Should You Study Russian and German At University?

It has been one year since the last occasion of A-Level results coming out in the UK. If you're not familiar with the system in this country, here's a quick summary. A-Level exams are the school leaving exams that determine a student's future path at university. The courses are chosen by subject and after age 16 none are compulsory, so students choose whichever subject they feel most passionate about. Last year, my guest blogger Tom Pandolfino wrote a wonderful article about what it is like to be taking these super important exams. Today Tom's back to tell you what happened next.

Russian and German at University: What Happened Next

As I start to write this blog post in my hostel room in Stuttgart as the rain comes crashing down, I have some time to reflect on my first year at university. In terms of both, studying and my free time away from it.

So, languages at university; my perspective...well, it’s intriguing.

Prior to embarking upon the wild yet tremendous journey that is university, I would have already described myself as a language learner who doesn’t "comply with the rules". What do I even mean by "rules"? Don’t worry. I shall explain.

By "rules", I mean a very traditional way of learning languages. The way the curriculum works for languages in schools in the UK is quite traditional. You learn a lot of grammar and rules and are tested upon that with not much emphasis on using the language itself. This is at least how I feel looking back on my time in school learning foreign languages. In school and at university, everyone tends to have stark differences in terms of learning attitudes. This is what the system doesn’t always quite recognise. By system I mean the curriculum for foreign languages in schools in the UK and institutions such as universities.

Making Mistakes Is a Good Thing

Naturally, people have different ways of learning, above all in regards to foreign language learning in the UK. For example, in my case I learn and enjoy learning the most through speaking and listening. But more importantly, by making mistakes because it is crucial and it is indeed a very good thing! It indicates areas of weakness and it allows for positive correction so that you can rectify your errors and try not to make the same ones again.

The school system unfortunately doesn’t acknowledge the power and importance of mistakes in foreign language learning, which is a great shame. It always appeared to me that the curriculum needlessly punishes young learners. For example, I remember having to learn grammar points for exams that I never fully grasped until later on. I was fortunate to have some fantastic teachers especially during my French and German A levels who took on a much better approach to language learning, based on acquisition and fun as opposed to regurgitation and constant grammar tables.

Languages? Why, You Must Be A Freak Or A Genius!

In the UK there appears to be a bizarre perception that "we just can’t simply learn foreign languages". Well, it’s rubbish. (Note from the editor: READ THIS TWICE OMG IT IS SO TRUE!!!!) Many people are always shocked at the response to when they ask me as to what I study at university. When they hear ‘German and Russian’, people in the UK are taken back and I am soon flooded with many questions and responses:

  • Why those two languages?,
  • What would you like to do after university then? ‘Why Russian?
  • I wish I could do languages, but in school I couldn’t. It was far too hard.

Personally, I do not mind any of these types of questions or responses that people give me. But it is this last one that really irritates me. I find it frustrating not that people have found languages or more specifically learning a language hard. But due to their poor experience of language learning in the system, it puts them off the subject for life. It is often due to their poor experience and perhaps lack of success in languages in school that has allowed for a false perception to manifest into the idea that language learning is impossible. This seems to a common occurrence with many individuals in the UK.

In school, the curriculum is such that concepts like verbs, cases, nouns, pronouns, the subjunctive etc. are just thrown at you. You are taught the tools of the language, the theory behind it. You are never quite taught to communicate or to truly apply them. These items of grammar are of course vitally important, but what is the use when you don’t understand what a case even is, or how the subjunctive should be applied in certain circumstances...

Is University Better Than School?

So what does my view on the school system thus far have to do with university anyway?

Well, in all honesty, to me they appear fairly similar. Yet at university, there is more of a focus on immersion in the languages that you study. You are strongly encouraged and advised to find out what works for you. For example, there have been many times when my lecturers have said that we really ought to listen to podcasts, TV, music and so on in the specific target language. This means that for many hours in the day we are absorbing the language in to our minds. Even though this may be passive learning, it still works.

If, for example, you imagine a sponge in a sink full of water; the sponge will still absorb the water, regardless even if you don’t squeeze it. So if it is taken into consideration that about 95% of my time spent in lectures and seminars is completely in German or Russian, and I do my passive work, I make progress. But at university there is a huge difference...the onus is completely down to you to do not only the work but also to be responsible for the immersion. I feel that they want us to create is a ‘foreign reality’.

My experience thus far at university leads me to believe that universities understand the fact that language learning is in fact ultimately down to you. Of course the seminars, lectures and lab sessions are important and useful. But if you don’t do any learning away from the classroom, you simply won’t learn enough. They seem to have cracked the mysterious language learning have to learn a language yourself, it cannot be forced upon someone.

So that leads to two questions...

What is The Point of Studying Languages at University..?

So far even after just one year of studying at university, I feel that the freedom of learning that is given to you combined with the intensity allows you to progress very quickly and efficiently. But what I have found more important is that studying at university allows development of much more critical skills in terms of how you think and how to evaluate issues.

But What About Keeping Motivation..?

Just to put it out there, I am not a language learning veteran like some other guys on the internet who speak a whole plethora of languages (some of whom are just incredible: Richard Simcott, Benny Lewis, Olly Richards, Conor Clyne and Amir Ordabayev). But I have been learning languages seriously for about the past three and a half years with good success. The biggest hurdle for me is keeping up my motivation. I find that if I work a lot for a consistent period of time, I run the risk of burning out and losing my momentum completely. So I try to work in bursts of a couple of weeks. That means I try my best to work consistently for two weeks and then do more passive activities and make my learning less intense.

University has ultimately reinforced my belief that languages cannot just be forced upon people so that they learn. It is a long process, a journey which should hopefully be fun and somewhat memorable.

Tom Pandolfino is a student who has just completed the first year of studying Russian and German at University. As you can tell, he is experiencing so much success. In addition to being a language learner, Tom is also an accomplished musician and member of Blues Hawk. Check them out on Facebook - the next big thing in old school blues.

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