Learning languages is a mountainous struggle in the UK. Not only do we have a terrible system of teaching grammar, but by GCSE Level you only have the basic ‘holiday-vocab’ down to pat. While there is a strong mentality of “Everyone speaks English anyway”, it is interesting to speak to people who, at University, have not only decided to study languages, but have chosen more ‘niche’ languages. How often do you think of your average chum studying Bosno-Croatian or Tagalog?
I spoke to Kate, who studied French, German and Slovene at Nottingham University, Laura who studies German, Dutch and Luxembourgish at Sheffield University, and Cecilia who studied Icelandic at University College London to investigate the usefulness of studying a ‘niche’ language.
Why study a niche language?
My ‘niche’ language is Swedish. While the most spoken of the Scandinavian languages, it is not a common language to learn in England. Nonetheless when I started my Third Year Abroad I found that both of my Universities abroad offered Scandinavian Studies. Jumping at the chance, I studied Swedish for four hours a week in Strasbourg, and now I am currently studying Nordic Crime Literature and Supernatural theories of the North in Vienna. My choice of language made sense to me: my mother and all her side of the family are Swedish and we have a house in Sweden. However, even I am aware that most Swedish people speak English, which does instil a sense of laziness.
When I was 18 I went to a talk by Sheffield University encouraging people to study Luxembourgish, the new language which replaced the Swedish programme. I couldn’t help but be perplexed at this decision. After all, Swedish is spoken by around 9 million people and is the official language of Sweden and Finland. If you are fluent in Swedish you can also generally understand Norwegian (circa 5 million speakers) and to an extent, Danish (5.6 million). How would this compare to Luxembourgish, spoken by 400,000 people in Luxembourg and parts of Belgium? Not to sound even more bitter, but Sweden is actually 174 times the size of Luxembourg. This lead me to thinking – why else would you study a niche language if you are not directly linked to it?
Laura, is studying Luxembourgish at Sheffield University, alongside German with Dutch. In this way, Luxembourgish is a natural choice as it is similar to both languages. When I studied Dutch in my first year I found it relatively easy because I knew English and German. This is similar with people who study Spanish and take Catalan modules: you already have a good grounding of a language, so mastering a niche one is not nearly so hard. This technically gives you a boost to fluency a lot quicker, than say, studying Spanish and then moving onto Japanese rather than Portuguese or Italian.
Kate, however, had had no prior knowledge of Slovene and was persuaded to study it on an open day. Slovene is spoken by 2.4 million people, and is by 1.85 million people as their mother tongue. It is spoken as a minority language in the surrounding countries of Austria, Italy and Hungary. Before she even started her course, she had “never even heard of Slovenia”, and “most people think it’s the language spoken in Slovakia”. Now, after finishing her degree, she’s become “somewhat of an ambassador of sorts. I think of it as my duty to help promote Slovenia, its language and its culture.” Indeed it was after my interview with her where a few weeks later I decided to go to Slovenia myself, and I have to say the area I was in (Bled) was one of the most idyllic and gorgeous places I have ever been to.
Cecilia similarly had had little contact with the Icelandic language before her degree. Her decision to study it at University level stemmed from her interest in Icelandic Literature – modern and medieval sagas, and a slight love of Bjork. She returned to Iceland for her Masters but has decided to move back to England afterwards to return to the UK.
Studying a niche language at university has its benefits in terms of class-size: Kate was the “only person in her whole year group who had chosen Slovene, and there were never more than four people in a class, essentially getting one-on-one tuition for three years”. This is in great comparison to large lecture halls for more conventional languages where if you don’t understand a grammar point you can’t necessarily go through it thoroughly. I found that my Swedish improved rapidly because I couldn’t escape or hide in a class, whereas if I hadn’t studied a grammar point in first year for French it didn’t really make any difference. Although university should be the time you are left to your own devices, I personally think for language learning that smaller classes are better, especially when you learn. Cecilia also had only four people in her class in first year she was able to really concentrate on getting to grips with a new language: “It helped hugely to be in a small class”. Icelandic is a very grammar-heavy language with “many rules and declensions” that is the official language of Iceland (circa 330,000 speakers), so undoubtably the smaller the class size the more focus on you to improve.
Although a niche language might not be necessary for a job, it does help you stand out on a C.V and from the crowd. While French, Spanish or German may get you through the door, a niche language certainly helps you to stand out. Nowadays we are told to have something a bit different about ourselves – so why not add in something that employers remember? While Kate now works in London and does not use Slovene in her job, it does provide a “great conversation starter”. “My ability to pick up a language in such a short space of time also highlights other skills such as adaptability, organisation and commitment, which the employer is interested in“. Laura agrees, saying that “I have heard from 4th years that employers stop and talk to them specifically about Luxembourgish because they have either never heard of it or have never seen anyone study it before”.
Cecilia, however, disagrees. “I think my employment opportunities are significantly weakened by having done Icelandic. I’ve only applied for a couple of jobs, and it has been mentioned but just in a sort of ‘Oh, that’s a strange thing to study’ way. [It] doesn’t seem to have helped me, anyway! Theoretically I wish my parents had pushed me into Business or something vocational, as I think you have to be incredibly good at Icelandic (which takes a long time, I’m certainly not there yet) to make a career out of it. I don’t plan on using it in my career.”
So my question is, if you want to study a niche language, should you do it alongside a more widely spoken language?
What’s the Point?
If you ask the average Joe on the street they may tell you it is pointless to learn a language when “Everyone speaks English”. As younger generations learn English from a young age it seems fruitless to dedicate time to learning other languages. However Kate disagrees. While she pointed out that younger generations do speak English on her Year Abroad her “host parents didn’t speak any English at all (they learnt Russian at school in Yugoslavia), helping [her] Slovene to improve dramatically.”
So is it useful? Cecilia says, no, but she doesn’t regret it and still enjoyed doing it. “In fact, I would say that it’s definitely not useful (especially Icelandic as so few people speak it so you can’t take it anywhere recently). [But] It’s interesting, in that I’ve learnt a lot about the origins of the English language through its contact with Old Norse. So there are now lots of words in the English language that I know come from Old Norse, which is fun.” She added that “I suppose the clichéd thing to say would be that it’s a good experience living abroad, and maybe it is, though I’m yet to see exactly in what way…!”
Niche languages therefore might be more about integration – I recently read a Daily Mail article (sorry), about a whiny woman called Deborah Chinti who moved to Tunisia to be with her toyboy husband and is now depressed because she has made 0 effort to integrate (and receives 0 benefits, but hey, different kettle of fish). Arabic isn’t a niche language by any sorts, but why would you move to a country and make no effort to learn the language and then complain?
And finally: is it worth it?
When I asked my respondents “Do you ever think it’s been a waste of time or effort?” my resounding answer was no. Cecilia and Kate both had to spend their Year Abroad in these countries too – an experience I would advocate to anyone (but that will be a different blog post soon). While it may have its ups and downs (much more downs than what-I-call ‘Year Abroad Try-Hards’ like to admit), spending it in a vastly different country can only help your independence, your language skills, and your C.V.
Ultimately it’s about enjoyment – if you are struggling to find an extra module to do in your First Year, why not give a language a go? I know people (not just language students) who took beginners’ courses in Arabic and Russian just for the enjoyment of something new and a break from the other monotony. I personally loved beginners’ classes for Swedish as it meant I had four hours a week to talk about my hobbies and my daily routine, when the rest of my eight hours I had to study dia(incredibly)chronic linguistics and French poetry, which, while useful, drain the fun out of you.