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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Guest Post: What's it like to go and study languages at university?

Today's article comes from Tom, who you guys will hopefully remember since he gave us an insider's perspective on the UK A-Level exams in German and French a few weeks ago. I love this article and what it stands for - the positive feelings, great benefits and excitement of going to university. Plus here is someone who is building on a love for languages which will last him all his life. Let's see how Tom hopes university will feel. 

A new chapter: off to university!

tom p.jpg

After two very demanding years of preparing for the A-Level exams, I cannot believe that I have finally come to this point in my life, where I am off to university. I had always assumed that it was years away until I would get to that stage in my own life and I wouldn’t have to think about that just yet. It was in fact 6 years ago that my brother went to university! Now that the time is here, it’s a daunting but extremely exciting prospect. I’m leaving home seriously for the first time in my life, although I have the advantage of knowing what to expect thanks to those older in my family. 

A-Level results day now feels like it is far in the past, yet it was something that occurred very recently, only 2 or so weeks ago. Fortunately for me, I had no issues and I was successful in getting on to my course at my first choice university. Of course I am very pleased, and I look forward to commencing this new chapter in my life. As far as I am concerned, hard work does pay off! And all of the hours I put into doing extra work and revision definitely helped! 

A slight change-up? 

It will be tough and I will have to put in many hours but I know that the up and down battle will be so worth it at the end.

As mentioned in my previous post, it more or less felt natural and obvious for me to apply to study languages at university, but I wanted to do something different, a bit ‘out there’ and I simply wanted a change, so I decided to choose German and ab initio Russian (ab initio means completely from scratch). I had toyed with the idea of doing French and German but I thought that I could maintain and improve my French on my own now at this stage since I am still extremely fond of the French language and culture. For me, the French language and culture will always have a very special place in my heart as it is just so beautiful and it was the first language in which I could communicate with fluidity without having to constantly rack my brain for words or phrases.

Starting a new language will be a challenge, particularly since Russian is quite different from English. I am really looking forward to this challenge. It will be tough and I will have to put in many hours but I know that the up and down battle will be so worth it at the end when I hopefully come out speaking it well and fluently. But let’s wait and see, since I don’t know what the future holds in store for me yet!

Four years full of opportunity and one special year in particular

The highlight, as seems for many language undergraduates is the year abroad, living in one or more of the countries where the target language or languages are spoken. The opportunity to live abroad for a year is a great chance to not only sharpen up linguistic abilities but also get a deeper first hand on experience of the culture. Personally I really look forward to meeting new people from these countries. I hope to benefit as much as I can from what will be a once in a lifetime possibility to live abroad and not have to really worry about too much! By the end of my year abroad and eventually my degree, I would hope to be speaking very fluently. And in my opinion, it’s particularly important in language learning to master the intonation, rhythm and accent, so I hope that these would be of a very high level by the end of my degree.

At a time when the UK is crying out for people who are multilingual there seems to be no better time to be doing foreign languages at uni.

In addition to this, at a time when the UK is crying out for people who are multilingual there seems to be no better time to be doing foreign languages at uni. Not only will you be able to enhance your skills in so many different ways, but it seems the multilingual trait can take you wherever you want in life and whilst doing so, you will see life and the world in many beautiful different coloured spectrums and lights all just as beautiful as another.

To sum up, I feel so excited about this next part in my life, where I will be studying what I love and will be around like-minded individuals with great ideas. If you are off to university, I hope that your time there will be great and I am sure once everyone has finished there will be many awesome memories that will never leave us as we will one day remember our time as undergraduates!

Going to university like Tom?

Leave a comment, say hi and send your best wishes to Tom and all the other millions of students who are ready to start university life. 

Insider Post: What the A-Level exams were really like

 As promised, this week the blog will shed a little light on exams in the school system and today I'm extremely honoured to present you with some notes from the front line! Tom Pandolfino has been sweating over this year's A-Levels and he's now one of millions of students anxious to receive their results tomorrow. In today's blog post, Tom lets us in on his thoughts about the last two years of language in the school system, and whether he thinks it was worth it.

International Readers: A-Levels are the UK's school leaving exams at 18, the senior high school is called "Sixth Form", and GCSE are the ones at about 16. They love exams in this country. 

