Q&A with Jack Walker

Jack is studying French, German and Chinese at Newcastle University.

How did you go about choosing which degree course to do?

Well I did French and Germen at A-level and I was just looking around for courses where I could do both these languages as well as doing something different. I wanted a new challenge and Chinese was a language that really excited me.

Why did you choose to study at Newcastle University?

Well, because I had decided to do French, German and Chinese at university I sort of restricted myself to only the universities that offered that combination of languages together. The two universities where I could study French, German and Chinese were Birmingham and Newcastle. I decided on Newcastle in the end because the general atmosphere of the university seemed really upbeat and also because of its inner city location. I had visited both universities on their open days and I based my decision on a mixture of the course being right, the enthusiasm of the lecturers, the campus environment and the look of the halls as well.

Did you mind moving away from home?

No. I’m from Leicestershire and when I was applying, I felt that I was at a time of my life where I wanted as much independence as possible.

What is it like to learn Chinese?

It’s brilliant. I really, really like the language. I’m really pleased that I’ve done it and I think it is going to be really useful in the future. This year I’m really going to concentrate on getting my competence level up so I really can use it in the future.

Is your Chinese as good as your other two languages?

Well, I spent my Year Abroad in China and although I made massive improvements in my Chinese, it still isn’t the same level as my German and French. This is slightly frustrating. But I think that this is just a thing with all language students where they always look on the downside and negative aspects of their languages rather than on all the positives, like actually being able to speak a language to a very high standard.  

Has spending time abroad benefited your languages?

Definitely, absolutely yes! I tell people that I probably learnt as much Chinese in those nine months as I would’ve done in Britain in five whole years. At university, I only have about four or five hours a week of Chinese and it is hard to really get into the language when it’s not spoken all around you. When I was in China all my lessons were in it and if I wanted to go to the shops then I would have to speak in Chinese. It’s definitely true about what they say, that there’s nothing better than being in the real environment.

How have you managed to balance going to lectures with independent study?

Well, generally, I have around 14-16 hours of lectures a week. So to manage my independent study I would set myself goals of what to achieve. I think some of those goals were probably too optimistic. There are plenty of ways to engage in self study, like watching soaps in foreign languages! I’m quite a sucker for soaps as they can really improve your listening skills as well as giving you more vocabulary, especially slang words. At school and uni you mainly learn formal language and you can talk about a complex range of things which is great, but sometimes you don’t want a formal register of language so soaps work quite well for giving you the chance to learn a language as it is spoken on the streets.

How many optional content modules can you take each year?

As I’m taking three languages I’ve only got space in my timetable for two optional modules per year – one for French and one for German.

What type of content modules do you like to study?

I don’t like studying literature as I had a bad experience from my A-levels so I sort of haven’t studied literature, but I tend to stick to history and politics modules and linguistic modules too. I’m varying my modules a bit this and am doing a film module, so we’ll see how that one works out.

What has been your favourite module that you’ve studied?

I would have to say it was the French slang and dialects module: that was really cool! We learnt a lot of fascinating things that actually came in useful when I went on my Year Abroad.

Why was this module so cool?

Well the course was split in two, and in the first half of the course we looked at how young people today speak French. We learnt that no one uses the ‘ne’ when they negate or how everyone uses ‘on’ instead of ‘nous’ and how sort of ‘il y a’ becomes ‘ya’. I think this really appealed to everyone as we learnt some new street-cool ways to say things.

So what was the second half of the module about?

It started to focus on linguistic theories and looking at the linguistic implications of speaking like in the examples above. Like, there was this one theory that suggested that if you wrote French the way it was spoken this would halve the difficulty of the grammar. For example, if you were to take the verb manger (to eat) in the present tense its je mange (I eat), tu manges (you eat), il mange (he eats) they are written differently, but they’re all pronounced the same. So, following this theory, if you spelt these words as they are pronounced then they would be written the same. It would be a little bit like in English where you only need to conjugate he/she/it eats as the other conjugations have the same ending. So in French, it would be similar in that you only really need to conjugate nous mangeons (we eat) and vous mangez (you eat) and the rest you could leave as mange. It was all quite fascinating to learn and it was interesting to see whether such a theory would help make teaching grammar easier.

How was the module taught?

We had 2 hours a week. There was a lecture and then a seminar. In the lecture we learnt about the various theories and then in the seminars we would each give a presentation to show the theories that what we had learnt in the lecture in a real world example. It wasn’t scary giving these presentations either, as it was only in front of 10 other students and they were all really interested in what I had to say.

Did you manage to take notes and keep up with what was being said in the lectures?

In this module I did. It all depends on what lecturer you get. For this module, the lecturer provided handouts of the PowerPoint slides that were used so we had the majority of the information right in front of us. I was lucky in that respect. So adding the odd additional note was ok as I was still able to keep up what was being said. But this wasn’t the same in other modules.

What was the class size like for this module?

In the lecture there were probably 50 students. The seminars were between 10 and 15 students.

Can you give us some of the slang words that you learnt in the module?

At school you learn je ne suis pas un français, which means ‘I am not French’ and that’s correct. But you would say chui pas un français among friends and in casual conversations. So not only are you leaving out the ne part of the negative but you’re also merging je and suis together. And if you were to sayje ne sais pas, which means ‘I don’t know’ then that becomes chais pas.

Have you ever used your languages outside of the classroom?

Yes I have. At Newcastle we have this project called Tandem Partners or language partners as it may be called in other universities. We signed up to a scheme whereby we were looking for native speakers to practice speaking with. So international or Erasmus students would sign up to practice their English and I signed up to practice my three languages. We were paired up and once a week or every other week we would meet up and chat over a coffee or a pint. We normally met for an hour at a time. So I met up with my French tandem partner and we would spend the first half talking in French language and then the second we would switch to English. This was great as I got to improve and use my language outside of lectures and made friends at the same time.

Could you sum up language study in one word?

I’m really rubbish at this. I want to say something like ‘never the same’. Is there one word for ‘never the same on any one day’ or ‘always changing’? Well, if there is a word that says that, then that’s it.

There are plenty of ways to engage in self study, like watching soaps in foreign languages!