Runner-up of the student award 2010: Studying languages, linguistics or area studies at university: a guide for new students

Author: India-Chloe Woof


India-Chloe Woof, a 3rd year French and Linguistics student at the University of Sheffield, was a runner up in the Subject Centre's undergraduate student award competition 2010.

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India-Chloe Woof

Studying languages, linguistics or area studies at university: a guide for new students

Cast your mind back to 22 September 2007. Do you know what you were doing on that day? I do. Aged 18, I was moving into the real world. That’s to say the world of university halls of residence. Clutching my newly acquired A-level certificates, wondering who my flatmates would be, whether my course mates would be friendly, if I would be able to survive with my frighteningly basic cooking skills, it was not the idea of studying, much less, reading, for a degree which occupied my mind.

This was the first of many errors that I (along with countless other students, past and present) have gone on to make during the first three years of a French and Linguistics degree. It is these mistakes that have helped me to get where I am now, living and working in Paris. I hope you don’t mind if I share a few of the other mishaps with you, hopefully to enlighten you about what to expect, and better still, to give you an idea of what not to do. You may well go on to make the same mistakes anyway, but hopefully you will be able to do so in a slightly more informed manner.

Firstly, let’s go back to basics. For me, that means thinking back to 4 October 2007. I walk in to the second class of the semester, oblivious that everyone has the workbooks we were given last class, and is comparing notes. “The professor didn’t set any homework, did he?” I ask the girl next to me. “It’s not homework here, it’s just class preparation,” she says. Lecturers do expect you to have done the extra reading, prepared your work for class, and be ready to discuss it. If they call on you during a seminar and you haven’t done the work, you probably won’t want to repeat the subsequent feeling; I know I never have.

..."There is just no substitute for native speaker exposure"...


Fast forward to January, the last day before my first university deadline. Not only do I not have an essay to submit tomorrow for “Introduction to French Cinema”, I also do not have a copy of the film we are analysing. In the end, I managed to get a less than average mark, but this experience of panic, stress and pure fear has made me be super careful to start everything in good time. 

Skip forward even further, I’m in second year. This time the embarrassment is – miraculously - not my own. In the library, I have just shown one of my third year friends how to navigate the online book catalogue, and subsequently find the right floor and shelf that holds the publication she was after. She then has to ask me, “how do I take this book out on loan?” Don’t let this be you. Learning to use the library is one of the most important things I have ever done at university, it opens the door to a whole new world of knowledge. After all, we are reading for a degree.

Later, a professor asked a lecture theatre full of students, “I’m assuming you have all heard about the riots in France?” The sea of blank faces that stared back at him must have been, to say the least, disappointing. It’s the best feeling in the world when you know what that professor is talking about, and the best way to achieve that is to read the news in your target language, and for developments in linguistics, read academic journals. It’s so simple, yet very effective.  

Going all the way back to the Christmas holidays 2007, I am sat in my bedroom at home, searching frantically on the internet for sources for my structure of English essay. My error here, I realised much too late, was not getting a copy of the professor’s bibliography from his lectures, and using this as a starting point for my search criteria on the University’s document database. I ended up using Wiki answers as one of my references on this occasion, and in doing so signed myself up for the wrath of a lecturer whose pet hate is Wikipedia. Be warned, most professors will fall into this category.

Race forward to the first French departmental social of 2009, and I find myself faced with what should be a language student’s dream - a native speaker. Instead of talking to them, however, I find myself making my excuses and going to the bathroom. I bet you can’t guess my error this time, and it’s one you probably don’t even realise you’re making: you don’t have confidence in your own language abilities, and you are terrified of making mistakes. A year on, and I’m living in Paris, and I am so glad that I turned around on my way to the toilets and returned to the conversation speaking French. There is just no substitute for native speaker exposure.

Rewind again and it’s 14 December 2007. In a Linguistics seminar, one of my peers puts his hand up during a verb tree exercise and asks “what is a noun?” The tutor’s response:”Get out of my seminar, get yourself a grammar book, and come back when you’ve read it.” Brilliant advice, and whilst you’re at the bookshop, buy yourself a good dictionary as well. Whether you’re a linguistics or languages student, your dictionary will be your best friend, so it’s definitely worth making an investment. Don’t end up like me, wasting your money on several lacking dictionaries before paying for a good one, just get a good one first time.

Finally, let’s think back to 3 of November 2008, and I have managed to make it to my 9 am French language seminar, only to discover we are having a vocabulary test. Luckily, it is in groups and I don’t do badly enough for it to be noticeable. It did make me realise, however, that I had not sat down with my vocabulary book (yes, at least I had thought to keep one of those!) and learn any words in a very long time. This is a bad habit to be avoided if you fancy doing well in your degree!

Now, I’m in my third year and all these experiences have lead me to living in Paris, having the best year of my life. I make mistakes on a daily basis, yet it is these errors, and all the previous ones I have made, that help to make me who I am today; an enthusiastic, high achieving Language and Linguistics student. So what’s stopping you from being that too?