Q&A with Mike Downey

Mike is currently on his Year Abroad which is a compulsory part of his degree. He is spending the year in France and Russia. Mike studies French and German at the University of Bristol.

He only has only been learning Russian since starting uni and although he has found it challenging it has been extremely worthwhile and he’s already passed A-level standard. In this interview we talk about some of the Russian content units that he can study as part of his degree.

What made you choose to study at the University of Bristol?

Well, it had a really good reputationfor its language degrees for a start. But it also ticked all my boxes academically and it wasn’t too far from home as I’m from near London. And another reason why I chose Bristol was because it’s renowned for its social life and night life.

What attracted you about a degree in Russian and French?

I learnt French at school but not Russian. I chose Russian as I wanted a new challenge and to push myself right from day one at uni. I know if I had done another language that I was already competent in then I would just be cruising along and not really stretching myself.

How have you found learning Russian from scratch?

It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It is a difficult language, but it has definitely been worthwhile. The progress that I’ve made and in only two years is ridiculous and I was taught really well which helps a lot. The self study hours I’ve put in have helped me make such a massive leap from not knowing anything to reaching post A-level standard in a year.

Is your Russian a similar level to your French?

Hmm, that’s tricky. It’s not the same level as my French. My French is more grounded as I’ve been doing it for nine years now, but I’ve only been learning Russian for two years. The first year for Russian was intense with lots of grammar but in the second year we just consolidated what we learnt the previous year and learnt more vocabulary. So I’m more confident with Russian now.

Are you enjoying your degree?

Yeah, but it’s a lot more work than I thought it was going to be

Did you know what type of units you could take at uni as part of this degree course?

Well, before I went to Bristol I just had a vague, general idea on the kind of units that were available. I had read up about the course in the uni’s prospectus and online, but they only mentioned that there were module options available in literature, culture and history; nothing specific. So I knew I was going to be taking modules along those lines.

What units have you taken?

Well, in Russian this year I choose a unit about Russian fairytales and myths, Russian philosophy, but there were other options available on Tolstoy and another about the Russian Orthodox culture. In French there were options in philosophy, history, drama and literature.

How many optional content modules can you choose for each language?

I have to do two optional units from the Russian department and two for French.

What type of module do you enjoy the most?

I really enjoy studying philosophy and anything where I get to dip into cultural history but I don’t enjoy memorising or learning about dates and specific events per se. So I don’t take many history modules. I quite like literature because you get to think for yourself and convey your own ideas.

Which of the modules really stood out from the rest?

The ‘Russian Fairytales and Myths’ one; before uni I never anticipated that I’d be studying something like that at uni. 

Why did it appeal to you?

It was so different to the other ones. It struck me as the most interesting module on offer. Other modules were the more traditional, literary topics on Dostoevskyand Tolstoy. And in this one you got to learn about magic, mythology and old folk law in Russia. You also got to learn the origins of these fairytales and myths and of Russian culture in general and that just struck me as really cool.

How did you find the workload for this module?

It turned out to be quite a lot of reading. That was quite misleading because you think that if it’s about fairytales then it’s going to be quite light work. But we had to read a lot of tales to analyse and find the common features and themes but yeah it’s definitely really interesting and I learnt a lot.

Did you know anything about Russian fairytales or myths before taking the course?

I had read other fairytales like Hans Christian Andersen but nothing like the Russian fairytales; there are some bits that overlap with other fairytales but Russian fairytales are actually quite different. You see, the Russian fairytales have their own unique origins and common features that kind of come up through Russian history.

How was the module structured?

At the start of the course we got the course structure which outlined what we would be studying over the course of the weeks, so I knew what topic to expect to study each week. Our lecturer told us what reading we had to do in preparation for the following week’s lecture. In each class we would discuss what we had read.

Was the module taught in Russian?

Oh, no way! That would’ve been crazy! It was in English. I only started doing Russian the year before so my Russian wouldn’t have been good enough.

How many contact hours did you have for this module?

We just had one two hour period every Monday and that was a kind of lecture and seminar class combined together. This structure was different to anything that I had had before because normally for content modules you have one lecture and one seminar each week

How did you learn about the fairytales?

In the first few lectures we learned a brief history about Russia and how it was founded and how it was invaded by a bunch of places and so on. It was a predominantly rural country and a peasant nation and those in power wanted to communicate lessons about morality to the common people as they were illiterate. So these lessons were about the ways that the peasant folk should conduct themselves and that’s how these folk tales and fairytales came about as a way of oral teaching.

