UCL brands itself ‘London’s Global University’. Our students come from all over the world, speaking many different languages, as well as English. We expect all of our students to have studied another language to at least GSCE level, either before entry or before they graduate by picking up language classes while they are studying with us. Embarrassingly, this is a standard that I have not met.
In our early years of high school we could choose between French and Italian. I had never met a French person, and ‘French kissing’ seemed to translate directly into the Australian ‘pashing’, so the romance was lost on me. French philosophy? Social theory? Literature? Art? Nope, French was pointless. I chose Italian, influenced by my grandmother who had picked up a few words whilst supervising prisoners of war on the family farm. She had been partly motivated by the need to wrest control of the dog from the sneaky POWs, who, no doubt bored by their Western Australian agrarian incarceration, had amused themselves by training the young fox terrier using Italian commands. In the years following the war a significant Italian community settled in our town and we had a priest who said mass in their language once a month, so at least I had heard the language spoken.
I studied Italian for three years, not quite to the equivalent of GCSE. Then we had to choose our final subjects for university entrance, and foreign languages were off the list. By that time there were no foreign language teachers in town. Our last Italian teacher was caught shoplifting in the discount department store where many of us worked part-time (she was busted on a Saturday, our shared day off school), and received a custodial sentence (she was busted with A LOT of stuff). They couldn’t replace her, and so languages were off the menu for the rest of my formal education.
Since starting at UCL I have tried to alleviate my embarrassment by enrolling in a few Spanish classes at our language school. I have been a very bad student, studying on and off over the last nine years, to reach at best an intermediate standard. It is not easy learning a foreign language for the first time as an adult. It is particularly difficult to find the discipline and time to study and practice in between everything else in my life.
Which leads me once again to 'imposter syndrome', that feeling that I don't really belong here with all the clever people, and the fear that one day they'll find out that I'm a fraud. Imposter syndrome mostly goes away with experience and the realisation that almost everyone else is faking it too. Except when it comes to an actual skill, like speaking a foreign language. That's not something you can fake (unless you are very drunk, which I try to avoid).
On a day-to-day basis I only ever need to speak English. Being monolingual is not a direct barrier to career progression. Most people I work with don't know, and few would care, but it is something that makes me feel inferior. When people like Miriam González Durántez use a lack of fluency in a foreign language as shorthand for stupid and lazy I blush. I could (and will) try harder with my Spanish classes, but this is the kind of extra work that my colleagues who went to better resourced schools in different parts of the world don't have to do, and don't even notice. Learning a language is the clearest example, but there are other things that colleagues from the 'right background' take for granted that country bumpkin 'imposters' like me need to pick up as adults. Things like literature, art, food, travel, nuanced political debate. I'm getting there, but part of me will always feel slightly awkward, constantly a step behind.
I am lucky to have been born in a time and place where everyone received a decent basic education and where it was possible for smart, hard-working kids to go on to university and to build interesting, international careers, despite significant cultural deficiencies such as monolingualism. I worry that opportunities for such mobility are declining, not only due to economic barriers such as high tuition fees, but also because of the strengthening of cultural barriers that comes from an over-emphasis on confidence as the foundation for success, ignoring the structural and practical obstacles of wealth, class, gender, race and disability.
Having more self-confidence might make me a better Spanish student, but it won't put the words in my mouth. It is my responsibility to put in the effort required to learn a foreign language, to meet the standards we expect of our students, but it was not my fault that Signorina Maestra got caught with her trolley full of stolen goods in Geraldton all those years ago. Life experience gives me the confidence to reveal and explain my inferiorities without fear of repercussions, but it doesn't lessen the work required to overcome them.