Studying languages

Studying languages at university or college level today means more than opening your course syllabus for a quick read while your teacher installs his beamer. Institutions have made student awareness a priority by adopting an ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) for all courses and the rise of international exchanges has pushed employers, businesses, schools and all teaching institutions towards a Common European Framework of Reference for Languages:

  • The ECTS should allow students to estimate their time-investment for each course more accurately. This means that credits for a course can be very high (as much as its importance in a student’s 60 ECTS curriculum) but does not necessarily mean that students are required to attend many courses. In this case students should understand that sufficient individual preparation outside auditoriums or seminaries is critical. This is especially so when studying languages, as every student evolves at individual pace in each of the 4 linguistic skills.


  • The 4 linguistic skills; listening comprehension, reading comprehension, speaking and writing may need more or less focus according to an academic year (BA1 > MA2), according to study options and career goals but above all according to a student’s individual experience (academic or not).


  • To help students and teachers successfully reach their program targets, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages describes 6 stages in language practice. These are commonly used for assessment and feedback in both education and profession:
    • A1 & A2: Basic User: very simple interactions with everyday expressions, in concrete situations, slow and clear.
    • B1 & B2: Independent User: understanding and expressing more complex content, linking, contrasts, causality, implicit meaning,…
    • C1 & C2: Proficient User: fluent and precise understanding and expression in professional context, summarised, well structured,…

(For a more detailed description and self assessment in your mother tongue please visit: EUROPASS)

In order to improve their level consistently through the years, BA1 students especially should focus first on the language skills they feel are weakest. It will allow them to progress more steadily and faster in all 4 linguistic skills afterwards. Eventually or at some point every student will be asked to give a presentation in or write an article in the language he or she studies. This requires years of hard work and preparation and will not work out as planned if you decide to neglect one of the 4 skills!

Read through the following categories to discover advice on how to “study” a language.





The good news with studying languages is that you can boost your skills outside the classroom by absorbing as much information as you can from external stimuli such as reading a book or watching a film.

  • But it doesn’t always have to be as time-consuming; watching a commercial, a youtube video or just reading a news article online once in a while is already a great contribution to your skills!
  • Introducing the language in your hobbies or passion is also a combination that has helped many a student overcome linguistic obstacles. The best language students are those who have travelled, practised sports or actually DONE anything with the language outside University or College walls.
  • If you have the chance to, apply for an ERASMUS programme abroad in one of the countries where the studied language is spoken. Deciding on which institution, country,… etc. takes time, so why not start making plans ASAP. It will only motivate you sooner and improve your immediate results. Studying something without knowing why is a waste of time!
  • Don’t stay alone. Your fellow students are perfect ‘guinea pigs’ for testing your interaction skills and preparing for more complex activities such as giving presentations. Working together in small teams offers many advantages that reach beyond language skills.



You don’t really STUDY a language like you study History or Law. Of course studying parts of a course’s content can help you be more confident and it will definitely be useful to structure what you’ve acquired during the year on the day of your examination. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

  • Stay informed. Try to attend 80% of all courses to improve your chances of success. Teacher feedback on your weekly preparations and outdoor experience is necessary to eliminate faulty habits.
  • Effective note-taking. Don’t try to write down everything – it’s simply impossible. Use keywords and schematic representation (a.k.a. mind – mapping)  to make information and links explicit. Don’t write down what you hear – only what you understand!
  • Be prepared. When courses can be anticipated, students should seize the opportunity to briefly read through the course material to improve their understanding and raise questions faster.
  • Be punctual. A lecture’s first 15 minutes are the building blocks for the whole activity. If you miss out on them, you won’t get the outlines or objectives and the lesson is pointless.
  • Effective reading. Underline, highlight important parts, keywords or concepts. Focus on the essence – don’t try to translate everything at once. Then try to summarise as much as you can. Write down possible questions.
  • Critical thinking. Language is meant as a tool to convey information. Contents are of as much importance as the language itself, which is why you need to keep in mind at least following questions:
    • What’s the overall topic?
    • What’s the conclusion?
    • Which facts oppose each other?
    • Is the author neutral?
    • Can I agree? For which reasons?
    • Have I read or do I know of any other related sources?
  • Presentations. 
    • Choose your personal topic or at least develop it independently
    • Start with a mind map of the several aspects you’ll deal with (use it in your presentation software; powerpoint, keynote,… )
    • Think about the goal of your presentation. Informing, convincing and instructing are the 3 main purposes a presentation can have.