I’m a Linguist get me out of here

As most Third Years are saying goodbye to their degrees, MMLer CLAIRE HUXLEY gives an insight into the lives of their year abroad counterparts.

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Ah, The Year Abroad. It is the best of times; it is the oddest of times.

While the majority of Cambridge third years knuckle down for finals and The Future, the MMLers (and a handful of intrepid AMESers) are unleashed on the wide world to fend for themselves in a foreign language.

After many terms of hiding behind a wall of literature, subtitles and WordReference, our linguists are let loose across multiple continents, with mixed results.

Here are a handful of the weird and wonderful conundrums that every Year Abroader is sure to encounter.

1. The Greeting Dilemma.

It’s been eight months, and you still have yet to crack the enigma that is the foreign hello. Kisses? One cheek or two? Three times or four? Do I know you well enough to kiss you?

Sometimes, this muddle of social conventions can lead to a moment of ABJECT PANIC, in which you will kiss the 57 year old director of the board that you have just met on your first day of work, realising too late that this is a huge no-no by the appalled silence that follows.

This is you. Only even more awkward. If that is possible.


As anyone who has ever got an A in a language A Level and then shrivelled beneath the unforgiving glare of a waiter will know, there’s an enormous difference between passing exams and actually applying a foreign language. If any linguist is in danger of thinking that they are actually any good by the end of second year, the Year Abroad will squash this faster than you can say: nul points.

You might be able to analyse Dante and conjugate the past subjunctive standing on your head, but it turns out that the only thing anybody in your local bar will care about is your ability to convincingly swear at the referee when he makes a questionable decision.

3. Foreignness.

It’s not just the language that poses a problem. If you have ever tried to navigate the queuing system in a Chilean bakery, or forgotten to composter your train ticket in France, you will realise that often the things that you do will give you away as an idiot foreigner long before anything you actually say.

This can sometimes play to your advantage – there’s a chance that people will find your attempts to put milk in their tea endearing – but it can also lead to confusion and irritation all around. In these situations, it is sometimes easier to pretend that you don’t understand a word of what is going on and feign a look of blissful stupidity. It’s what is expected of you anyway.

Remember all that work you did? Yeah. It’s about as useful as it was fun.

4. Year Abroad guilt.

You know that familiar exam-term feeling you get any time you find yourself not working for more than half an hour? Year Abroad guilt is strikingly similar, only it rears its ugly head whenever you find yourself speaking English. Social engagements are no longer merely a way to have fun, they are an essential rung on the ladder to those holy grails of Fluency and Integration.

Forget FOMO, this is FOOMMLGBTY (fear of other MMLers getting better than you). Year Abroad competitiveness is a ruthless game, the winners the ones with the most foreign language statuses and photos containing people with interesting looking surnames. Accept an invitation to hang out with other English speakers at your peril.

Guilt: a handy and portable travel version of the UL.

5. The bit where it all goes wrong.

Because it will, perhaps catastrophically so. Whether it’s coming home to find your suitcases in the landing and your landlord showing around potential tenants, or having to queue for four extra hours because the stamp on your visa wasn’t done in the right coloured ink, there will come a time when even the best-planned of Year Abroads disintegrates into a simmering cess-pool of calamity.

This is to be expected, and the sooner you accept the reality, even necessity, of these sorts of disasters, the sooner you will find yourself able to handle them with dignity and poise like a real grown-up. As opposed to, you know, bursting into tears, and consuming copious amounts of cheap chocolate and Breaking Bad for days on end.

BUT, if it does all fall to pieces, do not despair. After all, no other subject lets you travel, meet people, delay your finals and get drunk on local spirits for a year in the name of cultural immersion. If you find yourself really pining for Cambridge, you could always start on the Year Abroad Project…

Or you could go to a bar. Well, if you’re practising your language skills…