Should you study one or more languages at university?

Posted in: Choosing a course, Undergraduate

Language degrees are one of the more controversial courses available, including my course: Modern Languages & European Studies with a Year Abroad (now Modern Languages). With the looming reality of Brexit and fast-growing wave of globalisation, learning a foreign language is now more important than ever. At the same time, there seem to be many underlying reasons not to do a languages degree – machine translation, lack of specialisation, global acceptance of English – to the point where modern language degrees are being abandoned by universities and even considered by some employers to be unnecessary. These mixed reactions make you question… Are these degrees even worth it? If so, should you study one or more languages?

Even though I’d had my heart set on continuing both French and German at degree level, I always had society’s doubts about the value of language degrees at the back of mind… so much so that, towards the end of my gap year in the French Alps, I was seriously questioning whether I should keep my place to study both French and German or instead prioritise fluency in one language. Now that I’m at university, I realise many of these are false assumptions are not necessarily true! It’s time to put these false misconceptions to bed…

Assumption #1: Time is split equally between each language.

Prior to university, my gap year in the French Alps helped my French language skills become stronger than my German!

FALSE. If studying one language at university, nearly all your time will be dedicated to achieving fluency in that language. If studying two languages, it seems natural that your time will be divided equally between each language… but that’s not the case! For me, French is my strongest language (by far!). I started French lessons at the age of 7 and living in France naturally resulted in greater exposure to the language and culture. In contrast, I started learning German later in life and, even to this day, I still cry internally at the thought of German grammar. That’s why I prioritise German as my weaker language, even though the University provides equal tuition in both subjects

Assumption #2: It’s confusing to switch back and forth between different languages.

Images showing a contrast between the French and German languages
Building muscle memory by reading parallel texts or listening to bilingual podcasts can lead to faster thinking – exactly what’s needed for constant switching between languages!

FALSE. Many people assume that it’s best to focus on one language to avoid confusion with another. Admittedly, it can be tricky at first. There’s no getting around the fact that the overwhelmingly long reading list, small groups, and full language immersion makes for an intense degree. Once I became familiar with my timetable and gradually advanced my language skills, however, it became easier to transition from a German history lecture to a French oral class. It also helps that French and German are different enough to minimise confusion, but similar enough to spot resemblance in some words and grammar concepts!

Assumption #3: Learning one language is easier than two.

Courses offering one language often explore political and historical concepts in more detail, whereas degrees in combined languages cover a wider range of topics.

FALSE. It’s commonly believed that studying two languages demands twice as much effort, commitment and motivation. It’s true that challenges of multilingualism are often underestimated – taking on several languages demands focus, continuous improvement and mental endurance. However, focusing solely on one language often requires greater specialisation. That means historical and political concepts are taught in more detail, in addition to more pressure to master command of one language.

Assumption #4: There’s a big jump between studying any number of languages at A-Level and University.

Just like this rapid river, studying for a degree can be more intense, fast-paced yet less restrictive compared to A Levels.

TRUE. It can be challenging to adapt to different teaching styles, more independent study and advanced concepts at university, regardless of how many languages you’re studying. The good news is that First Year (on single language AND combined language courses) tends to cover a wide range of topics, with the aim of bringing everyone up to a similar level. Plus, I found that the content taught in one module was relevant to other modules. Much of the content in my French and German history modules was reiterated or explored in a broader context in the European Studies module(now International history, politics, culture and society modules), which definitely helped!

Assumption #5: The Year Abroad experience is similar no matter how many languages are studied.

The Year Abroad can be very different depending on how many languages and cultures are studied.

FALSE. Where the goal of single language courses is specialisation, the integrated Year Abroad is normally spent in one country, with the option to study abroad OR undertake a longer work placement. The benefit is that you may feel more settled in the foreign environment, build long-lasting friendships and become better acquainted with cultural differences. Having said that, it’s usually compulsory to divide the Year Abroad between two countries in which the target languages are spoken on combined language degrees. The advantage is that this can open up the chance to experience BOTH studying abroad and work placements… as well as the chance to experience two very different cultures and lifestyles.

In a nutshell

The unmistakeable decline in language degrees, closely intertwined with common misconceptions, can make it hard to decide whether to study one or two languages at university. On the one hand, studying one language at degree level allows for specialisation and in-depth knowledge of a foreign language and culture. On the other hand, studying two languages at university can lead to multilingualism that may prove invaluable later in life. One thing that’s clear, however, is this: Many assumptions about what it’s like to study one or more languages at university might not be as true as they first appear…

Posted in: Choosing a course, Undergraduate

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