Is Studying a Foreign Language at University Challenging?

In General, University by Think Student EditorLeave a Comment

When it comes to learning a language, students often struggle. There can be so much vocabulary and grammar and even just all these different rules that just don’t seem to make sense. University level study is often regarded as being difficult and rather intense. The independence, the workload and even the complexity of the course is so much harder than before.

When you put these together, learning a language and university study, it can seem absolutely terrifying as both are considered challenging on their own. However, is this really the case? Is studying another language at university really that challenging? Let’s find out.

In short, no, studying a foreign language at university isn’t particularly challenging. This is considering the fact that the contact hours and how the course is taught appears to be very similar to other humanities courses, such as an English degree. Therefore, the course isn’t particularly any more intense and by extension challenging than other degrees like it as there are measures in place to ensure that students are able to reach fluency naturally, rather than it being a particularly straining process.

Continue reading to learn more about what is involved in studying languages at university and why this may make it a challenging task or not so much. This article will take you through the main features of language study at university, including the workload, the exams and much more.

What is it like studying languages at university?

While there may be some other ways, the main way to study languages at university is by taking some kind of languages degree. In the UK, this will typically be a Modern Languages degree, however, it might be named slightly differently. Also, you may even have the opportunity to take ancient languages as a degree, for example, this is often possible with a Classics degree.

Regardless of what the type is, there are some fundamental aspects of studying a languages degree at university. First of all, languages degree will focus on getting students to a certain standard of linguistic ability in their target language or languages.

While the focus is obviously on learning the language, this is done through context-based learning rather than just learning grammar and vocabulary. This means that students will also be learning about the histories and cultures of the countries and regions, where the language is spoken.

Therefore, a languages degree can become multidisciplinary as students may find that their context-based learning draws into the subject areas of history, politics, anthropology, psychology and many other areas, that students might not originally expect. You can learn more about what some of the areas that a modern languages degree might cover by looking at this page on the University of Oxford’s website.

Like any other degree, students are taught through a range of different ways. This particularly includes a mixture of lectures, seminars and workshops as well as some self-study and assignments. You can learn more about this on this page of the University of Nottingham’s website.

How many contact hours do you have for a languages degree?

At university, you have so much more independence than before and a lot of your degree may actually end up being done through self-study. Contact hours describes the amount of time you actually have being taught or being in contact with some kind of academic staff, such as your tutor or a professor.

As always, the exact number of contact hours that you will have each week for your degree will depend on your university. It may also depend on the language(s) you’re studying, depending on how your university has structured the course.

At Queen Mary University of London, languages students will typically have between 10 and 16 contact hours per week. This range appears to be fairly typical across languages degrees, however some may have slightly less contact hours per week. You can learn more about this on their website here.

This is fairly in line with or even slightly more than other humanities courses, such as English. For this course, students may have as little as 8 hours per week of direct contact hours, although it could be more depending on the university. You can learn more about this by checking out this page from the University of York.

However, compared to something like a Medicine degree, where there is known to be a lot of contact time, this is a lot less. Medicine students may have as much as 32 hours per week of contact time on their course, being a mixture of taught modules and placement time. You can learn more about this and contact hours in general in this page on the UCL website.

When considering how challenging the course is, it could be argued that having this amount of contact time would make it less challenging. This is because it would appear to be sufficient hours to help students with understanding, even being more than other courses, such as English, yet also not as intense with the high amount of contact hours faced by Medicine students.

Can you become fluent in a language at university?

You have different pathways when beginning a languages degree. You either have the option to study the language at an intermediate level/ post-A-Level or you have the opportunity to do it from beginners’ level if you are completely new to the language or maybe if you have a GCSE or lower standard in it.

By the end of the degree, students’ ability in the language should be similar, regardless of what pathway they began with. However, particularly in the 1st and 2nd year of your languages degree, these different groups of students will be at noticeably different levels and thus in different classes.

The level of attainment that a languages degree will be trying to get students to by the end of it will typically be around the “C1” or “C2” level. C1 and C2 are levels on the CEFR language levels, these mean that the student has a very advanced level in the language and are certainly fluent. You can learn more about this in this guide by the University of Nottingham.

Therefore, as students will tend to all reach this point, regardless of whether they started from beginners’ level or from intermediate level, you’re more likely to find a languages degree difficult if you started at beginners’ level as the course would need to be more intense.

Do you study abroad during a languages degree?

One of the most unique features of a modern languages degree is that the majority of them will give you the opportunity to have a year abroad. While it’s called a year abroad, the exact amount of time that you will need to spend in the country or countries of your target language(s) will depend on your university. It will typically range from a semester to about 18 months/ 3 semesters.

This year abroad will typically be taken in your 3rd year, however, it could also be done in your 2nd year, depending on your university. Therefore, it is a sandwich year, that will make your course 4 years ling rather than the typical 3.

On your year abroad, you will typically have 3 options for what you can do. These options are studying at a partner university, working abroad or doing a British Council language assistant programme. The exact opportunities available to you will fully depend on your university and the course you’re studying. You can learn more about the languages degree year abroad in this Think Student article.

This feature of a languages degree arguably makes it both more challenging and less challenging for students. As you will be abroad in the country of the language you’re learning, your language learning becomes more intense, thus making it more challenging for you.

However, as universities will generally prepare students directly for this year abroad, this increased intensity shouldn’t be as difficult to transition to as it otherwise would be. Moreover, this intense period of natural language learning should help to improve linguistic ability greatly without students needing to actively study.

Therefore, it arguably makes it less challenging as students going into their final year should feel much more comfortable with the language and have much better ability in it.

Is studying foreign languages at university challenging?

Now that we’ve looked at the different elements of a languages course, we can finally come to a judgement on whether a languages degree really is challenging.

Personally, I would say that no, doing languages at university isn’t particularly challenging. This is due to the fact that the workload, the contact hours and simply what is involved in a languages degree tends to be on par with the level of other humanities degree courses and significantly less intense than other courses, such as Medicine.

Although, I will admit that I have yet to start my own degree in languages and so I can’t give you an answer based on my personal experience. I’ve considered the experiences of other current languages degree students, some of which whom I have personally talked to and others who have written about their experiences.

From this, I would say that students may find certain elements challenging, particularly due to their own strengths and weaknesses in the language, rather than finding it challenging as a whole.

You can read the personal accounts of students and how hard they find their modern languages degrees on this page of the University of Cambridge’s website and here on the University of Oxford’s website.

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