Learn a New Language at University

Learn a New Language at University

QS Staff Writer

Updated September 4, 2023 Updated September 04

Find out why your university years are the perfect time to learn a new language, and optimize your chances of success with some expert advice.

Even if you’re not studying a modern language degree at university, this is still a great time to learn a new language – and the future benefits could be huge.

Many universities have language centers, where students can sign up to take part-time courses in a range of different languages.

Some do so out of necessity, to support their studies or improve their ability to communicate in the language of the country they’re studying in.

For others, language learning is a longer term project. Being multilingual is a key way of broadening future employment prospects and accessing different cultures.

Last but not least, learning a new language is a challenge that can, and should, be enjoyable!

Why learn a new language at university?

Denmark’s Roskilde University recently announced that from the start of the 2012-13 academic year, all students will have the opportunity to take supplementary courses in French and German.

Hanne Leth Andersen, the university’s provost, says the decision was motivated by the fact that foreign language skills are declining in Denmark – despite the fact that they are in high demand among employers.

Being able to speak multiple languages empowers students in a variety of ways, Anderson adds. For one thing, it immediately increases the number of information sources students can access for themselves – without being dependent on a translation.

Roskilde University is certainly not alone in recognizing the value of providing opportunities for all students to learn new languages.

At the University of Oxford, UK, for example, part-time courses are currently available in French, German, Chinese, Modern Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh.

Priority is given to students who need the language in order to support their studies, but places are also available to any member of the university interested in developing their language skills.

How to learn a new language: Expert advice

You may be convinced about the benefits, but learning a new language can still seem like a daunting task – especially when you’ve got lots of other changes and challenges going on in your life.

However, Willem Larsen, president of the non-profit organization Language Hunters and author of The Language Hunter’s Kit, says language learning really shouldn’t feel like hard work.

In fact, if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong, Larsen believes. “Play is a mental state of accelerated learning. If you aren't energized or giggling, either to yourself or with a conversation partner, you aren't including enough play!”

He also recommends that beginners should start by prioritizing spoken fluency first, rather than reading or writing. “As you become more fluent at speaking, reading and writing will be a snap.”

While it’s tempting to start by learning lots of nouns, Larsen says it’s better to focus on language structure to start with. “Nouns are easy to memorize, and very seductive to beginners, but they take up mental space that grammar and other structural knowledge could be filling.”

Finally, he advises budding language learners to maintain a focus on the here and now. “Focus your language acquisition on real situations and real objects. Don't talk about theoretical things or places – save that for when you're more proficient.”

Career benefits, greater access to information, and fun into the bargain – there’s really no excuse not to take advantage of language-learning opportunities at university.

This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020