January 2010 issue

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The UK’s kingdom

Comprising England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom offers students a plethora of different cultures, landscapes and traditions. Nicola Hancox takes a tour of the four nations that represent a destination of choice for language learners worldwide.

Northern Ireland is a brand new destination,” asserts Paul McMullan from International House Belfast, “not only for study abroad but for tourism in general.” Indeed, following years of civil unrest, Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast, has shaken off much of its fractured past to be branded (by US travel journal Frommer’s) one of the top destinations for 2009. “International students and visitors are often struck by the beauty of the city which is nestled against the imposing Cavehill – said to be the inspiration for the famous adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift,” observes Mike Harrigan at Into Queen’s University Belfast.

Gone are the infamous army checkpoints (synonymous with the country’s religious and political troubles of the past), leaving tourists free to rediscover this charming European city, which has a handful of language schools. Thirsty students can stroll down the Golden Mile, a stretch of road famed for its drinking establishments, or wander around Cathedral Quarter, fast becoming the city’s cultural hub.

McMullan counts City Hall, which reopened in October last year following a UK£11 million (US$18.2 million) refurbishment programme, and the Victoria Centre – a brand new shopping mecca – as two of the city’s must-sees. Belfast’s equivalent of the London Eye (the Belfast Wheel) is also situated in the grounds of City Hall and affords some great views from a height of 61 metres.

City Hall and the Victoria Centre aren’t the only redevelopment projects to have hit Belfast. A complete overhaul of the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the ill-fated Titanic was built is another example. The multi-million pound venture will include an interactive exhibition centre documenting the ship’s history, as well as a Titanic-themed boutique hotel, plush living quarters, shops, bars and restaurants. Completion date is scheduled to coincide with the centenary of the ship’s maiden voyage in 2012. The Ulster Museum also underwent recent renovation works and reopened on its 80th birthday in October. Boasting art, history and science collections, the museum offers free admission to all.

Queen’s University is also undergoing a massive capital development project. “Our newly renovated Students’ Union boasts over 130 clubs and societies – from fencing to finance and soccer to skydiving,” enthuses Harrigan. What’s more, a new UK £50 million (US$83 million) library and equally impressive Physical Education Centre are also set to boost the student experience.

More well known than Northern Ireland is of course Scotland, the UK’s northernmost country and with a unique cultural identity that includes haggis, bagpipes, kilts, whisky and the great outdoors. “Scotland is a beautiful country with a fascinating history and dramatic landscapes,” notes Sarah Cooke from Regent Language Training in Edinburgh. “Our cities are small and friendly and Edinburgh in particular frequently tops polls as the UK’s most desirable city to live.”

Indeed, flanked by the Firth of Forth (a river estuary) and the Pentland Hills, Edinburgh is perhaps one of the UK’s most aesthetically pleasing cities. Awash with amazing medieval and Georgian architecture, not to mention the monolithic Castle Rock (an extinct volcano) upon which Edinburgh Castle resides, the city’s unmistakable skyline is visible from numerous vantage points.

Cooke relates both the castle and Holyrood Palace – which served as the principal residence for the Scottish monarchy from the 15th century – are all within walking distance of the school campus and are well worth a visit.

The city’s social calendar is also jam packed with seasonal events sure to whet the appetite of visiting students. Sarah Gore from Stevenson College in Edinburgh relates the most exciting time to be in the city is during the Fringe Festival in August. “The whole city is buzzing as the Royal Mile is filled with street performers, and venues all around the city offer something for everyone – art, theatre, comedy, cinema, literature, and music, whether it be jazz, rock, folk or opera,” she says.

Although passionate about the city in which she lives, Cooke admits remoter environs also have a certain appeal. “My favourite retreat from the city is the entire northwest coast including islands such as Skye and Lewis, as well as small towns on the mainland such as Oban and Fort William,” she relishes. Despite the relative isolation of these places, the locals are also said to be incredibly welcoming to newcomers she adds. “They have a beautiful Scottish accent which some describe as similar to singing!”

Given Scotland’s relatively small size, students have no excuse but to explore further afield. “[Students] are never far from the stunning scenery of rolling hills, forests, mountains and lakes (lochs), not to mention the romantic ruins of our many castles and fortresses,” states Gore. Freshwater lochs like Loch Lomond (the largest lake in mainland UK) and Loch Ness (perhaps best known for the monster that is said to lurk beneath the surface) both come highly recommended.

Geographically, much of Wales’ landscape is mountainous (there are some 14 mountains all over 3,000 feet tall) making this another country that is popular with outdoor enthusiasts. And with three national parks to choose from – Snowdonia, the Pembrokeshire Coast and the Brecon Beacons – students can enjoy many of the UK’s most imposing vistas in Wales. “Studying in Cardiff will give students the opportunity to visit the spectacular beauty of the Brecon Beacons,” notes Shoko Morimoto at the Celtic School in Cardiff. Given the school’s close proximity to the park (the southern boundary rests 25 miles north of Cardiff city centre) it is easily accessible by bus, coach or car, and typical activities include mountain biking and trekking.

Wales is also reputed to have the second highest density of sheep in the world (usurped only by New Zealand) and at a ratio of two sheep to every one person, it’s perhaps unsurprising they are one the country’s biggest exports. After a gruelling day of hiking in the foothills of Snowdonia, students are sure to relish some traditional pub fare including roast lamb and laver sauce (a shiny black delicacy made of seaweed) or cawl (a traditional Welsh stew comprising of lamb and leeks).

Morimoto relates that foodies might also appreciate the Caerphilly Big Cheese Festival that takes place every summer. Set in the small town of the same name, over 70,000 visitors flocked to enjoy the festivities in 2008 which comprised of street entertainers, living history re-enactments, comedy, music, dance and market stalls. As for Cardiff itself, she says, “Cardiff is a great place to be in to experience British/Welsh culture as well as to get chances to see international sports games and world famous artists.” (The Millennium Stadium in

Agent viewpoint

Stephanie Bon, Cactus Languages, UK
“At the moment, with the pound sterling being so low, many UK destinations offer excellent value for foreign students. Most of our students are attracted to big cities like London or university cities like Cambridge and Edinburgh. They want to guarantee that they won’t get bored, will have plenty to do and people to meet giving them opportunities to practise what they’ve learnt outside of the classroom.”

 Dixandra Magisson, Comptoir des Horizons, France
“Although most of those that choose the UK go to England (especially London), some of them prefer to go to Edinburgh because of its history, its cultural heritage, and its friendly people. Scotland is well known for its amazing landscape as well; and more and more people are making the most of their stay combining their study in Edinburgh with a walking holiday in the highlands for example. The UK is home to the English language, and the thought of many people is ‘where else in the world can you learn better English than in the UK?”

 Kevin Shine, FGS McClure Watters, Northern Ireland
“My firm welcomes over 100 participants on the EU Leonardo da Vinci programmes to Belfast each year. Our participants, graduates from around the EU, do an intensive language course at IH Belfast before starting work placements in a wide variety of fields, from molecular biology to tourism. Belfast is big enough to offer a wide variety of opportunities, but small enough to be manageable: many of our participants walk to work, for example. Also, Belfast is still something of an undiscovered gem and retains an authenticity and uniqueness which can be lost in bigger cities.”

 Kate Clarke, Al Ahlam Higher Education Services, Oman
“Most Omanis are put off by the thought of a big city; they perceive London, for example, as crowded and expensive. We know which students will enjoy a vibrant city like Bristol or Manchester and which students will thrive in quieter locations like Worthing or Chester. Students on a language holiday are looking for evening and weekend entertainment. Those on academic English courses prefer a quieter town.”

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