25 April 2016
What can you do with a language in the real world? Matthew Shaw reports on where studying German at Lancaster has taken him even before he has left university…

NWGN launch Nov 2015 - Matthew ShawWhy study a language? For many people, language learning is a means to an end - getting out there and exploring the world before settling down into a job. The year spent abroad on any language degree often features as a nostalgic highlight when we are talking about our studies. But there are all sorts of ways of getting out into other worlds. Sometimes these happen without even leaving the classroom, and they often take you to unexpected places…

Popping The Language Learning Bubble

Having recently partaken in my own year abroad - a somewhat daunting and occasionally disorientating year of non-stop fun and frivolity -, the confines of a medium-sized city, such as Lancaster, might have seemed limiting upon return to the UK. When it’s back to the seminar room after such an eye-popping year, it’s hard not to lose the openness to new ideas that being in another country encourages. An instinctive sense of adventure and exploration is substituted for a return to the hard grind of study. Within the safe confines of the university sphere, language learning becomes once again rigidly compartmentalised, taking place within the four walls of a seminar room. We observe the German cultural scene from a distance, perhaps tuning into the latest edition of the Tagesschau at the weekends; like goldfish in a bowl, forever making observations. And there is nothing wrong with this! Personally, I love it! So long as the isolation of “study” does not disallow engagement with matters in the real world.

So I was delighted to be invited to the launch of the national Think German Network as a representative of its North West arm, which is jointly run by staff in German in Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester and Preston.

Beyond School and Academe: The Think German Network

The network brings together those with a shared enthusiasm for the language and culture of German speaking societies, with the aim of promotion and outreach. It was a privilege to be invited to London on 10th November to see all the regional networks come together in celebration of all things German in the UK. ‌‌I was honoured to engage with an initiative dedicated to demonstrating the usefulness of the skills we acquire, serving to remind us that language is the bridge leading to cultural understanding and that the greatest learning experiences occur upon leaving the classroom.

‌For language learning is an endeavour which begins in confinement, ultimately progressing to direct involvement, enactment and an ability to effect huge change. The speakers and participants themselves - including Neil MacGregor from The British Museum - were fantastic examples of individuals whose professional and social lives have been enhanced dramatically by an unwavering enthusiasm for all things German. In what is now the final year of my studies, a time when soon-to-be graduates are treading the paths of opportunity in the hope of discovering what lies ahead, The Think German Network really is helping to shed light on what could be in the future, as a result of what is in the present.

Languages: Life’s Network

My family home, as it happens, is in Morecambe; a relatively small town about half an hour away from Lancaster’s campus. It was at some ungodly hour, one day in the early spring of this year, that I made the car journey to Manchester airport to embark upon what would be the final leg of my year abroad in the South-West of Germany, teaching English as a foreign language at a primary and a grammar school.

Driving past the university as we proceeded towards the M6 motorway, I observed the campus, illuminated in the darkness of that early morning, and at that moment reminded myself that everything I had learned at Lancaster was transferable and just waiting to be applied to something worthwhile. Promising myself that I would make the most of the remaining months ahead, this poignant moment awarded the “university” experience another dimension, already implied in its Latin root universus, meaning an entirety or wholesomeness. So why restrict ourselves? In short, university can be read as a microcosm of a wider framework.‌

Language learning and cultural appreciation gained within the academic environment, really was, in the truest sense, taking me places. 

Months later, my love of German had led me to travel to London. My first time in this overwhelming hub of social and cultural diversity and my presence at launch of the Think German Network Initiative, held in a grandiose reception room of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, awoke in me a feeling of individuality amongst the collective. 

The fact that I could communicate bilingually with the 300 participants brought home what a valuable skill I possess. I sensed like-mindedness, belonging, and my passion for learning and discovery, which had become instinctive during my time in Germany, was well and truly rekindled. It is in the spirit of such unity, that the term “network” is of the greatest significance. Language networks begin at school, and they can be pursued throughout secondary and tertiary education and on into the wider world, as long as we have our eyes open enough to embrace them and keep them alive.