Judgement day...? Perhaps for some!

For many young students, tomorrow is seen as the 'make it or break it day'. It’s already that time of year again in which we as students receive our A-level results. There is much pressure upon us to get those grades in order to go to the university of our choice or to go on with future life achieving the best possible results. I am sure that many finger nails will have been bitten to shreds! 


Having worked hard for the past two years and particularly hard in the last year, the summer time came around and it was time for my exams. Being stressed is an understatement as to how I felt. I can safely say that this was a shared feeling for the majority of my friends and other students. You really feel like your whole life depends on these exams, however sometimes you just need to remind yourself that it is not the end of the world and that there really are much worse and more serious things in life than writing on a piece of paper in timed conditions. 

In my own case, I feel nervous about the results tomorrow, but I maintain the mindset that it is all done now and I tried my best, so I cannot be tough upon myself, whatever is to happen. Yet at the same time I am very much looking forward to getting my results as I want to go on with the next stage of my life and start a new chapter at university! 

The beginning of the past two years...  

After my GCSEs, I personally decided to continue with my studies in the form of A-levels as I hoped to go on to study at university. Having been successful in both French and German at GCSE level, I decided to take the plunge and continue them both on as two of my A-level choices. 

Foreign languages had always intrigued me whilst I was at school, and I got so much satisfaction in communicating with others as there is so much to be learnt about our wonderful world! I still find it thrilling now talking in a different language as it allows you to see and feel the world in a different light. My other subjects that I decided to study for A-Level along with my languages were Economics and Government and Politics. These were subjects that I chose as I thought they would be relevant to and linked with languages, in a modern and inter-linked global world.

So what are these exams really like?

I spent my two years of sixth form working up to the A-Level exams, and after a total of 8 exams in the exam season just gone, I can happily say that I feel they all went well! Some of course were harder than others and there are always parts of the exam paper itself that were very difficult. You know that dreaded after thought of ‘wait...should I have written this instead?’ or ‘was it actually A and not B?’ Perhaps though as far as I am concerned the most difficult exams are the writing exams for the languages.

It is my belief that the speaking exams remain the most nerve-racking even though I feel that is where I am strongest. At the end of the day, my favourite part about language learning is using the language face to face and getting stuck in to conversation. In these exams, I noticed how much confidence I had gained in speaking the languages as I really pushed myself throughout my last year of A-levels to not just get an A-level grade in my languages but to actually try and be able to really USE them. It is such a shame in my opinion that many people will leave school, often having studied a language and sometimes even to a fairly advanced level, such as A-level standard, but will never use their skill. They will just let their knowledge fade away. 

Find out if it was worth the work

It really did soon become quite clear to me that having studied both French and German, I had reached quite a high level of proficiency from having done my A-levels. I can by no means claim that I speak them perfectly and I do not understand every single word that I hear or read, but I have achieved an intermediate or upper intermediate level in both languages. With the internet at my disposal I can log on and quite confidently have conversations in these languages about most subjects with people around the world. Of course once again I do not know every specific word related to fixing a car or to sky diving but I can make myself understood. For me that, is my goal: to make myself understood as best as I can. Of course I would hope that by doing this and learning from my mistakes my linguistic abilities will improve as time goes on. 

All in all, I would say that having taken languages as two of my subjects, I have had great fun. It is tough work whatever someone decides to do for their A-levels but languages in particular will require a lot of commitment to really try and get the best possible grades.

If anyone reading this is unsure whether to take a language or two or even three (I know someone who did this) for their A-levels, go for it! You will benefit so much from being able to understand and communicate even at a basic level and it is so much fun! It further shows that you are not afraid of a challenge! But to all those who get their results tomorrow I wish you all the best and I hope that you all get the grades that you want and can like me go on to the university of your choice! 

 You can follow Tom on YouTube, and please do leave a comment to wish the guy good luck for tomorrow!

Why Destination PR can boost language learning and studying abroad alike

Okay, so here is a question for you:

Why are you learning a foreign language?

Think about it for a second.

Got something?

Is it travel-related?

