The blessing and the curse of journalism

Foto: Sanja Gornjec

Anamarija Lukovac

In an environment where everyone is expecting young people to build courage and seek employment abroad, us students find ourselves lost between our desires, opportunities and skills we possess. It is fairly easy for an architect, a scientist or a business bachelor to find a job outside the boundaries of their own country, because the skills they gathered at home universities are not much different from those foreign employers require of them. But what if you majored in journalism?

Journalism is a craft that uses language as its tools. It involves a close embrace with the linguistic medium of its transactions and its output. Journalists use refined language skills to gather information and convert that information into a marketable product. A journalist’s worth is as big as the language skills they retain. Fact. Working as a journalist means functioning in a language as well as just producing written examples of that language. Apart from producing journalistic texts, it means going out into various official and public contexts – news conferences, law courts, legislatures, opening ceremonies, etc. – and listening and asking questions in the specific language discourse in those contexts.

A big majority of journalism students at Faculty of Social Science in Ljubljana have a very sufficient knowledge of Slovenian language. But can we say the same when it comes to other languages? We are evidently limited by our mother tongue. It is certain that our communication in Slovenian language is by far better than how we express ourselves in English or any other language for that matter. As well as it is undeniable that the language of a native speaking journalist will always be much more flexible, vivid, complex and rich than ours by default. We could call it a curse of journalism. The general journalistic freedom and the advantage of being able to move around the world, work from home, or be a modern day working nomad, are not infinite. We are often heavily restricted by the limits of the language. Of course we are not willing to put our dreams aside or settle for something we do not crave. Working for foreign broadcasters, publishers or any other firm is as much our right as it is a right of any other profession. So how do we get there? How do we demolish the obstacles that have been built by cultural differences, obstacles such as language? How do we jump over the precipice between the requirements of foreign employers and the competence we receive from our academic system? The gap that is not getting any smaller.

Employment seekers need to have an additional value, such as foreign languages.

It seems odd and retrogressive to think students at a university in a certain country are planning to only look for work in the same country. It also seems very unintelligent, foolish and irresponsible of a department not to give its students full international competence. We live in a year 2015, 130.000 years after the modern man thought to himself: »Hmm, I am going to move abroad,« and left the heart of Africa. So yes, it is normal to plan our future outside Slovenia. It is not ambitious, it is not special, it is just normal human behavior. It is an act that sometimes seems like the only reasonable one in today’s society and in the current conditions on the job market.

»Nowadays technical knowledge is not enough. Employment seekers need to have an additional value, such as foreign languages. In the past languages were an advantage, nevertheless, globalization caused them to become a work condition. Moreover, we need to speak more than just one foreign language in order to be competent and successful in what we do. This stands for journalists as well,« believes MSc. Miriam Tavčar, professor of English language at Faculty of Social Sciences. Despite the common perception that we live in mostly bilingual society, the use of English – and English speaking fluency – is confined to a few elite realms of economic, political and cultural activity. Students rarely use English outside the classroom or a bar filled with tourists. Difficulties in comprehending spoken English in a context other than the classroom tend to hamper the students’ acquisition of effective reporting and interviewing skills. Journalism department at the Faculty of Social Sciences offers a mandatory foreign language module in year one and year two. Students of journalism can choose between English, German, Italian, and Spanish. Each student can only pick one course, where he or she supposedly obtains specific language knowledge suitable for journalists. That includes journalistic terminology, vocabulary, the basic knowledge of written and oral reporting in the chosen language, and some grammar and punctuation foundations. Besides the two years (or is it really) worth of terminology the course itself is a poor version of a high school foreign language class. The new program scheme created by the faculty predicts an even more restricted access to foreign language knowledge for future journalism students. They might take the measures to cancel the first foreign language, let alone will they add an additional language to the curriculum. Professor Tavčar estimates that the learning of foreign languages will be reduced by approximately 40 %, and expresses a great deal of concern regarding these tendencies. »Proficiency in at least one additional language is a commonly anticipated competence nowadays. In reality, the speaking of a second foreign language is becoming a necessary condition for employment.«

However, the case at the Faculty of Social Sciences is not an exception, since many course structures of other programs at the University of Ljubljana do not include any language modules whatsoever. But we are journalists. Do not we deserve to be tortured by complicated language forms, native speaker tasks and C2 levels of German, Italian, English and French? What I am trying to say is: How are we supposed to become BBC news anchors or the editors of Die Zeit with the language skills that we posses? »We are not supposed to,« is not the answer anyone is allowed to give. Advanced additional optional courses would not hurt us. We are a tiny country, with a limited number of media companies, with a big number of journalists graduating each year, and with a beautiful language only two million people in the world speak. Are we willing to be heard only by 0,03 % of the world’s population? Or do we, as journalists, want to speak out and send our word out to people, to the world? If so, then we should educate the citizens of this country in other languages besides Slovene. Perhaps it does not matter if German or Chinese universities are neglecting the studying of a foreign language in journalistic schools – they have a market big enough for that not to be of importance. The situation is different here. So maybe our education system is not offering everything it has to give.

