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Getting Ready for Oxbridge: Language students

Want to get a head start before you begin your Oxford or Cambridge language course? Read on for 5 tips to make sure you have the perfect start to your time at university!

Oxford college where language students study

It’s time to pack the sunglasses, shorts and swimsuits away for another year, because summer’s drawing to a close! Soon-to-be-undergraduates will need to swap out the beachwear for their newly purchased textbooks, stationery and maybe even one or two jumpers emblazoned with your new university’s logo (classic undergrad apparel).

Students heading to Oxbridge in October after the challenging interview and application process might be panicking slightly about how to prepare for their first year in a very challenging new academic environment, especially if you haven’t been coached on Oxbridge by your school! This can be especially daunting if you are doing a course ab initio (literally ‘from the beginning’), meaning studying a subject you haven’t formally studied before.

This mostly applies to language students in the MML (Modern and Medieval Languages) or Asian Languages departments (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies in Cambridge; Oriental Studies in Oxford) departments at either university, because there are a wide range of ab initio, ‘learning-from-scratch’ courses on offer in these departments in languages you might not have had the opportunity to study in school. These range from Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew and Persian in the AMES/Oriental Studies faculties, to a choice of European languages in the MML faculty which can be learnt ab inito in addition to a language you did study at school. So how do you prepare for these courses, when you may have never studied the subject formally before and don’t have A*s in their equivalent A Level courses to reassure you?

Check your preparatory reading list

It’s possible that a reading list has been made available for you to work through over the summer before the course begins in October. This is definitely the case for AMES in Cambridge, and you can find the preparatory reading lists for all subject areas on their website (here is the Japanese Studies prep reading list, for example). AMES is a fairly small faculty, so the list is set by the faculty itself, but in larger departments like MML the reading lists might be set by your Director of Studies at college. So, check your inbox for any emails from you DoS with recommended or required readings. It’s possible they’ve set you some preparatory work to complete too – so keep an eye out!

It’s a really good idea to read through as much of the preparatory readings as you have time for, because although you might not use all of the information you learn, reading them will make you feel confident and sufficiently knowledgeable on your general subject area when you walk into the faculty on the first day. Language courses aren’t just language courses, they focus on the culture and history of their regions too, so you shouldn’t forget these parts of the readings. Gaining this initial confidence in your subject is invaluable – confidence is key to being successful!

Learn your alphabets

Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew… they all have one thing in common: new writing systems! If you’ve selected these languages for ab initio study then it will be required that you learn the writing systems before you arrive. This is because learning them is quite difficult to teach (it’s basically a case of memorisation) and so arriving on the first day fully confident in the alphabets will save essential teaching time. For languages such as Chinese and Japanese which both use Chinese characters, you won’t be expected to know thousands of characters, but you might be expected to know basic ones.

You might think this only applies to students learning languages which don’t employ the Latin alphabet – not the case! If you’re learning French, German, Spanish or any other Latin alphabet-based language, it’s expected that you’ll have a solid understanding of pronunciation of each letter before you start! So, if you can, do a bit of phonics practice and you’ll wow on your first day.

Devise an efficient vocab-learning system

One of the most challenging things about starting at Oxbridge is the frequently huge workload which will arrive at your doorstep. For linguists, one of the most work-heavy areas of your studies will be learning vocabulary – I learned upwards of 140 words a week in my first year! So having a well thought-out and efficient vocab learning system in place before you arrive will make you really prepared for your first term – without one you might spend the first few weeks figuring out the best memorisation method rather than focusing on the words themselves, and it might be more difficult to balance your language work with your essay work.

Luckily for linguists, there are loads of methods and materials available to learn vocabulary. Apps can come in really handy – Anki, Memrise and Quizlet are commonly used by language students for this exact purpose. Using these, you can make flash cards, download vocab lists, and practice vocab on the go. For students of Chinese and Japanese, you can use Skritter to practice drawing characters as well as learning their meanings and pronunciations. While it’s not free, Skritter is highly useful for those of us learning logographs – I used it throughout my degree!

You don’t have to download an app if that’s not your style, though. Having a designated vocabulary jotter or notepad and allocating an hour or so every day to write out new words repeatedly can do you just as well.

Keep up-to-date on your focus-country in the news over the summer

Sometimes it can be easy to get swept up in the language and forget that you’re not just going to university to learn vocabulary and grammar, you’re going to be studying entire countries or regions, as well as their histories and cultures! This particularly applies if you’re studying at the AMES or Oriental Studies faculties – their courses are filled to the brim with history, literature, and politics modules. MML is more literature than history or politics based, but it’s still good to have a good grasp of the area or areas where your focus-language is spoken as it will inform a lot of your work.

Subsequently, it’s a good idea to keep up-to-date on current news stories connected to your countries. Look out for political developments, social issues, cultural events and have a little read about them. The news can act as an excellent source, and it’s a fairly low-stress way to feel like you’re preparing for your studies!

Look for a conversation partner!

If you’re going to be studying a language that you have already learned up to A Level, then finding a conversation partner over the summer can be an excellent way to keep your language level up. On top of this, it’s way more fun to speak your language with your new-found friend on the beach than to lock yourself up in your room pouring over old A-Level textbooks! Apps like HelloTalk are really good for finding language partners in your local area – if you’re keen to start speaking French, German or any other language like a boss then why not give it a try?

For ab initio students, it might be a bit of a stretch to look for a conversation partner. Why not start exposing yourself to the spoken language by popping on Netflix and looking at what films and TV shows they have in your focus-language instead? Prepping for uni never seemed so easy!

Hopefully this will help anyone out there about to start their language studies at Oxbridge (or indeed any similar language courses in the UK). And just know that if I can do it having barely studied Japanese at all before I started, then you can too!


Blog Post Crafted by Madeleine

Madeleine is an experienced languages tutor.

Despite the fact that she read Japanese at university, Madeleine’s main passion in life is opera and she hopes to become the next Maria Callas some day...


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