Do you feel you understand the Russian way of life a little more now?

I’m not really sure if that’s what people in Russia are really like today, but I now have a greater impression of what life was like for Russians. Generally, in Russian fairytales, the parents are really authoritative over their children and it’s the same with husbands and wives. I think that’s a little bit old school so they probably aren’t like it nowadays.

What was the most interesting fairytale that you learnt about?

I would probably have to say the magic-based ones. These are really epic tales where you have a king and kingdom. But the king gets sick so the prince has to save him. So the prince has to go off to some far away kingdom and get some sort of life potion and these tales include dragons and other mythical creatures and characters. These type of tales were really, really exciting to read and learn about.

What was the assessment like?

It was one hundred percent coursework. There were only two pieces of coursework for the whole unit, which was quite reasonable. I’m glad I didn’t have to do an exam as the topic was so broad it would’ve been really difficult to prepare for the exam in an effective way.

Did you have to write an essay?

Yes, there was a 3000 word essay and we got to choose what we wanted to write about. I did my essay on the relationship between men and women in Russian fairytales. The other piece of coursework was a series of small commentaries about folk tales.

What was your least favourite part of the module?

I guess that some of the fairytales were a little bit dull for me because a lot of them are actually quite similar to each other. We studied the tales thematically so one week we learnt about animal tales, the next it would be folk tales and then magic tales. But what you find is that there are a lot of overlaps and it can feel like you are learning the same tale over and over.

Would you recommend this module to someone else?

Yeah, I’d definitely recommend it. It’s a great module for a bit of fun and you learn a lot more in this module than you would if you took a more standard option.

Where and what are you doing on your Year Abroad?

I’m going to both Bordeaux, France and to the south of Russia. I’m studying in both countries. I’ll be an Erasmus student in France and then I’m just going to do a Russian language course at a university in Russia. I go to France in September and then to Russia at the end of February.

Have you decided what units you are going to study when you’re in France?

No, I have to choose them when I get there. As an Erasmus student you can pretty much choose any unit from any course. I know the uni in Bordeaux specialises in the Arts, so I probably won’t be doing physics there (laughs). I’m going to keep my Russian in check whilst in France as they teach it there and if I could do a philosophy unit that would be really cool.

How do you find balancing going to lectures with self-study and social life?

In my first year I was a lot better at balancing it all. I only had 12 hours contact time a week and spent a lot of time working as the Russian classes in first year were very intensive. In my second year I kicked back a bit. But the first term is always a little slack as you’re settling in, but the second and third terms are more important as the exams are approaching and you have to pick up the pace. In first year I went out 1 or two times a week, but in second year I was a bit ridiculous. I lost it a bit and went out 3 times a week quite consistently.

Are you good at self discipline?

I can be when I need to be. Unless I’ve got that pressure, I’m slack.

Do you have an idea of what you want to do once you finish uni?

Ideally, I want to be able to work in London and I’d like to fall into one of those government schemes like the Home Office or the Civil Service because they seem like a nice package deal. But they are quite competitive, so I guess I’m going to have to apply to quite a lot of places and work hard at Uni.

Do you think speaking languages will come in useful in those jobs?

Certainly! I’ve been on various employer profiles and they are always looking for people with languages. And I’m really keen to travel so hopefully if I work the government or for some big international company then I can move around quite a lot and use my languages too.

Have you ever put your language skills to good use outside of uni?

Yeah, I meet people quite a bit when I’m out and about and I can easily pick up on different accents. So I can tell if someone’s Russian and then I go over and talk to them in Russian and they are surprised. I’ve also used my languages for survival purposes as well. I was in France two weeks ago as I had to go house hunting all by myself and that was really stressful and scary, but I was really glad that I was studying French as it made everything a lot less difficult.

As a boy, what’s the best thing about learning languages at university?

I’d say it’s really good. I didn’t come on the course to meet girls but most of my course mates are in fact girls and only a couple are guy mates. So I guess that’s a bit of a plus for some boys. But also another thing, and more importantly, languages are really useful and I think that the big problem is that people underestimate them and think everyone in the world can speak English, which they don’t. People need to widen their gaze.

What one word best describes language learning?

Stimulating.

Languages are really useful and I think that the big problem is that people underestimate them and think everyone in the world can speak English, which they don’t.