beyond 21. What is new is the expansion of degree programmes in the major European languages (Spanish, German, French) to include ab initio degree programmes.

Many undergraduates in these languages have learned others from scratch during their studies, such as Portuguese, Catalan or Dutch. Reading has long had an ab initio degree in Italian, because Italian is very rarely taught in state sector secondary schools, as indeed is Russian. Also, there is nothing inherently strange about acquiring a new language at university, as many undergraduates enrich their studies by learning a language as a minor part of their BA degree. It is therefore difficult to accept that there could be a risk in taking a language without having an A level in it.

Our departmental language co-ordinator, Enza Siciliano Verruccio, was approached by the authors of the Sunday Times article, but the Enza Siciliano Verruccioinformation she gave did not appear in the published version. She carried out a survey of ab initio language teaching in UK universitiesin 2010-11, and it is available online. Its main conclusions for 2010-11, in England alone, are that ALL 46 languages available to study at degree level were offered ab initio (this is based on the 53 languages departments that then existed). 86% of the institutions that offered Spanish, offered it ab initio; of all the institutions that offered German, 55% of them did so at ab initio level; whereas French was offered ab initio only in 36% of all the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) that offered it.

An ‘upsurge in ab initio [teaching] offer’ was already documented in 2003, before the major changes to the National Curriculum took effect (M. Kelly and D. Jones, A New Landscape for Languages, London, Nuffield Foundation (2003: 24)). Analysing the data regarding the entry requirements for the top nine languages taught ab initio at degree level in HEIs in England – that is, Spanish, Italian, German, Mandarin, French, Russian, Arabic, Japanese, and Portuguese – it emerges that:

“An A level in another foreign language remains the most sought after qualification, followed more or less closely by a GCSE in another language. For the majority of the ab initio languages above, around a quarter of the institutions that offer them have degree programmes open to students who have never studied a foreign language before entering university. For Spanish this figure rises to almost a third of the institutions where it is offered ab initio, and it is close to half of the institutions for Chinese and Japanese.”

In conclusion, ab initio language degree programmes are not at all new, and not at all limited. And as for the entry requirements, offering a language degree to students who may have never have studied languages before is not such an isolated ‘deviation’.

One of the most intriguing claims made in this article is that universities are reduced to accepting students who happen to speak a given foreign language at home. Heritage and a love of a culture are well-established as a pathway into language study. In fact, Reading’s French degree programme has a first-year ‘intermediate language’ course that caters specifically for, respectively, students with GCSE French, and students who have grown up speaking French at home but have no advanced formal teaching provided by their secondary school.

We know that the market is there. It is not an admission of defeat, far from it, to make sure that we can respond to that market.

What is the market context in 2014, exactly? The recent weak provision of languages beyond the age of 14 in English secondary Reading German and Frenchschools, largely the product of changes to the National Curriculum, should not be a barrier to students feeling able to rekindle their interest in a language and culture once they start the UCAS application process. One of us spent a happy hour at a recent open day with two enthusiastic applicants who had no formal training in French, but an immense interest in learning it. There is a real thirst for language acquisition and too many schools cannot provide for it for the moment. Universities can, and in fact have long done so. The fact that fewer students are taking A Levels in MFL means that universities need to respond in an imaginative and creative way to the profile of our future undergraduates. The most obvious approach is to open more of our courses to students with GCSEs in a language.

A GCSE in a language, any language, is the equivalent of that C or above in GCSE Maths. It is valuable, technical training, and it demonstrates the ability to learn and to exploit complex codes in writing, speech and gesture (yes, gesture, as well as facial expression and posture). It is a very solid foundation for a degree programme as long as the first year at university is appropriately designed to bring the student up to post-A Level standard – This is feasible. One of us took Spanish GCSE and A Level over two years.

There has been talk for the past six years of a ‘lost generation’ of language graduates in the UK. Employers are keen to recruit graduates who possess the skills to acquire linguistic and cultural knowledge quickly, to respond with sensitivity and knowledge in a culture that is not their own, and to meet the rest of the world with minds that are both open and informed. Furthermore, in this globalized world of business, many professional adults are expected to learn languages quickly when they are sent overseas on placements. Inter-cultural experience boils down to having both linguistic and cultural knowledge; graduates in Modern Languages have that as one of their key skills, and it seems essential to extend the opportunity to post-GCSE applicants.

A final thought: if an A Level in the subject is an essential qualification for a degree programme, then departments of Archaeology, Cybernetics and Anthropology would have to close down. More MLES Studentsseriously, there is nothing inherently magical about learning a new language; if there were, then computer coding would be beyond most of us, yet we are told that all children should learn it. The myths circulating concerning language acquisition are often based on limited empirical evidence, such as the impossibility of learning a language if one is dyslexic (we have known dyslexic students achieve 2.1 degrees in ab initio Russian), or the impossibility of learning more than one language at high level (many countries in the world have bilingual and  trilingual communities). Ab initio degree programmes in languages are long-established and offer a creative solution to the current problem in recruiting students to Languages degrees, a problem that is not of the universities’ own making.

If you would like to learn more about studying languages at the University of Reading, including studying a language you may not have studied in school, we invite you to visit our website. For up-to-date information about the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, we also encourage you to follow our blog. And watch this space for reflections from some of our students, past and present, who have pursued ab initio degrees.