Are you thinking of studying Languages?
It’s hard to say whether it’s an excellent or terrible time to be studying modern foreign languages at university at the moment.
On the one hand, with dwindling student numbers, university language departments are facing significant budget cuts and some are closing down entirely. On the other hand, this means that the scarcity of graduates with a degree in a foreign language is only going to increase and the current middle-of-the-road job prospects of language graduates should take a boost as demand increasingly begins to outstrip supply.
There are two ways of studying a language: you can either take a course that assumes A-level knowledge of the language you wish to study, or you can take it ab initio, which means you start learning it from scratch. The difference between the two can be smaller than you expect, particularly for Indo-European languages like French, Spanish, German and Italian, which are relatively easy for native English speakers to learn.
Additionally, languages are a popular choice for dual/joint honours degrees, such as History and/with French. Some universities will allow you to split your time 50:50 between the two subjects, whereas others will require you to study a major and a minor. You might even wish to study two languages in this way.
What kind of things can I expect to study?
Competence in languages
In your first year especially, much of your course will focus simply on the core skills of speaking, reading, writing and listening, and getting those up to scratch. This is likely to be the case even if you already have an A-level in the relevant language.
Your degree will cover some linguistic theory; you might learn something about how the language you are studying evolved, and possibly even study some of its predecessors, such as Old Norse for Icelandic or Latin for Italian.
At most universities, a significant majority of a language degree, once you’ve mastered the basics, will be concerned with the study and analysis of literature – much like an English degree, but in a foreign language. You won’t have quite as huge a reading list as English students do; one text per week or per fortnight is usual, rather than one text per week per module – but it will still stack up to an awful lot of reading.
What do I need for a Language degree?
As discussed above, for languages ab initio you don’t even need to have studied the language before. However, you will almost certainly need to demonstrate your ability to learn languages and your commitment to doing so in some manner, such as an A-level in another language. You might find that you get an offer that specifies a minimum grade in whichever language it is you’re studying, even if that’s not the one you intend to study at university. Additionally, most universities won’t let you take two languages ab initio. However, universities are often prepared to be more flexible with language candidates than other applicants, so it is often worth emailing your department of choice to see if they might consider an application from you, even if you think they’re likely to say no.
Beyond that, you will need the skills required for any humanities degree: an interest in reading and writing, an ability to motivate yourself and manage your own time even if you don’t have that many lecture hours, and a sense of open-mindedness and willingness to learn. It can be hard to motivate yourself when studying a language in the knowledge, for instance, that nearly 150 million Russians will probably always be able to speak Russian better than you (something that is probably no less disheartening with 320,000 Icelanders and Icelandic). In these instances, extra commitment and a real love of the language you’re learning and the country it will enable you to get to know is immensely helpful.
What skills will I acquire?
Obviously, you will acquire fluency in your language of choice and extensive knowledge of the history and culture of the country or countries associated with it. You will also gain skills in research, writing and literary analysis. You’ll learn how to present your ideas in a compelling and informative way. You will also almost certainly spend a year abroad, so you’ll learn how to navigate and fit in to a different culture and adapt to a different way of life.
Will I get to travel as part of my degree?
Yes – a year abroad in a country that speaks the language you’re studying is almost always a compulsory part of studying a language. You will also be encouraged to spend as many holidays as possible immersed in the language you’re learning. For languages like Czech, you’ll know right away which country you’ll be going to, but for languages that are more widely spoken, such as French or Spanish, there might be quite a range of different destinations available to you.
What careers are possible with a Language degree?
Careers such as translation and interpretation are directly related to language degrees. However, they may be on the front line of careers that will be phased out – or at least have the number of jobs in the field significantly reduced – as a result of increased computing capabilities; programmes that offer live translation already exist, and while those translations frequently have errors, they have the advantage of speed over human translators and they’re only going to get better.
However, businesses of all stripes are still crying out for language graduates, including traditional languages like French and German that are often dismissed as being irrelevant or unnecessary in the modern world. Having a language degree is a distinct advantage on graduate training scheme applications, particularly in areas that have significant international operations, such as banking, energy and technology.
If you’re thinking of studying languages, you might also be interested in:
- English Literature – the overlap between studying foreign languages at a higher level and studying English Literature is greater than you might realise.
- Classics – if your interest in languages remains regardless of whether they’re living or not.
A final thought on Languages
Numbers may be falling but language degrees are more valued and useful than ever. Spending three or four years immersing yourself in a foreign language and a foreign culture is a great way to set yourself apart from your peers and ready yourself for life in a world that is becoming smaller and more globalised every day.
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