We spoke to language students about the proposal of a virtual year abroad

‘A virtual year abroad is an oxymoron. It doesn’t exist’

Last week, second-year MMLL (Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics) students were told during an online Q&A that their year abroad might be replaced by a “virtual year abroad”. This possible alternative, proposed in the event that students are unable to go abroad next year due to the coronavirus pandemic, follows guiding principles issued by the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML).

Year Abroad Director Dr Tim Chesters told students there are “different versions of what a virtual year abroad could look like. It doesn’t exist yet […] we’re just trying to plan it, and think about the sorts of things it might entail. It’s unlikely to completely supplant any contact with a foreign agency abroad, the idea is that it would […] operate in tandem with it, so you might be doing a remote internship but which is topped up by some activities provided by the University, or a remote study placement that is topped up in a similar way”. 

The concept of a virtual year abroad has since been greeted with an overall negative reaction from the MMLL cohort.

The Tab Cambridge spoke to a range of second and third year MMLL students to find out what they thought of a virtual year abroad and what other ways around the current difficulties there might be. Here’s what they had to say. 

The importance of immersion

Liv Millard, a second year language student from Sidney Sussex College, considers going abroad and living in a foreign country for an extended period of time a vital part of the MMLL degree. She told The Tab Cambridge: “The year abroad was founded with the purpose of full immersion in another country: not only the best way to learn a language but to embrace the culture behind that language. At university we are privileged with grammar lessons, speaking classes and essay titles, but ultimately it is the year abroad which completes the degree.”

Lily goes on to say: “Adding an entire year into this degree was, I’m sure, not a decision taken lightly. There are, after all, long holidays in which students could work and travel abroad. However, a year was decided and rightly so: full immersion in another culture is most effective when done so for an extended period of time.

“A ‘virtual year abroad’ is an oxymoron. It doesn’t exist. The whole power of a year spent in another country is based around independence and the freedom to live, work and study in an unfamiliar environment. We’ve been lucky enough to spend two years in language classes – a virtual year abroad wouldn’t offer much more than these in terms of language skills.”

One second year French and Spanish student agreed, calling a virtual year abroad “a complete and utter waste of time”.

“The whole point of a YA is to experience a language immersion in a social and organic rather than contrived setup; the suggestions of what might be imposed by the faculty for this YA (eg translation work) are not life skills that would actually be useful or valuable (classic Cambridge!). I get that the situation is really difficult and that the faculty are just trying to do their best in unforeseen circumstances, but this just doesn’t seem to be a solution for me.”

Similarly, Scarlett Reiners, a second year History and Spanish student at Pembroke College, pointed out that no virtual experience could fulfil the essential purpose of the year abroad. “It is specific to the condition of being stranded in a foreign country that prevents you from going downstairs and reverting back to English again. The idea of a virtual year abroad conducted in the parental home is to completely miss the whole point, for this kind of language immersion is impossible to replicate.”

Overall negative reaction from MML students after the faculty Q&A last week

The voice of experience: what third years had to say 

The Tab Cambridge also spoke to third-year MMLL students who have had the experience of a non-virtual year abroad, at least before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Having had the opportunity to live abroad, they attest to the importance of the non-academic aspects of the year which cannot be replicated online and do not consider the virtual year abroad a workable solution. 

Cecilia Hobbs, a third year German and Russian student at Gonville & Caius College, spent four months studying in Cologne and a few weeks in St Petersburg before being forced to return home as a result of the pandemic. She says: “When I think about what I have gained from a year abroad – albeit one cut short – much more comes to mind than simply improving my language skills, because moving abroad is about so much more than that. (Truth be told, aside from my knowledge of pole dancing vocabulary in German, I’m not convinced my language skills improved vastly.)” 

Cecilia Hobbs, a third-year German and Russian student at Caius, making the most of St Petersburg’s cat cafés during her brief stint in Russia

For her, the year abroad was more about the real-life experience that she gained. She continues: “It’s about finding accommodation, signing a rental agreement, opening a bank account, finding a doctor, insuring yourself… administrative tasks that are part of ‘adulting’ and which, as sheltered Cambridge students whose colleges take on a pastoral role, we often have the luxury of being able to forego.”

She also says that the year abroad is about pushing yourself and opening yourself up to new experiences, which studying in the comfort of your own home would not provide. “It’s about saying ‘yes’ to things you wouldn’t normally do. It’s about coming home at the end of it all and feeling as though you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone and survived. These are things that no amount of language study can provide. Although a ‘virtual placement’ from the comfort of your own home may well improve your language skills, it seems to me that the idea of a ‘virtual year abroad’ fundamentally undermines the purpose of third year.”

It is not yet clear whether the MMLL department’s proposal of a virtual year abroad would extend to students belonging to the AMES (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies) faculty, who are also meant to go abroad for their third year. Two third year AMES students, Henry Smith-Gordon and Joseph Bills of Emmanuel College, are still living in Japan on their years abroad, and also speak to the importance of total language immersion and the shortcomings of the proposal.

They told us: “There is so much you learn from speaking to people that doesn’t turn up in a classroom; a wider range of topics, accents and spoken styles than you could ever study from a book. And even if you don’t feel like you’re progressing, my experience returning to the UK for a few weeks earlier this year has proven to me without doubt that simply being in an environment where the language you’re studying is spoken has an effect on your own fluency. I felt my Japanese deteriorating after one week in the UK, so I wonder how effective a virtual year abroad could even be.”

