Third year MChem student Hannah Glover shares her experience of learning Japanese and French alongside her degree and taking part in a virtual language exchange.
I started my first year at the University of Bath back in 2020 – the year of the pandemic.
Having had my A-level exams cancelled and spending the first lockdown obsessively baking and working my way through beginner Japanese on Duolingo, I had just about resigned myself to spending all my time on my Chemistry degree when the start of term rolled around.
Then, I received an email from my Director of Studies – if any students felt like learning a language at university, they could sign up for classes with the Skills Centre.
I had started learning French and German in secondary school, and then stuck with both languages at A-level. So, I’m well aware of how much even a single private lesson can set your wallet back.
To have access to small class sizes, banks of resources and support from a native speaker available as part of the overall student experience at Bath was just too tempting.
Linguistics during lockdowns
It turned out that joining the Lower Intermediate Japanese class offered so much more than shiny new words and sentence structures.
As the year progressed, being able to watch my recorded video lectures in pyjamas lost its novelty and even the social-distanced lab classes had to be moved online.
Logging onto Teams on a Wednesday evening to dissect Studio Ghibli films and hear about teacher (sensei) Satoko Suzui’s globetrotting adventures was sometimes the highlight of my week. The relaxed atmosphere and conversation was just what I needed to take a break from the tricky aspects of transition state theory and thermodynamics.
Stepping out of my comfort zone
In fact, I liked it so much that I retook the class in my second year. The class again took place online due to lingering covid restrictions, but there was still so much that I was able to learn.
Suzui sensei also encouraged us to enter the Japan Foundation’s Japanese Speech Contest for University Students. Even though I didn’t get to the final, I could hardly believe that within two years I had gone from trying to figure out the difference between お andをto delivering an 8-minute presentation.
Such a massive leap would never have been possible without the help of the Skills Centre.
Back to in-person teaching
I’m currently in my third year of my four-year-long Master’s programme, and I’m back to brushing up on my A-level French by attending the Upper Intermediate French class taught by Rachel Los.
It’s nice to be back in-person, and once again the classes are a lot of fun. Everyone is encouraged to learn at their own pace, and it’s refreshing to simply be able to enjoy learning a language without the threat of an exam at the end of term.
Classes are open to staff and members of the public as well as university students, and it’s interesting to be in a class with people of all different ages. The wide range of opinions, experiences and occupations among my classmates makes for some good discussions.
A virtual language exchange
However, attending French lessons after a two-year gap made me realise how rusty my speaking skills had become without me noticing.
Happily, the Skills Centre had just the thing – a virtual exchange programme with the ENS de Lyon, organised by coordinating tutor Anne-Catherine Mechler.
The programme involved weekly online meetings of a minimum of 40 minutes over 5 weeks, and I was lucky enough to click with my partner straight away.
Each week, we shared a short article or video, and split our time talking half in English, half in French. After the session, we had a journal to fill out to keep track of our progress, with lots of feedback and advice being provided by Anne-Catherine.
It was easy to forget that we were talking through a screen, and the experience ended up being really positive – we kept in touch and still chat every week!
I would without doubt recommend taking part in a virtual exchange. There’s no replacement for having proper conversations with a native speaker when it comes to improving your language skills.
A little something for LinkedIn...
My initial reason for signing up for Japanese and French classes was purely because I enjoy learning languages. But when I had to start putting together CVs and applying for placements, I found that the experiences I had gained were more valuable than I originally thought.
Working in the field of chemistry revolves around collaboration and clear communication. Employers definitely value debating skills and intercultural competence as well. All of these skills and more can be developed by learning a language.
Only one question remains – which language should I pick to learn next year?
Photo: Hannah Glover (left) with her exchange partner from ENS de Lyon during a bilingual virtual exchange meet-up on Zoom.