Home » Q&A » Balancing the Study of Languages and University

Balancing the Study of Languages and University

Dear Professor Arguelles,

Please let me sign with initials only to keep my identity private, as nearly flunking out of university can be an embarrassing subject matter. Regardless, I am writing to you today because I am a first-year university student, currently on summer break, and I have just come out of a very difficult school year of trying to balance languages and university. Suffice it to say that I failed the majority of my courses. The purpose of this letter, therefore, is to ask if you have any advice on balancing the studying of languages and university. I am also aware that you have struggled with the same thing and had to tone down the study of languages to focus on university, as you say in your biographical sketch.

As for personal background, I am a 19 year old, first-year university student (classics, if that matters) taking 5 courses a semester. Over the past 2 years, I have picked up the study of French, Spanish, German, Latin, Italian, and Greek. The main goal with these languages is to be able to read philosophy and literature in them, but also to hold meaningful conversations. My current study regimen involves 1.5 or 2 hours of French a day, about the same amount for Spanish, 30-45 minutes of German, 30 minutes of Latin, 30 minutes of Italian, and 30 minutes of Greek. This adds up to a total of around 5-6 hours a day. I divide my study sessions into 15 minute blocks, except for reading. Though I must confess, I do sometimes go over the timer a bit (especially with Greek) and I don’t generally limit my reading of French and Spanish with a timer but by the number of pages. French and Spanish are my strongest; as for the rest, I am still working through Assimil manuals and the like. As for my ‘stamina,’ the only thing I know is that when I get to my coursework–for, let’s not lie, even after ablutions, eating, and a walk, the entire day isn’t 6 hours and there is still time to get to coursework–I feel thoroughly exhausted as a result of studying languages for so long everyday. Please let me know If I have missed out any crucial information.

As you can probably see, this heavily conflicts with my studies at university, between attending classes, doing assignments, and studying for tests and exams. I’ve grown to love my languages dearly–French and Spanish particularly—and the thought of cutting any of them off pains me deeply, especially since I find the study of them much more engaging and edifying than coursework. I would also like to be able to enjoy them to their fullest extent sooner rather than later. Given my situation, what seems to you to be the best plan of action? Shall I abort several languages? Shall I take as many language courses as possible to reduce the burden, so to speak? Or shall I simply develop a Spartan-like schedule, (even more) strictly regimented by a timer with time allotted to both languages and school? I have been thinking about this a lot lately and still have not yet found a satisfactory solution. So I figured from the fact of having struggled with similar problems and your experience in general, you might be able to help.

Kind regards,
J. R.

This is the question

My reply:

Dear J.R.,

I am very sorry that much time has gone by since you wrote to me. I hope both that your overall circumstances have improved in the meantime, and that the advice I will now offer may still be pertinent in some regards.

I myself never faced the situation you are facing, where your language studies are interfering with your obligations and responsibilities. What I recall writing about was the fact that although I wanted to teach myself more languages when I was in graduate school, I was able to keep that desire tempered until my post-doctoral years so that I could concentrate on completing my degree. But that degree was doctorate, not a bachelor’s, and I was closer to 29 than to 19 at the time, and my problem was not reigning myself in but rather keeping myself in check.

First of all, let me say that holding a good degree from a good institution does open doors in this life and so anyone who loves learning and studying should earn these. If earning your degree is important to you and that is what you or your parents are paying for you to do at a stage in life when it is normal and appropriate to do so, then this is what you need to prioritize. So, the most logical solution would be to harness your passion more to your official studies, adding a double major in another set of languages and literature, so that you could combine your language study passion with your classwork to a greater degree.

On the other hand, you are truly to be commended on having the endurance to self-study languages on your own for up to 6 hours a day at your young age. That is a number that few ever attain. Most who do attain it have to work up to it with years of experience. Maybe this is what you are meant to be doing at this stage in your life. Is taking a semester or year off a possibility for you to devote yourself full-time to studying languages? You don’t say where you are attending school, but if you were to demonstrate what you had achieved by taking various tests to prove the results you attained on your own, you might well be able to get into a better school or program, and/or be offered a better financial aid package to cover the costs. You might even be able to get this at the type of institution that might have or allow you to design your own course of study that would involve maximum learning of foreign languages if you could demonstrate really impressive results of autodidactic progress. You might want to research ahead of time what institutions or programs might allow you to do this so you could aim specifically at them. It is much easier to hit a target when you have one and can see it than when it remains a vague hope.

With best regards for a resolution to your issue and for the continue progress of all of your studies,

Alexander Arguelles

Ask a Question

Would you like my advice for developing a systematic, long-term plan for learning languages and accessing literatures? This website provides a place where you can describe your background, current activities, and goals in sufficient detail for me to provide you with meaningful advice, and where our exchange can remain as a lasting resource for others with similar scholarly aspirations.

My name is Alexander Arguelles. I have pursued foreign languages and literatures with a passion all my life. My goal is to share the knowledge and experience I have gained with others who would like to do the same. Find out more →

Share this Page