Henry Smith-Gordon, third-year AMES student at Emmanuel, currently in Tokyo

They also pointed out the difficulties students would have in writing dissertations specific to their chosen country from home, noting: “The UL has a lot of resources but they can’t compare to any given country’s national stockpile in their native language. This is especially true if your dissertation is on a topic where English language research is extremely limited or non-existent. I understand that the university is having to deal with decisions made on an international level by governments who have much bigger things to be thinking about, but the hard truth of the matter is that by all metrics students will be getting an inferior experience online. And it’s up to each student individually to decide whether they want to accept that.” 

The other problems of a virtual year abroad

Other students are sympathetic to the faculty’s predicament, but identify many other wider-reaching issues surrounding the virtual year abroad. George Cristin-Marks, a second year French and German student at St Catharine’s College, points out that this proposal “would also have a negative impact in terms of the social side of things because even if some students doing other triposes are allowed back to Cambridge, MML students who are unable to find a placement will have to spend the whole year at home and will therefore be at home for over 18 months.”

Hector O’Neil, a second year student at Magdalene College, also raised this issue. “If everyone else were going back to Cambridge except language students who were staying at home, that would seem a bit shit. Accommodation may be difficult but given there aren’t that many linguists per year per college – it  would be good if we had the option of living in Cambridge until we could go abroad. This could maybe be optional as some students maybe would rather stay home than have to spend money on college accommodation, especially if social distancing was still happening in Cam, but others may want that sort of student experience still.” 

Eve Machin, a second year Spanish and Portuguese student at St. John’s College, highlighted the difficulties of implementing a blanket approach such as a virtual year abroad for her year’s cohort.“There are 190 students all with different plans, cases and potential scenarios; not everyone can be made to do an online course if their plans are cancelled. It was mentioned two student representatives have been involved in the ongoing conversation, which is reassuring, but with such a diverse range of personal situations, there needs to be an increased body of student representation. I have a study placement in São Paulo lined up, as well as some exciting music projects from samba bands to film composers, not something which lends itself easily to a virtual learning environment.”

Whilst keen to have the opportunity to take up her exciting internships in South America, Eve is concerned about the global instability as a result of the pandemic and what difficult decisions she may have to make in the coming months: “Brazil is looking to be the next epicentre of infections, and I can’t judge where to draw the line, whether I’ll have to start from scratch and scramble to make new plans.”

She looks to the faculty for reassurance: “I want to feel supported and confident that every possible avenue has been explored to ensure my YA and that of the rest of the MML cohort is academically, culturally and socially the very best it can be.”

Students search for alternatives 

Some students are therefore looking to the MMLL department to come up with other possible alternatives, and discuss other options that they would prefer to be implemented over the virtual year abroad. However, there is by no means a consensus amongst students as to what the best outcome might be.

For James Hoyle, a second year French and Spanish student at Emmanuel College, deferring the year abroad is the most effective solution. “I really think that switching third and fourth year round would be the best thing for most people. Reduce the expectations on the language papers for us because of the lack of YA and we’ll be fine. You don’t improve scheduled paper skills from YA after all. That means people don’t have to put off work for another year. Obviously it’s a logistical nightmare for the faculty but so is a coronavirus outbreak. I understand that the fellows are all already overworked and underpaid but I don’t see how else to move forward. Our YA time is already being eaten into. Especially for languages that require a lot of time to perfect (I do Russian, I’ve got Arabist friends) we need as much time as we can get, especially given 90 per cent of the cohort try to split the YA. It just seems silly to give us a half-YA.”

Others, however, suggest that this wouldn’t be feasible. Hector O’Neil argues that “swapping the years around wouldn’t really make sense because if you’re going to do a year abroad and then not have another year at uni you might as well just graduate after the fourth year whenever that is and do a gap year rather than paying another year of fees for nothing.”

He suggests that the faculty’s approach makes the best of a difficult situation: “It sounds peak but what they said is that they’re going to want people to go abroad as much as possible next year, even if it’s just for like five or six months (hopefully it’s more) and until they do go abroad hopefully if people have year abroad jobs lined up we could do those virtually from home until we go abroad, or if we’ve got uni placements at foreign unis then we could sort of do the course virtually if other unis set that up. If neither of those things happen then Cambridge might put in place some sort of virtual year abroad program but even that would be optional not compulsory so I understand why people were angry but there’s very little the faculty or the year abroad office can actually do and the situation is just terrible for everyone.”

Indeed, although the response to the suggestion has been largely negative, some students have commended the faculty for its endeavours to provide a supplementary experience. As one second year told The Tab: “Obviously nothing could emulate being abroad if we’re not going abroad but that’s not the faculty’s fault – it’s good to know they are thinking of alternatives to try and support us so we could still try and improve our language”.

Another second year pointed out that the virtual year abroad is far from a certainty: “Something that is really important to note is that I doubt it will actually come to that – I think when you group a bunch of angsty MMLers, they rub off on each other and reactions get very extreme and disproportionate – we just have to wait  and see how the situation pans out, whilst staying patient.”

It seems, however, that, if it came to pass, a virtual year abroad cannot help but fall short of the expectations and requirements of  MML students. Whether in being denied the challenges and rewards of this uniquely immersive experience, or by throwing up difficulties for them in terms of future dissertations or academic work, virtual years abroad will surely leave language students disadvantaged.

When approached for comment, Dr Tim Chesters directed us to his original comments in the Q&A, where he acknowledged that the situation is “very upsetting” for this year’s cohort and next year’s cohort. As he noted in the Q&A: “All we can do as a Faculty is remain flexible, to the extent that we’re able, particularly in the way that we assess our students”, and to “try and put on some kind of year abroad”.

The Year Abroad office has also been approached for comment.

Despite sympathy for the difficulties the faculty faces, a virtual year abroad does not appear to be a viable solution. Let’s hope that this unpopular contingency plan remains avoidable and unneeded.