When Jess Honan went to Germany on Rotary Youth Exchange, she was thrown in the deep end.
“I didn't know that Germany was where I was going until probably three months before I went,” she explains. “And at that point, I was just studying to get into uni. So I didn't learn any German before I went aside from 'Hello, I don't speak German', basically.” (Which, as she later translates, is Guten Tag, Ich kann kein Deutsch.)
The steep learning curve Jess experienced ultimately paid off.
“I picked it up pretty quickly,” Jess says. “The point where I felt like I was conversational was just a really rewarding feeling. I thought to myself, this is really worth it.”
Jess, a student at the Australian National University, has now chosen Advanced German as one of her minors in her Diploma of Languages. Arabic is her other minor. And they’re just two of three languages she’s studying. She’s also majoring in French as part of her Bachelor of Arts. Additionally, Jess is undertaking a Bachelor of Law (Hons), for which she’s applied to specialise in international and comparative law.
“I think the way that languages are taught at university is probably as conducive to learning as it can be without you actually being in that country,” Jess says.
“With French, we do two classes a week: one is grammar and one is conversation; people talking about French culture or Francophone cultures. As a bit of a perfectionist I find it hard to speak knowing I'm making mistakes. But frequently hearing and frequently speaking, at least for me, are the best ways to learn.”
Jess had only been learning French at ANU for a year when she travelled to Morocco. She hadn’t yet begun learning Arabic, but her moderate French proficiency was a useful substitute; with Morocco having previously been colonized by the French. Jess recalls a moment when she translated between her friend, who didn’t speak any French, and a shopkeeper.
“The lady in the shop asked me if I was Canadian. And the excitement of being asked if I was potentially a native speaker, I was over the moon,” Jess laughs happily at the memory.
“I sent my French lecturer an email straight away just telling her about it because I thought that was really exciting.”
Jess felt that she would’ve gotten a lot more out of her trip if she had been able to speak to people in Arabic.
“Being able to speak to people in their own languages is something that I think as English speakers we often under-appreciate,” she says. “I think you miss a lot of people's culture and individuality if they're speaking to you in your language and losing all of the memory and personality and culture that's associated with their language.”
In addition to how rewarding learning a language can be, Jess affirms that it’s also valuable – especially for her, given her ambitions of working in international law.
“I've heard a lot of people say that it’s an expectation in a lot of cases that you know at least one other language,” she says.
The Diploma of Languages was the best option for Jess, who just wanted to learn languages without studying linguistics.
“I also liked how the diploma is quite flexible in that you can do either a major, an advanced minor and just a regular minor, or an advanced minor and then four language courses.”
Flexibility was one of the biggest draws for Jess in deciding to study at ANU.
“Originally I wasn't doing Arts/Law, I was doing Law/International Relations. I liked the fact that there were heaps of combinations you could go for,” she says.
“I'm now doing technically three degrees. I don't know anywhere else where you can do that; that's been incredible. And I love the fact that I can study three languages.”
Hear Jess Honan on the Future Self podcast, interviewing François Kernin from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Written by Evana Ho / ANU