Anhoa, Viktor, and Francesca are students of journalism from Spain, Hungary, and Italy. They all speak at least English in addition to their mother tongue. »There is a Superior Center of Modern Languages at the University Complutense in Madrid, which is a school of languages open to everybody. However, the classes are not mandatory, so you have to attend them outside the academic timetable. I would love to take language courses at my actual university. I still don’t understand why a degree in journalism doesn’t include any language courses. It’s unbelievable,« complains Anhoa Muguerza. Contrary to the situation in Spain, the Italian University of Messina offers a compulsory language course to its journalism students. »The English course is not very efficient or useful, in my opinion. Although my collegues’ level of English is very low, so they might find it useful,« says Francesca Anelli, who describes her level of English knowledge as fluent. She also understands and speaks German, but at a lower level. Viktor Fulop, who recently graduated from sociology at ELTE University, but has later completed a journalism course in Budapest and got a degree in Project Management from IBAT College in Dublin, has worked as a SEO copywriter in Ireland. »I can say it is a pretty hard thing to do. In my opinion it is extremely difficult to work as a journalist in a non-native language.« His texts were always proofread by native speaking employees at the company he worked for. However, he says he is not satisfied with his English language knowledge, and he most likely will never be. »I’ve been working as a journalist in Hungary for ten years in my native language. I know the difference.« Anhoa currently works as an editor of the Spanish edition of the multilingual magazine Cafébabel based in Paris. »Even if I’m working in Spanish, I have to use English and French every day,« she explains. She has also worked as an intern at Radio France International, where she primarily spoke Spanish. Nevertheless, the comprehension and use of French was needed on an every day basis, in order to do interviews with native people. Beside French media, Anhoa has also completed a one-month internship for a Chinese magazine, where she operated with articles in English. »I am Spanish, but English and French are two requirements for my daily job,« she concludes. Francesca Anneli will take advantage of the Erasmus programme her University offers, and move to Germany next year to gain experience in a foreign language work environment. »Unfortunately, the education offered solely by my University is not enough.« Evidently, most journalistic schools around the world offer the same, or even a smaller amount of foreign language content to their students as our faculty.

It seems very irresponsible of a department not to give its students full international competence.

Foreign correspondents are journalist usually most in touch with languages other than their own. »Foreign languages are simply a must for effective and successful work of Slovenian correspondents. The more you speak and the better you speak them, the more efficient your work can be,« explains Petra Miklavc, STA correspondent situated in Brussels, Belgium. She studied translation at The Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana. Erika Štular, correspondent for RTV Slovenia, and Peter Žerjavič, correspondent for Delo, both studied journalism at FDV. While Peter and Erika are not perfectly satisfied with the language knowledge they gained while studying, Petra lacks the journalistic reporting techniques. »I have chosen German as my first foreign language in college. The level was quite high. But I have studied the rest of the languages (English, French, Italian and Spanish) outside my faculty,« tells Erika. Slovenian journalists working from the capital of the European Union are linguistically qualified beyond the level of an average journalist working from there, they explain. French used to be the most widely spoken language in Brussels, while English was just an exception. Today, journalists and politicians mostly use English. Correspondents use foreign languages mostly to communicate with their sources and to understand »eurojargon«. »Despite the fact that Slovenian journalists could use different pre-translated material, I am sure that a direct contact with the original information is essential. That way, things don’t get lost in translation,« says Petra Miklavc. None of the above listed journalists work for a foreign publisher or broadcaster, but despite this, they do have several experiences in that field. Peter Žerjavič has written some articles in English and German for international newspapers: »It was an extremely positive experience for me, but it is certainly harder to handle than writing in your native language.« Petra has done a live radio broadcast in French. She describes the experience as very educational and satisfying, as well as a very difficult one: »Someone who has learned a language in school cannot be compared to native speakers. I think these kinds of comparisons are neither fair nor reasonable. You can more or less come close to that level if you are surrounded by the language, but only a minority can dream in a language that is not their own.«

It is the skills and abilities you have outside of your degree that will really define your career. And one of most overlooked ones is the ability to work in a foreign language. Journalism is about teasing stories out of people from all walks of life. This includes people who do not speak your language. The mountain won’t come to Muhammad after all. To be able to prove you can move around the language barrier and deliver the story other young journalists cannot will make an employer very interested in you. You may think you do not want to travel the world or become a foreign correspondent, but – as politicians are always fond of saying – we live in a multicultural society. You never know when the odd phrase you happen to know will come in handy.

I have asked all my interviewees to tell me where and how could young journalists-to-be improve their knowledge or learn extra languages. Everyone has given me the same answer. Living and working in the area where the wanted language is spoken seems like the most effective solution. If not that, taking additional classes and courses should work as well. In the end, however, it all depends on us.

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