You’ve whittled your three or four A-Level subjects down to one or two, or abandoned them completely in favour of something brand new. About to be thrown into an unfamiliar academic environment, it’s tempting to try to keep your old subjects as part of your studies. Languages in particular seem difficult to let go of, and for good reason. Knowing another language is useful, and if you’ve been through the British education system, unusual. A language needs constant attention whether you want to improve or maintain your level of understanding, and it’s possible, if a tad time-consuming, to do so.
For fairly casual language upkeep, watching films and TV shows in your target language is your best option. Whilst Netflix’s collection of foreign language media is sparse, the Walter Presents section of Channel 4’s on-demand service, All4, boasts eighty shows, including several in French, German, Portuguese and other European languages, plus a few in Hebrew. And if you would rather use films but don’t have access to Netflix, the Language Centre library has a good collection of DVDs available to borrow.
This is the least stressful way to keep up with a language, and there are several ways you can use TV and film. You can watch with or without English subtitles, switch to subtitles in your target language, transcribe the speech to practice your writing skills, pick up new vocabulary and practice using it in sentences.
If you want to brush up your reading skills but don’t feel ready to tackle a book, the Language Centre library also carries magazines and newspapers. Go at the right time, and you may be able to pick one or two up to take home. On top of this, newsagents in Oxford often offer German and French newspapers as well as English publications, and WHSmiths on Cornmarket has a good selection of foreign language magazines too.
Oxford’s Language Centre, located on Banbury Road, offers reading and speaking classes for twelve languages at different levels. These courses aren’t free, but if you prefer learning in a classroom environment may be a worthwhile investment. There are two kinds of course on offer: LASR courses, which are signed up for on a termly basis and are fairly casual, and OPAL courses, which run from Michaelmas to Trinity and are examined. LASR courses are cheaper, and can be joined mid-year, meaning you can assess your workload and timetable in Michaelmas and then sign up in Hilary if you feel you will have the time to attend classes.
Before signing up to a language course, bear in mind that a LASR course will probably mean a time commitment of at least one hour a week and the tutor may set homework. An OPAL course will have a greater time commitment and require more work outside of class. An hour a week doesn’t sound like much, but it can be overwhelming if you’re struggling to balance your regular workload too.
Apps are also worth looking into. Duolingo allows users to take a placement test in, so you can pick up where you left off and develop your language skills at your own pace. Memrise, which is great for learning vocabulary, may be something you have already used, and can continue with. Maintaining the words you have already learnt there might be repetitive, but such activities can be a welcome break from slaving away over an essay.
If the subject you want to keep studying in your own time isn’t a language, SOLO, the online library catalogue, is the best place to start. Many texts are now available online, so you can read them as quickly as your workload allows without worrying about due dates and fines. When your eyes refuse to read any more, the Internet will provide. Podcasts, YouTube crash courses, documentaries – whatever you want to learn, you can find. A particularly good springboard is the BBC’s In Our Time podcast, which covers an almost ridiculous diversity of topics. Host Melvyn Bragg discusses an often very specific topic with two or three specialists in the subject, whose work you could look into afterwards.
Whether you’re maintaining language skills or trying to continue studying another subject, it’s important to not overwhelm yourself. In Michaelmas, make settling in and managing your degree your priority – keeping up the subjects you studied at A-Level is a bonus. A few weeks in, studying something else in your free time might become a fun break from tutorial work. Or you might find that you don’t want to keep going with a subject: it might take up too much time this term, be less enjoyable outside the classroom environment, or it just might not interest you anymore. And that’s fine – something that’s causing unnecessary stress or boredom isn’t worth your time, especially not when you are surrounded by opportunities to try something new.