The Raised Faculty Building on Sidgwick Site Louis Ashworth

About to start a languages degree? I'm a current second-year MML student. I took French and ab initio (from scratch) Italian last year, and here are a few things I learned along the way about how to get the most out of the first year.

There’s no doubt about it, the first year of MML is supervision-heavy. This is something I had no idea about before starting the course, and something which definitely took me by surprise when I arrived: I suddenly had emails from supervisors about classes I didn’t even know I would be having. I tended to have about five or six supervisions every week (I think my record was eight for a single week once!), and would regularly have three in a day, in different languages.

One piece of advice I can recommend for keeping on top of all of the supervisions is to establish a routine as quickly as you can. For example, I knew that after my Italian grammar supervision every week, I would always spend some time preparing for my French oral supervision taking place two days later. Of course, this doesn’t always work in practice — I still had three essays to write in one weekend once, due to some very poor time management — but it’s definitely a good start. Supervisions can be mentally exhausting, especially if you have several in a day, so taking time to recharge afterwards is really important.

Speaking up in my classes and supervisions really changed the way I experienced the contact hours I had

Studying a language ab initio brings along its own set of challenges. It can feel very overwhelming walking into that first class in Michaelmas term, and leaving knowing only a few more words than when you walked in. I remember wondering how it would be possible that by the end of the year I would actually be able to speak Italian. However, with a lot of grammar work and fast-paced classes, it really does begin to happen. One of the joys of the ab initio course is studying literature, and while it can feel overwhelming at the beginning to be faced with a seminal work in a language you hardly understand, the close work you do with the language over the year will eventually begin to make the literature more accessible — just hang in there! But in hindsight, although I enjoyed my year, there are a few things I would have done differently over the year to minimise stress and learn in the most efficient way possible.

Don't worry about doing every single grammar exercise you are given precisely when you’re given it. In my experience, every single class came with pages and pages of grammar exercises, and it was simply unrealistic to hope to complete them all. When you find yourself overrun with grammar work, I would suggest concentrating on the core grammar rules from your course textbook, and then completing as many of the exercises that you’re set as you can. To keep those you don’t manage to complete during term-time, and completing them over the vacations instead, is a great way to consolidate what you did in class, and means you don’t have to worry about finding too much more material.

Speaking up in my classes and supervisions really changed the way I experienced the contact hours I had. I’m not somebody who finds it easy to speak up, and the pace of classes meant I didn’t have time to prepare everything I wanted to say in the foreign language in my head before the topic had moved on and I’d missed my opportunity. I was (and am) acutely aware that I needed to speak in order to get the most out of teaching time, and I also wanted to speak and improve my confidence.

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One method I adopted to encourage myself to speak up was setting personal goals. After being more silent than I wanted to be during Michaelmas term, I set myself the unusual new year’s resolution of aiming to contribute at least once in every ‘Use of French’ class for the rest of the year. I found that this method worked really well for me, as having a tangible goal that I had set for each class meant that I knew whether or not I was achieving what I set out to. This transformed the way I experienced my classes. I was now actively thinking and preparing responses in my mind as the class went on, as well as engaging more actively with the material. I felt my confidence grow and I even began to enjoy contributing. If you’re someone who is quiet, like I am, I really recommend this kind of personal goal-setting.

One thing I wish I had done from the beginning of the year was approach my teachers and supervisors when I was struggling with something. I would convince myself that it wasn’t important, or I could work it out by myself, or “do I really need to understand that grammar point, or can I just hope it doesn’t come up ever again?” I could have saved myself some time —whatever it is, it probably will come up again, and it was within my control to make sure I understood it. I was initially nervous to approach my supervisors and teachers outside of supervisions and classes, but I finally took the plunge at the end of Michaelmas term when there was a topic we had looked at in a supervision that I was excited by and wanted to know more about. I quickly came to understand that my supervisors and teachers were always only an email away. There were moments when I felt I wasn’t making progress, especially in my post-A Level language, and it’s natural to feel this way at times when learning a language at a high level. Conversations with my supervisors helped to remind me that I was doing the right things, and encouraged me to keep pushing myself to improve.


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My biggest piece of advice to anybody starting a languages degree would be to enjoy it. It’s such a varied degree, and it’s exciting to study everything from history and literature to philosophy and linguistics in your first year, all while improving your skills in two languages. There’s a lot I still haven’t worked out — my system for recording vocabulary, for example, is non-existent, and I want to try to find a method that works for me this year. Visiting the countries where your languages are spoken puts all the work you do over the year into perspective, and really makes it worth it.

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