Are you thinking of going to university or college to study an undergraduate course in a new language from scratch (“ab initio”)? Are you soon to start such a course as a freshman and wondering what to expect? I’ve had a revealing conversation on just this with undergraduate student Harry Ness and the video is at the bottom of this post. Harry started Russian when he arrived at the University of Cambridge. He combined this with German, which he had already taken to “A level” (high school graduation level). His experience and advice will help whatever language you’re thinking of taking.
Here are some of the key points I took from our conversation:
Harry’s Cambridge course required him to do two languages 50:50 (until the fourth year when students could just take one forward) and Harry had to choose which language to combine with German. There were “push” and “pull” factors which steered him from French, Spanish and Italian (the other options) to Russian.
> Make sure your positive reasons for choosing your new language are strong, because you’re going to be doing a lot of it.
> Take any pre-course prep that is required seriously….
….There’s a reason for it, and that’s the pace they hit you with on day one. Yes, the first year of intensive study of a new language can be really hard work. Four of the students dropped out of Harry’s Russian course in the first week.
At times in the first year Harry was working a sixty hour week (including German studies as well, but 80% of this went on Russian). This paid off, though, as progress was very fast. The group was reading Pushkin in the original in week six (although not understanding everything). As Harry says, the first year was “absolute torture in terms of the pace that we had to study but I absolutely love the fact that I now speak Russian”.
> You’ll have to work very hard, but you can expect to make really rapid progress as a result.
Harry was used to tackling languages on his own, by putting emphasis on speaking from the start. At Cambridge he had only two hours a week speaking classes. At the beginning there was far more emphasis on grammar exercises, which had to be handed in. Later on, speaking skills are only a very minor part of your final Cambridge degree classification.
Yet being forced to learn in a new way helped Harry get clearer on what works for him and how he’ll learn other languages in future. Plus: he feels he has an excellent grounding in Russian grammar.
> Check out the teaching methods your university uses so you know what to expect.
> Check the emphasis of your course carefully before your apply. Is it mainly literature based….or focussed on business language….or linguistic analysis….or what? How much choice do you have to determine the balance?
The aim at Cambridge was for ab initio students to reach “A level” by the end of the first year. Harry estimates himself well into intermediate level for reading by that stage. He felt the group’s listening and speaking skills really lagged behind their reading at this point.
In response, Harry did a summer course “in his own time”, at the end of the second year summer vacation. By the third year estimated himself as at an “upper intermediate” level (B2) and felt able to use the Russian socially. He was going to a meet up of Russian speakers in Trier (Germany) regularly.
> If your course balance isn’t quite your ideal, keep an open mind. You can still use your initiative to get extra practice and exposure in areas of interest to you that are not stressed, as Harry did with speaking.
Harry says that those who had only studied a language like Spanish before often struggled with the Russian case system. Other students were “front-runners”, because they had done Polish at school (Britain has a large migrant Polish community) or had already had experience of Russian before.
> Be prepared for a range of abilities on the course or, perhaps more to the point, a range of backgrounds.
> Read about how your language works before you go and get familiar with the technical terms you’ll need to be able to talk about it.
My final question to Harry is the clincher: would he do it again?
This was his answer:
Absolutely. Not a doubt in my mind…. I understand how [Russian] works as a language because of the amount of hours that I was forced to put in that I would never had put in if I had just decided to study Russian on my own….It was such a good decision to pick a difficult language to do under supervision and under guidance.
Have a listen and let me know your response or feel free to ask questions in the comments below (or by email – contact details in the “About” page, above). Are you about to start a similar course? If you’ve done one, would YOU advise others to follow your path?
In the first of our conversations, Harry and I talked about getting the most out of your undergraduate “year abroad”, drawing on his experiences as a student of German (and English teaching assistant) in Trier. You can check it out here. Now back to the current interview – here it is: