4 Benefits of Studying English in Britain’s University Cities

Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge

It could be the dreaming spires of Oxford or Cambridge, the lively, metropolitan buzz of London, or the quieter coastal charms of St Andrews. What these university cities have in common is a vibrant student community, a wonderful setting and an inspirational atmosphere in which to learn. Studying in a university city is different from studying anywhere else because university cities have grown, evolved and adapted to meet the needs of students – both the university students who are there year-round, and the summer school students who come to benefit from these scholarly environments. University cities have a huge amount to offer – read on to find out more.

1. Access to great resources

The interior of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

One of the best things about university cities is the resources available in them. A great example of this is museums. Think about Oxford – it’s a city of just 150,000 people, yet its museums are world-class. Studying there, you’ll have the opportunity to explore them, such as the Ashmolean Museum, which houses a vast collection of arts and antiquities from a remarkable collection of coinage to the famous Alfred Jewel from Anglo-Saxon England. Or you might want to wander around the Natural History Museum, where you can see a stuffed dodo and the fossils of dinosaurs. Under the same roof (which is handy for rainy days) is the Pitt Rivers Museum of archaeology and anthropology. Not only does this house fascinating exhibits, the style of the museum itself feels like something from another age with narrow passageways between cabinets with handwritten labels. They even hold evenings when you can visit the museum by torchlight, to enjoy its unique atmosphere.
And that’s just one city. In Cambridge, there’s the grand Fitzwilliam Museum, which houses fine art and antiquities (their collection of Egyptian mummies is particularly worth seeing); the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; Cambridge Museum of Technology; and the fascinating and unique Polar Museum, about the history of polar exploration and the importance of the Arctic and Antarctic. Meanwhile in St Andrews, the university has its own museum, and – appropriately enough given the sporting tradition there – it’s also home to the British Golf Museum.
What’s more, that’s without mentioning the university city with some of the most deservedly famous museums in the world: London. From the British Museum to the V&A, the Natural History Museum to the Science Museum – plus smaller, less well-known but no less interesting museums like the Geffrye Museum or Sir John Soane’s Museum – you’d need to spend weeks in London to see everything that its museums have to offer.

The library of Merton College, Oxford.

But the remarkable resources of Britain’s university cities don’t just relate to their museums and art galleries, wonderful as they are. These cities also have another key resource for students: libraries. Oxford, Cambridge and London are all home to copyright libraries, which means that they have the right to request a copy of any book published in the UK; if you want to have access to incredible research facilities, there’s nowhere better. (The UK’s remaining copyright are in Edinburgh and Aberystwyth, both also university cities). If you’re learning English as a second language, being better able to understand fascinating arguments in rare books can be a powerful motivator to improve.
Amazing libraries aren’t just of interest for casual browsing. If you’re improving your language skills by taking a course in a different subject that’s taught through English, having outstanding study resources at hand can make writing essays and carrying out research so much easier. Plus, unlike public libraries, university libraries are geared towards the needs of students: the librarians will be used to helping you find research materials, there’ll be a multitude of desks and plug sockets, and you’ll be surrounded by peers who are all there to learn and improve as well.

2. The chance to talk to people from all over the world

The coastline by St Andrews.

There are lots of different ways to learn a language. Some people choose rote learning, reciting vocabulary, verb endings and even set phrases until they roll off the tongue automatically. Others use online programmes like Duolingo to build up their understanding of the language gradually, and at whatever time suits them. Some teach themselves using textbooks and tapes. Quite often, the way in which we learn a language is dictated by the time we have available and the location we’re in, rather than by what’s necessarily the quickest or most effective way.
What’s generally considered to be one of the best ways of improving your language skills is immersion: putting yourself in a situation where you can only communicate through your target language. It can be tiring, but it builds skills and confidence quickly; you soon stop worrying about whether your grammar is perfect and instead focus on making yourself understood. This is particularly helpful if you’re studying English in a classroom setting at the same time; classroom teaching is particularly good for building your reading and writing skills, while using English for communication inside and outside the classroom helps you improve your speaking and listening skills.

The Millennium Bridge, London.

Often, formal English courses will only teach you how to understand standard English – the kind you might hear newsreaders speak – while interacting with friends, teachers and everyone else you might encounter in a city (from shop assistants to librarians) will speak a much wider variety of types of English, with non-standard usages and different accents. That’s important, because you’re not just learning English to be able to understand news reports; you’re learning it for all the purposes you might need it later in life, whether that’s giving a presentation in a business context, talking with English-speaking friends, or interacting with clients from all around the world using English as a lingua franca. In one of Britain’s university cities, you’ll hear lots of people with assorted British accents (one of the great things about Britain is the sheer range of different accents it produces) as well as people speaking English with accents from different countries. That’s helpful for learning to understand a diverse range of people, as well as working on your own English pronunciation.
But the best thing about having people from all over the world to talk to is that in the context of studying in one of Britain’s university cities, most of the people you’ll want to talk to will be your friends – and English might be the only language that you have in common. That provides a tremendous incentive and an opportunity to improve; friends are likely to have interesting things to say, and be forgiving of any mistakes that you make. One difficulty with studying English in other contexts is that it can be quite artificial; you’re learning phrases like, “at the weekend I like to go swimming” or similar, when that might be something you’d seldom have cause to say. Practising English by speaking to your friends is completely different, because – by definition – you’re learning to say things that you want to communicate.

