The talk, as part of the Global Languages series from the University of Exeter, was well received by the College’s linguists and Antonia Howard (Lower Sixth, White) reviews the talk here.
“Dame Melinda Simmons is the current UK ambassador for Ukraine and spoke of how she used her love of languages to achieve this position. She talked about her experiences studying German and French both at A-level and at Exeter University, specifically her year abroad in what was then West Germany, and how she would spend weekends exploring East Germany.
From here, she went to work in Marketing, and, after securing a huge order with a French woman (as she was the only one in her department who could speak French!) she was moved to the very small international department in just three months.
Due to her linguistic ability, she was made Head of Department after just one year and an Associate after two. She started working in conflict resolution, becoming the UK ambassador for Ukraine in 2019, recounting an intensive eight months of going from beginner to fluent in Ukrainian, with the foreign office demanding her to get a 70% on each paper, from GCSE level to final-year degree level.
A very interesting story she told was when a woman on the street in Ukraine asked her about whether mass had started, with Simmons helping her, only to realise the woman had been speaking Russian and she’d understood and responded in Ukrainian – she’d heard enough passive Russian to understand this famously difficult language!
For those who need help in learning a language, her advice is to watch children’s cartoons in that language, in order to have the basic vocabulary and pace, as well as to, in general, get out there and speak it. Simmons’ key message was that languages are the “gateway to the world” and to meeting people, as she found her linguistic abilities meant people opened up and trusted her more, emphasising the degree of engagement knowing foreign languages gives you. Plus, you just have more fun!”