Let's hope so! Travelling truly is one of the great benefits that can come out of language learning. You all know what I mean - the culture-specific words, the calendar events, the different ways a conversation will go. Experiencing life abroad is a dream for so many of us. The dream contains new beginnings, promises of success and amazing experiences. So with that in mind, what are we supposed to make out of this statistic?


Why wouldn't you do it?

Studying abroad has excellent benefits, such as improved language skills, employability and a whole new outlook on your life and career. So what's holding students back? Of course, we can partly blame this on a lack of language skills among university students. Some students might just not find themselves ready to spend a lot of time abroad, and others still will hesitate because it's not that cheap to spend a year abroad. (Phew, thank the EU for Erasmus grants!).

Illustrate the destination and you'll stay motivated for longer.

Illustrate the destination and you'll stay motivated for longer.

The role of the destination

In the study, this particular fact caught my eye: 29 per cent of UK students considering studying overseas selected the US as their first choice destination. Of course the ties between institutions in the US and the UK are strong and the language barrier is as low as it can be. But is there another factor at work?

I certainly think so. There is one fact that's equally true for studying abroad and language learning: We need more destination PR! In a world of carrying the internet in your handbag, it's not good enough to hope the saga of foreign lands will kick anyone into action. [Click to tweet this]

Secrets of ongoing motivation

I worked in marketing for ages and I learnt that the most important question for promoting something is "Why?". Just as with role models, destinations need to become more enticing and more obvious so that we can really feel we're setting our sights on something. Every language learner needs a reason to persevere when the dip hits. Weathering that is one of the keys to success, and I believe that learning more about the destination will keep you going.

In terms of action and practice, this means surrounding yourself with what you find interesting about the place and the people. Tourist brochures, films and radio stations are great - and of course native speaker friends will be even better!

If we're supposed to become true global citizens and boost numbers of language learners and students studying abroad, we will have to put as much into destination PR as we can.

Some interesting articles on this topic:

Why a languages graduate is your next great job candidate

Languages are used in every sector of the UK economy, and in the public and voluntary sectors as well as in private enterprise.
— British Academy

Here in the UK, Higher Education has become increasingly focused on the "employability" aspects of a degree. It's really a worldwide trend, and subjects like languages suffer as students turn to "Business Studies" to make sure they get a job afterwards. Having spent the last five years advising prospective students on their choice of study, let me fly the flag for the quirky subject choice. Here is what I think you should know before interviewing a languages graduate.

    They add value

    You only need English to buy a beer in Spain, but that won't do for business. In fact, the British Academy has found strong evidence of what they call a growing language deficit in the UK. We're in a big recession and business must look for the money, so if it's abroad, your best route in is with a few experts.

    They aren't sheep

    According to HESA, only 5.4% of all UK students take a language so unless you happen to hire a graduate who's a native speaker of another language you will have someone who is used to thinking as an individual and going against trends. And those are great attributes.

    They are trained communicators

    Today's Modern Languages degrees do more. Students are taken out of the classroom, present bilingual reports, produce accurate language in lab sessions and discuss what's going on in another country's news. Getting straight on the phone to your overseas agents should be a tried and tested experience for them.

    They are independent

    Language degrees in most countries contain a compulsory stay at a host university or a host enterprise in the target language country. What this means for an employer is that a candidate who has spent considerable time living and coping abroad. They are likely to be self-motivated, reliable and able to adapt to new situations.

    They are ahead of others

    Language graduates have gone through 3-4 years of intensive training in many aspects of their chosen language, and it's not something that can be learnt on the job. I've often heard that most practical skills can be taught to a new employee within a few months, but becoming fluent in a new language? Not likely. Well, unless you are Benny Lewis I guess.

    Alex France (on  Flickr )

    Alex France (on Flickr)


    Dear parents and recruiters. I am in no way implying that all of us languages graduates are all of the above. Just hoping.

    Today's post was inspired by this interesting group blog I have come across recently. It's called Kanzilingua, apparently named after a an ape who's able to communicate in English. The blog features over 30 contributors, most of which are drawn from the UK's Modern Languages student community. Kanzilingua is worth a visit this month as they've declared March their careers month.

    *Cultural note: The UK university system will require students to focus in on their major from year 1 of their degree. No declaring halfway through a sophomore year here!