3. The chance to learn academic English

Clare College, Cambridge.

Like any language, English has a wide variety of different styles and dialects, but you won’t learn most of them in a typical classroom. For instance, millions of people primarily speak African-American Vernacular English – or AAVE – but while you might encounter this type of English in films or in pop music, you’re unlikely ever to be taught it in a classroom setting. Studying in a British university city, surrounded by friends from all over the world, helps to counterbalance this to a certain extent, as you’re likely to be exposed to a much greater variety of accents and dialects than if you’re studying English in your home country, and your teacher is the only English speaker you regularly hear.
However, one particular type of English that you’re guaranteed to encounter in British university cities is academic English – and if you’re hoping to study at a university in an English-speaking country in future, getting to grips with academic English can be vital. What makes academic English distinct from other kinds of formal or more sophisticated English goes beyond the particular vocabulary used by academics; it also has its own style that means you can’t necessarily translate directly from academic texts in other languages. One way in which this is demonstrated is that academic English is typically understated. Academics writing in English will seldom say that a writer is “wrong”, but will instead point out specific failings in their argument and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions about its overall soundness.

The High Street, Oxford.

At its best, academic English prizes clarity: like other writers in English, academics are encouraged to avoid the passive voice, and to stick to simpler Anglo-Saxon vocabulary where possible, avoiding more complex Latinate words unless they are more to the point. The distinction between Anglo-Saxon and Latin-derived words in English is important as they have markedly different connotations, but you might never be taught this explicitly outside an academic context. There are countless more examples, such as essay styles and approaches to presenting an argument, where academic English differs from the academic norm in other languages.
Thankfully, British university cities are the natural place to learn all about academic English and how it’s used in everything from essays to presentations to academic roundtable discussions. If your teachers are graduates of British universities themselves, they’ll be able to help explain to you how to communicate in English in an academic setting, and may even be able to talk you through the application process to British universities as well.

4. Beautiful and inspiring architecture

The ruins of St Andrews Cathedral.

It’s true that being surrounded by stunning architecture probably doesn’t directly help you improve your English – but it can’t hurt to try, and there are few places with architecture more stunning than Britain’s university cities.
Best known for their architecture are Oxford and Cambridge; Oxford famously features an example of every architectural style from the Saxons to the present day, but because so much of it is built in Headington limestone, it feels harmonious. Cambridge doesn’t have a local stone, so its architecture is a little more eclectic, but still beautiful to behold. Some of the most beautiful views in Britain can be found in Oxford and Cambridge: the view from the Backs in Cambridge, of the Cam winding gently past the colleges and King’s College Chapel rising out of the early-morning mist; the view from South Park in Oxford, where you can admire the city’s dreaming spires; the view from the spire of each city’s university church, Great St Mary’s in Cambridge and St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, both of which let you admire the splendour of the medieval and modern architecture below.
Though on a smaller scale, St Andrews is no less beautiful than its more southerly equivalents. The ruins of the 12th century St Andrews Cathedral, abandoned following the Scottish Reformation, are awe-inspiring; it remains the largest church ever to have been built in Scotland. And the grand buildings of St Andrews University make it clear why JK Rowling decided that Hogwarts must be located in Scotland: from St Salvator’s Hall to St Mary’s College, the university’s architecture feels more imposing and less delicate than that of Oxford or Cambridge.

The Gherkin, London.

But of course, for architecture of all kinds, from the ancient to the hypermodern, London has to be on the list. If you’re interested in architecture, you’ll want to book a longer stay just to see it all, from landmark skyscrapers like the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie and the Shard (the irreverence of Londoners is evident in the nicknames) to the Palace of Westminster and the Norman castle of the Tower of London.
Living and studying in Britain’s university cities, it’s hard not to be uplifted and inspired by the beautiful buildings around you, getting to class with a spring in your step after seeing the sun rise over the Radcliffe Camera, or sitting in a medieval library where so many generations of students have gone before you. The experiences that Britain’s university cities can offer you are remarkable and memorable, and hard to find anywhere else in the world.
Images: Keble; Fitzwilliam; Merton; St Andrews coast; Millennium Bridge; Clare; Oxford high street; St Andrews cathedral; Gherkin.