Oberlin Blogs

Tips for Taking a Language

December 16, 2015

Calley Pierce ’19

If you plan on taking a language in college with the goal of at least conversational proficiency, congratulations! By 2050 you will have joined 85% of the world's population by being bi- or multilingual. You will have greatly improved everything from your mental abilities to your job opportunities. Yay!

Before we get to the fun stuff, I should address those of you who are not sure about taking a language. These are some questions you might be grappling with, in no particular order:

1. I don't want to take a language class because I think/I know I will suck at it. How much is "natural ability" a factor?

It's not. Well, it might be at first--there are people who have better accents, quicker responses, etc.--what appears to be a better aptitude. But as with everything, hard work is more important than talent. If you prepare, stay motivated, you will do great. We are all after the same goal, and it doesn't matter where other people enter the playing field.

2. Language classes sound like a lot of work and I'm a sad lazy sack of potatoes who doesn't realize I could totally handle it.

Just sayin'. But that said, you are right to be concerned. If you are new to language classes/Oberlin in general: they are very demanding. I made it through as a double-degree student, so it's certainly not impossible, but you do have to stay on top of it. There are a lot of extra sessions--like pronunciation meetings and drill sessions--that will take time out of class, not to mention studying. Just be methodical with your time and energy!

3. I would never actually use this language.

What? Yes you will! For one, even if you don't speak it all the time, you'll have reaped the benefits of learning another language, and those skills with stay with you for life. And then the opportunities you can make for yourself are nearly endless--you can organize a study abroad opportunity, internship, or winter term. Unless you study a dead language, you can find students who are native speakers and practice. Remember your professors are always there to help.


1. Watch movies and TV shows from the country of origin/wherever it is spoken.

Not only will you gain cultural exposure and slowly improve your vocabulary, your accent will skyrocket. You can challenge yourself by watching without subtitles and see how much you can follow. And, because it's TV, it can be as relaxing or thrilling as you want it to be, and it's a great way to use your "free time" productively.

Watching children's movies/TV shows is especially good idea because you will likely be able to follow a lot of it. That's right, I'm talking Dora La Exploradora.

2. Find music from the country of origin/wherever it is spoken.

You can just start by googling the billboards for a country. Many people make YouTube playlists (Japanese pop hits of 2013, for example), and it's all easy to find.

3. Watch movies you already know dubbed in the target language.

Nothing like some classic films with out-of-sync French dialogue. Tu es un sorcier, Harry!

4. Browse websites and read articles.

BBC Mundo and China Daily are some good examples for Spanish and Chinese. Google will show you plenty of news you can try to decipher.

5. Look into external sources as supplemental material: if you can afford it, I highly recommend Rosetta Stone.

I've used Skritter before to practice writing characters (can also be used for Japanese). Duolingo is nice for practice on the go. WeSpeke is also a great app/website you can use to practice with native speakers, and users learning English can also practice with you.

Best of luck as you embark on your language-learning adventure!

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