Notes: PhD student at the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich
My name is Jane Robb and I am currently a PhD student at the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich. My research is looking at the drivers of deforestation in Guatemala, so I have spent around 8 months in Guatemala conducting fieldwork as part of my PhD. The rest of the time I am based in London.
What languages have you learned?
In high school I learned French and studied Latin, and in the first year of my undergraduate I took a course in Ancient Greek. In my spare time I even learned Egyptian Hieroglyphics and studied a little Arabic. I have always enjoyed languages (past and present) and the process of learning them.
In 2013 I moved to Munich for a job at the European Geosciences Union, where I picked up basic German, enough to get by in everyday situations navigating around Munich and going for groceries etc. However, my work was with a European organisation, where my colleagues were all international and the working language was English, as well as being part of the international community in Munich in my social time, so I almost solely operated in English.
I have since learned Spanish as part of my PhD, to enable me to conduct fieldwork and live and work in Guatemala. I am confident in meetings and professional situations listening to and reading in Spanish, which are the most important things for my work. My writing is enough to get by for arranging meetings or chatting to friends, but I am less confident at speaking Spanish. I can get by speaking in conversations and everyday situations in Spanish, but there will come a point in deeper conversations where my vocabulary doesn't cover all I would like to say.
For both Spanish and German, I would love to be able to learn and improve more with these languages. I enjoy the opportunities I get in Guatemala to engage with Spanish in a way I was never able to with German in Munich, as I am surrounded by Spanish speakers every day, so I get to listen and immerse myself in it, which deepens my understanding of it. However, the time pressures of my PhD work while in Guatemala mean that I don't get to spend as much time as I would like immersing myself in learning the language and becoming fluent.
How have any language skills helped you in your work?
I love visiting Paris, and my extremely basic knowledge of French certainly helps me navigate my way around effectively, making me feel more independent. My knowledge of Spanish now also helps me understand some more French and even Portuguese, which is exciting. In Munich, having even a basic grasp of some key words and phrases meant that day to day tasks were easier. Being able to sit in high level technical and professional meetings and read journal articles, policy briefings and documents related to my work in Spanish is absolutely invaluable, and I wouldn't be able to conduct my research effectively if I couldn't do these things. Also, living in a country such as Guatemala where English is not as widely spoken or understood among the general public means that having a good grasp of Spanish is essential to live and work here and provide that much needed feeling of independence.
What benefits do you think language skills bring?
I think that knowing other languages brings a level of independence when travelling or working abroad that only knowing one language would not. Language also provides a greater understanding of how people think and therefore how to understand people on a deeper level than simply through the individual words. I continue to find it fascinating to compare different ways of expressing ideas across cultures, which often say a lot about the people and culture - including providing me with more insights into my own culture! Professionally, knowing some Spanish is also extremely useful, and will open up more opportunities to me after my PhD.
Do you have any advice for anyone considering learning a language?
Do it. And don't be scared to make mistakes and sound like an idiot. I still have confidence issues about sounding like an idiot, and this is one of the top things I am trying to improve on. Also, learn the fundamentals (i.e. the mechanics of the present, past and future tenses) quickly, then focus on broadening your vocabulary as often you can just experiment with tenses on words and people understand what you mean, this is something else I need to improve!
Any tips on how best to approach communicating in a language you have little knowledge of?
It is amazing how far you can get with body language and breaking ideas down into extremely simple words. I used my experience in public science communication, breaking complex scientific jargon down into understandable language, to help me with this. Start with just communicating ideas, the rest will often follow naturally.
In your experience, would you say cultural awareness is important?
Yes, although I find a smile goes even further. People often forgive accidentally calling someone 'tu' instead of 'usted' (informal vs formal Spanish 'you') if they see you are trying and are doing so with the best intentions. However, learning the simple ways of addressing and introducing yourself to different people (ie friends, bosses etc.) is always useful to avoid any potentially awkward situation!
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