Studying languages at university: an essential foundation for life

Oxford University student Aurora Dawson-Hunte responds to Belinda Parmar’s recent claims in the Guardian newspaper that people studying for language degrees are “wasting their time”. Aurora studies French and Russian, and has experience working in the French technology sector and Russian oil industry. She believes all of this is because of her choice of degree.

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Are the humanities really that irrelevant when it comes to finding a job?

Belinda Parmar is trying to encourage girls to get into the technology sector. I think this is brilliant. But if she says her degree in French and Spanish “is not worth the paper it’s written on”, that is only because she didn’t make the most of it. Belinda Parmar shouldn’t blame wasting a degree on the degree itself. Nullifying language degrees serves no purpose. Being so denigrating is actually harmful to those finding languages useful. Take me, for example.

I study French and Russian. This summer I have lost myself in the labyrinthine sentences of Proust; the revolutionary tale of warring Russia in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago; the multifaceted world of the French Enlightenment through Diderot’s many works; the lesbianism of Zinov’eva-Annibal in her little-know novel Thirty-Three Abominations. And, actually, last summer I spent five months working in Paris in the technology sector. Please, do not fall of your chairs. I can explain.

I would never, ever have had the opportunity to take an internship at Evenium without my languages degree. They were looking for a French- and English-speaking intern to join their team as a chef de projet. I would learn to use their software to design websites for clients. And I did. I picked up a bit of HTML on the way too. And I did all of that in French. Suddenly, my degree seemed to come in handy.

Parmar’s main complaint is the belief that she had fallen “victim” of “a gender stereotype” that girls should take the so-called ‘soft’ humanities degrees at university. But if Belinda claims she had fallen into a gender stereotype before, then she is in danger of falling into a societal one now: the contemporary albeit redundant belief that technological and vocational degrees are somehow superior to the Humanities. She and James Dyson should enter into a dialogue, following his comments about “little Angelina […] going off and studying French lesbian poetry”. In the words of my tutor, Dr Jennifer Yee, in reply to Dyson’s (and now Parmar’s) comments: “If little Angelina decided one day to work alongside other British employees of Airbus near Toulouse, or Électricité de France [EDF], she could perhaps rely on French interpreters to get by. [But] she would have thought less about her own language and the nature of language in general; she would have thought less about sexuality, the nature of evil, and the creation of art.”

Let’s return to Parmar’s woe-is-me attitude towards her experience of higher education. You see, she admits her degree was “romantic, inspiring and entertaining”. But the bitterness and pejorative manner she adopts when referring to her choice of course at university is, for me, misdirected. Parmar talks about her early aspirations to become a novelist or an interpreter for the EU. Perhaps her failure in these fields has something to do with that wilting 90s career? And if, as she claims, she was the victim of “a gender stereotype reinforced since birth”, then by her chain of thought so too are all (female) novelists and interpreters working for the EU. Not bad, eh? Amongst their ranks is the author J.K. Rowling, who herself read French and Classics at Exeter. Look how that panned out for her.

Did Parmar choose to ignore her teacher’s recommendation to study economics and statistics at A-level in pursuit of a more creative path? Maybe she did. Maybe she really was “the victim of a gender stereotype”. But I refuse to believe her four years at university learning languages was just “wasting time”.

Clearly, Parmar didn’t gain from her degree in languages what I do from mine. She was asked, “It’s great that you speak foreign languages, but what else do you do?” Well, I’ve been asked that before too, and I am never stuck for words. What have I learned through my study of languages? I start with the intellectual skills that I have developed (critical judgement, sophisticated analysis, cognitive autonomy); I move on to the practical skills (ability to discuss and argue, advanced writing skills, problem solving); I finish with the transferable skills, where I inevitably reinforce that actually I am at least as able to do exactly what my peers can – but in other languages too. How is this not valuable in a globalized world?

Science and technology degrees may be more vocationally focused, but humanities degrees are not their poor relations. Parmar’s blaming her stunted 90s career on her languages degree is an excuse for her inability to make meaningful use of it. This is not the degree’s fault, but her own. Reading her article, I failed to understand what prevented Belinda Parmar from finding her way into the job at a well-known advertising agency during those “doggy-paddling” years in the 90s. What would have prevented her from being the “gadget girl” at that time? Parmar needed no degree in technology to be given such accounts as IBM, HP and DoubleClick – so why the complaining? Surely Parmar should celebrate the opportunity she had to fall in love with Lorca’s poetry, yet still go on to have a brilliantly shining career in an entirely unrelated field. What’s wrong with aspiring to be an all-rounded, successful and multilingual individual?

Sorry, Belinda, but it doesn’t have to be all of one and none of the other. One of my sisters studied Spanish and Portuguese and is now the Director of Law at ‘Rare Recruitment’, a successful start-up firm. The other did a Foundation Degree in fashion, is currently doing a PhD in Biological Sciences and is excellent at coding. Yes, as Parmar said, coding is important, just like reading and writing. But this sister reads and delights in literature, because that’s important too.

Parmar exposes her five-year-old daughter to apps. My scientific sister reads to her daughters, aged nine and six. But don’t worry, they can explain the primary functions of a cell and program cartoons. Apparently you can have your cake and eat it too. And design an app to rate that cake. And write a sonnet to describe it as well.

Languages degrees provide a strong foundation for a dynamic skill set. They don’t appear to lead to any one particular career for a good reason: they lead to a diverse number of careers in many different sectors. Whatever field you choose as a language graduate, make sure your company knows just how lucky it is to have you.

Guest post by Aurora Dawson-Hunte
Twitter: @AvroraProject

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