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Katya Andrusz

BA in Russian and German (ab initio)

Journalistic Editor, Communication and Outreach Department
European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights

A Londoner with languages

I cannot overemphasise the difference that studying language has made to my life. I read Russian and German at Cambridge and despite the fact that at the time I was more interested in Tolstoy than in my future career, it was my knowledge of languages that enabled me first to make a living and then to make a better living than I would have done had I remained in the UK.

I was still in Berlin when I began learning Polish in my late twenties for a new job in Warsaw, and it was the essays I had had to write in Russian and the course I’d taken in my final year on Slavonic philology that meant I could recognise the similarities and pick up vocabulary. I can’t say it was easy – that would be a barefaced lie! But it was possible. And now, reading the Polish press and listening to parliamentary debates, I’m certain that understanding Poland is key to understanding Europe.

When I moved from Warsaw to Vienna to take up a position as speechwriter, communicator and general Person Friday for all things written, I wondered whether my languages would be less useful. But the advantages of speaking fluent German in a German-speaking country with many native speakers as close colleagues cannot be overestimated. It isn’t just that I can write e-mails in German and give interviews to the media. It’s much more.

I get so tired of hearing English native speakers on both sides of the Atlantic saying: “Why should I learn a foreign language? The others have to learn English anyway.” If you don’t speak or have any understanding of the language and culture of the people you’re dealing with, whether in diplomatic negotiations, with business clients, with colleagues at work, or with friends in a bar, you will never really understand their point of view. You may laugh at others’ quaint mistakes when they speak English. But has it ever occurred to you that perhaps they don’t really care? Because for them, English is just a means of basic communication, and they’ll leave the subtleties until they’re in a group in which they can switch to French or Japanese or Arabic.

That’s one part of it. But for me, a language isn’t just a more articulate way of waving my hands in the air to make my needs understood. The literature, the films, the proverbs, the jokes, the rhymes, that horrible Slavonic habit of using the genitive for no apparent reason – they’re an entire culture, a universe all of their own. And being able to mediate between those universes means so much. When colleagues say it’s good to have a communications expert, I sometimes catch myself looking over my shoulder to see whom they’re talking about. But it’s true; I am. Whether writing, researching, editing or translating, I’m constantly asking myself who my audience is, what will interest them, why, and how much needs explaining to ensure clarity but avoid condescension. It’s not easy – but then, neither was the MML Tripos.

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