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Why you shouldn’t study a language at university

Students hoping to become fluent after studying a language at university will be left disappointed.

Languages hours USyd's language programs leave students far short of fluent.

Watashi wa ringo ga suki desu.

I like apples. That was the first sentence I ever wrote in Japanese. Grammatically simple, but to be able to express a thought in another language remained deeply satisfying for my 12 year old self, as if I had unlocked a new region of my brain. Six years and many linguistic eureka moments later, I was able to hold a sustained, semi-realistic conversation in Japanese, and write essays about topics ranging from the benefits of being an only child to the dangers of social media. Of course, I still couldn’t read the newspaper or watch a Japanese movie without subtitles, but overall, I was happy with where I was in terms of my language ability after the HSC, and cautiously optimistic about where I was heading.

Then I got to university. The eureka moments dried up and I stopped speaking or writing in Japanese for two years. And it was my major. Towards the end of second year, as I took Japanese exchange students around Sydney, I realised I couldn’t even ask how long they would be in Australia for. 

While many prospective university students will be excited at the opportunity to learn a language after school, the sad reality is that, save for superhuman motivation or an immersive exchange experience, you will not become fluent. Far from it.

The problems with language learning at university relate to both the inherent difficulty of learning languages, and also to the way they’re currently taught. While humans have an innate capacity for language, to relearn as an adult the basics of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, things we take for granted in our native tongue, is not easy. It requires patience, intelligence, and most importantly, discipline. While children supposedly have the luxury of a more receptive brain, their biggest advantage is not neurological, but educational. 

If a student has completed the HSC Continuers level course for a language, they would have done at least 600 hours of classroom time by the end of it, with 120 of those hours happening in year 12. In contrast, at university, where the semester time is shorter and the course load smaller, a language student will normally complete only 78 hours (3 hours a week for two semesters) of dedicated classroom study. From the outset, university students have much less to work with than they would have in high school. 

Of course, it can be argued that an important part of tertiary education is the ability to self study and be self-disciplined. While this is undoubtedly true, the lax, self-directed nature of tertiary education is not at all conducive to language learning, which requires a level of consistent discipline and rote learning perhaps only a high school student can handle. While in theory someone who puts in a lot of study in their own time in addition to their tutorials and lectures could probably develop the level of fluency their course description prescribes, that same student could just download Duolingo and do an hour of exercises everyday. The result would be the same. People choose to study languages at university because they’re expecting a degree of structure and guidance that a phone application just doesn’t provide.  

My first year “reading” tutorials for Japanese involved the tutor going around the class and making everyone each read a sentence from the weekly passage in the textbook. You would spend the majority of the 50 minutes in silence, and when your turn came, you would read your sentence aloud for maybe 10 seconds — if you were lucky. Then class would finish, and you wouldn’t speak any Japanese until the next reading class. There was no discussion in Japanese about the content of the piece, nor any emphasis on actually understanding what you just read. Vocabulary building was relegated to a weekly online quiz which only tested whether you knew what a word meant and how it was pronounced, and not how to actually use it. 

Most infuriatingly, classes revolving around speaking, deceptively named “communication class,” involved no actual speaking but the filling out of pointless worksheets and acting out unrealistic scenarios to a pre-written script. By the senior units, it seemed that no one in the class could hold a conversation in Japanese anymore, so we just sat sheepishly and chatted in English, with the tutor doing nothing to stop it. The focus on speaking that high school language study places such a huge emphasis on very much disappears at university. 

But while my problem was that classes didn’t have enough Japanese, some students have found the complete opposite. Horror stories quickly circle in first year about introductory Spanish being taught entirely in Spanish despite many incoming students having no knowledge of the language. In Chinese, many students have spoken of native speakers managing to bypass prohibitions to get into beginner level units, diminishing the experience for beginners. And it’s well known that first year French requires its students to read a novel in French after only one semester.

While I don’t want to generalise my experience to all languages taught at university, I still believe the biggest problem with language learning at university isn’t that it’s too hard, but that the expectations on students are too low, such that it’s entirely possible to graduate majoring in a language without having anything close to fluency. Personally, the best thing about my Japanese major was that I could go on exchange and study the language not in Australia. Had I not gone, like so many of my friends, I would have left university with a piece of paper but nothing to show for it. 

Perhaps the problem of language learning at university is the whole idea of fluency itself. While students of modern languages languish in their studies, students of ancient languages seem to be relishing in them.Latin and Ancient Greek students seem to be enamoured with both the languages and the people that teach them, with a friend describing the latter as “ridiculously overqualified.” The academic nature of studying ancient languages, which involves copious amounts of translation and almost mathematical grammar exercises, seems to be much better suited to the self-directed nature of university. Without the need to ever have to hold a conversation or write a business email in Latin, Classics students seem to be spared some of the biggest shortcomings of modern language learning — the difficulty of transferring classroom learning to practical results.

Once the dream of fluency is taken out of the equation, it’s easy to see the benefits of trying to learn a language. It’s intellectually stimulating, whether you’re working out verb conjugation in Japanese or trying to decipher a long, winding sentence in French. It’s culturally enriching, and many students, though unhappy with their language units, have praised how interesting many of the cultural units are. And sometimes, when the stars align for the right student, who has the right amount of determination and linguistic ability, it could very well lead to fluency. 

In a time where Sydney University  is relentlessly pushing forward the idea that its degrees are practical and “graduate quality” enhancing, it’s strange how a language education at the University is nothing of the sort. Of course, if your motivation to study a language is to be able to have a basic conversation with someone, or because you’ll be travelling to a country which speaks it, or because you just want to give yourself a challenge, by all means go for it. However if you go in expecting to leave with “full working proficiency”, maybe it’s better to temper your expectations. To any language learner, fluency will always be more a possible bonus than a concrete end result.

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