What’s it like going on your year abroad in the middle of a pandemic

By Gillian Reynolds

When I was making my undergraduate UCAS choices, almost ten years ago now, my main consideration was the year abroad. I was going to study Spanish and French, so I wanted the absolute maximum time away from rainy Glasgow. The University of Glasgow offers a five-year course with a full year in one country, and half a semester in another, so I was sold. Covid-19 has altered many of the usual year abroad experiences, so I was keen to find out how languages students are getting on in these unusual times.

First of all, I spoke to Megan, an Italian and French student at the University of Birmingham, who has managed to get away on her year abroad. She’s currently studying at a university in Milan. Birmingham has given its third year languages students the option to defer their degree for a year, or complete a risk assessment to confirm they’ll follow all the university’s guidelines, and travel on their year abroad. Megan was able to physically get away as she’s an Italian student, but others weren’t so lucky. She tells me: “There are people who are studying French or Spanish, for example, who because of government advice, have been told they can’t go abroad, so they’re currently doing lessons in England, online, and they aren’t in the country. I think if I were in their position, that would be the point when I’d defer.” I think it’s fair to say that spending your ‘year abroad’ studying from your bedroom in the UK probably isn’t what any languages students have in mind when they start the course.

When I asked her about the restrictions in place in and around her university in Milan, she was very positive. Italians seem to have adopted all the same habits that have become second nature here in the UK, such as physical distancing and face coverings. Students also have to book a seat in lectures, to avoid overcrowding and in some cases attend classes from home. “Otherwise, everything here is rather relaxed. I feel like it’s still possible to go out and get a drink and go out for a walk, you just have to be aware of extra things like keeping your mask on.” There’s currently no limit on the amount of people who can gather in Italy, so Megan can technically go on nights out with the local Erasmus Student Network (ESN) group, but she’s not sure how ethical it is to be attending these events too often, and there’s definitely less mingling than there would be under normal circumstances.

On the contrary, we spoke about an unexpected advantage to moving abroad during a pandemic – rent prices have dropped dramatically. Covid-19 has seen an exodus of city dwellers escaping to the country in order to gain access to more green space while they work remotely, leaving an abundance of rented accommodation in city centres, without the usual hordes rushing to fill it. Overall, it seems like she’s really making the most of her experience in Italy, with the only drawback being that opportunities to socialise are more limited than usual.

Jess, on the other hand, took Birmingham up on the offer to defer her studies. However, instead of spending the year twiddling her thumbs at home, she’s decided to work as an au pair in Lyon, France. She should be studying in Montréal, Canada, right now, but after being advised that all learning would be online for the foreseeable future, she concluded it was worth being a year behind on her studies to potentially get the chance to go on a ‘real’ year abroad next year. I was quite surprised that there’s still such a demand for au pairs, given the switch to remote working brought about by the pandemic, but Jess assured me there are loads of young people in Lyon doing the same thing. 

She, too, is facing an unforeseen advantage this year – with the opportunity to spend the whole academic year in France on the table, she’s now making plans to spend her year abroad in a Spanish-speaking country instead. This would mean she’d go into her final term of a French and Spanish degree with a full year in both countries under her belt helping to perfect her language skills. With France now heading into a second national lockdown, Jess said “If there was another lockdown, I feel like I would rather be here than at home, just because I’ve already done the 6 months at home. The only thing is we’re in a flat, so there’s no garden. I think it just depends how strict it is, really.” 

Ríbh, a Politics and Spanish student at Strathclyde, talked to me about her experience of having her year abroad cancelled due to the pandemic. She was supposed to be heading to Valencia at the beginning of October to start her placement as an English Language Assistant with the British Council, but Strathclyde haven’t authorised year abroad programmes to go ahead. When I spoke to her, it was clear she’s taken a very mature attitude to the situation. While she recognises it’s far from the most pressing issue at the moment, it’s obvious that she’s disappointed. She told me there’s still hope that she’ll be able to go out to Spain in January, if the situation is any safer, but in the meantime the university have put on some translation classes so students aren’t left at a complete loose end. She said: “I just don’t know how I could get my degree in Spanish if I wasn’t fully fluent… Yeah, I can do the classes and learn the grammar and stuff, but obviously you don’t really learn a language properly unless you actually live there.”

Unfortunately, it seems like she could be onto something. According to a position statement by The British Academy, “In non-English-speaking countries, UK students [also] improve the fluency, accuracy and appropriateness of their language competence faster than in the university classroom.” In Ríbh’s case, she’s fortunate that the Valencian school she was assigned are happy to hold her place in case she’s able to start in January, and in the meantime are maintaining contact with her and allowing her to contribute teaching materials. However, there are inconsistencies across Spanish regions, meaning others won’t be so lucky.

I contacted the University of Strathclyde for comment and they assured that they were trying to avoid any barriers that were preventing students from moving into their final year of studies and they were creating additional support to help.

My overriding impression is that this year could have been a lot less confusing for third year languages students, had a nationwide consensus been reached about how to approach the situation, rather than leaving each university free to decide their own policy. In my opinion, we’ve opened ourselves up to the potential of gaping inequalities in future language graduates. After their degree, some, like Jess, may have had the opportunity to drastically improve not one, but two languages. On the other hand, students such as Ríbh may have had no chance to immerse themselves in their second language at all, through no fault of their own.