We have asked our students who are on their year abroad now or have just returned to tell us about their experiences in Germany/Austria/Switzerland. Today’s new guest blogger is Hannah, an LSS student who spent her work placement in a Bavarian translation agency. Here’s what she has to say:
The year abroad – the challenging and exciting year where modern foreign languages students are faced with the prospect of living in another country such as France, Germany or Spain. At Aston University, students are given the option of completing a teaching assistantship at a school, studying at a partner university or completing a work placement. The last option however, strangely appears to have been one of the least popular options, at least during the current academic year and the academic year 2009-2010 when I completed my year abroad at a translation agency in Bavaria, Germany, from July 2009-July 2010. This decline was something that greatly intrigued me upon my return to the UK as I had had the time of my life, made some amazing friends and secured a job all in one year. So, hoping to get honest opinions from languages students in the UK who either had completed or who were in the process of completing a year abroad as a part of their degree programme, I created a survey during September 2010. This survey asked them detailed questions about their attitudes to work placements in a foreign country, their preferences, thoughts and concerns.
The start of the survey showed that although 68.4% of students said they had or would consider completing a work related placement, it was not the most popular option when the respondents were asked to rate the three options of a teaching assistantship, studying at a foreign university and a work placement in the order of preference as the highest percentage for 1st choice was the teaching assistantship at 47.4%, nearly half of the respondents. This clearly shows that the concept of a work placement, be it working for a large enterprise such as Deutsche Bank or Siemens, or completing an internship at a translation agency like I did, is something that students are still clearly interested in, but there are factors which must be holding them back.
The next step of the survey was to find out any concerns which students had about completing a work placement abroad. To find out these concerns, I asked the participants to rank the three options in the order which they thought would be the easiest to complete and then to give their reasons for this in a separate comments box. Once again, the teaching assistantship was rated by over half of the participants as moderately easy, in contrast to the work placement which was the complete opposite at extremely hard. The reason for this was that the majority of students believed that more is expected of you with a work placement, you have to carry out the job efficiently in the foreign language and to do that, students believed that a high level of language competency was required. Whilst it’s true that a high level of fluency allows an intern to carry out their job to the best of their ability, it’s not the be-all-and-end-all if you don’t have this skill as you’re there to learn after all and what better place to improve spoken language skills than a company? At the start of my internship, where I worked from Monday to Friday for 40 hours a week, I felt like a clumsy clown with my language skills, even though I’d achieved a 2.1 for both years of my degree. If I’d had had a penny (or should that be a cent?) for every “err…” and grammatical error that came out of my mouth, I would’ve been rich. Just a mere few months later, I’d soon improved though and at the end of the placement, my boss said during my last week that she felt I could “understand everything which was being said”. Mostly this was due to the fact that I was mainly working with Bavarians who spoke standard German. Additionally, I’d had no choice but to adapt by refusing to speak English, something which is an easy trap to fall into if you’re teaching English or studying with other Erasmus students.
Another worry raised by 68.4% was that they would or have felt isolated in a working environment compared to studying with others. This was certainly true for me to start with as our little group (affectionately known later on as Haus 1), would only spend the odd 10 minutes making small talk. Like any job though, you just have to make an effort to socialise and speak up if you feel lonely. In my first week, I met a lovely lady called Regina who would go round every week asking people to go to the cinema with her. From this, a group of us formed the Wohanka Film Club and we’d go out every Wednesday night to watch an English or German film (another opportunity to improve listening skills) followed by a drink. Another excellent excursion was when some of my friends at work and I went to the Christmas market at Nuremberg. It certainly brought us closer together as I still talk to Regina every week on Skype after moving back to England.
Not surprisingly, many of the respondents also stated that a work placement would be scary and hard work. Furthermore, only 5 of the respondents said that a work placement would be fun. The same can be said about any job though, regardless of what language you’ll be working in. Think back to any of the previous jobs you’ve had and I’m sure you’ll share this view- the butterflies, the voice in your head telling you to make a good impression and not to do anything wrong. As the youngest translator at Wohanka at 21, I was particularly worried about not fulfilling their expectations of me and translating too slow. What I learnt though is that Germans are very upfront and that it’s better to speak up if you’re finding things scary and difficult. By doing this, I was able to start slow and on simpler translations such as correspondence, marketing and newspaper articles. By the end of my 13 months, I’d completed translations such as an academic paper on osteoarthritis and various legal documents (including one bulk translation which amounted to 60 odd pages and which had needed to be done in a week), not forgetting one about rectal surgery (yes, you did read that correctly!), which was hilarious. I was also combining this with proofreading and acting as a tandem partner to one of the other interns. This all earned me the promise of a job there when I graduate next year.
Completing a work placement abroad puts you at an advantage over other students by giving you that vital experience in the world of work earlier on, showing prospective employers that you’ve understood how not only how to carry out a job efficiently, but that you’ve gained all of the necessary skills such as time management, leadership and reliability- and all of this whilst constantly communicating in a foreign language as well.
In conclusion, it appears that although the work placement option is chosen by fewer modern foreign languages students for the year abroad, it is still an option which students still deeply consider completing. The problem is that students are just a bit apprehensive about completing this option as they’re worried that they may feel isolated, not have a high enough level of competency in the foreign language and that it may be too difficult. This is a problem which could be tackled better by universities, for example, by putting 2nd year students in touch with others who are working as an intern during the placement process, by tackling students worries and by emphasizing the advantages that a work placement has. Students who completed the survey were also of this opinion, giving comments such as “I wish more universities pushed their students to go on work placements” and, “It would have been good if my university had given us some details about the companies that students had previously worked for during their work placements, or if they had pushed the idea a bit more, although ultimately it was my responsibility.” My personal message to students who are uncertain or worried about the idea of a work placement would be to seize the opportunity of doing one – you might find it hard at first, but it gives you the chance to get experience in a particular area, you can learn interesting new things every day (a friend of mine learnt how to play poker properly from translating) and form new friendships.