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Adjusting to learning a new language

Hi everyone, my name is Daniel Robinson (he/him) and I am currently in my first year of the Life Sciences program at McMaster University and the first-year representative of the Life Science Society. In this blog post, I will be sharing my journey of adjusting to first year and learning in a new language, along with some tips that led to my success in first year.

First-year is tough. Class sizes are large, class content is heavy, and managing time is even harder. What hit the hardest was adjusting to learning in a new language. Before deciding on a university, factoring in the language barrier played a large role in my decision. However, that did not stop me from choosing a university that would allow me to explore my interest in science and provide me with many great opportunities, and it shouldn’t scare you away from any opportunities either.

Before starting university, I studied in French. Every single term, definition, essay, test… all written in French. How was I expected to start from scratch once again? The truth is this pressure was my driving force in finding success in first year. I found motivation by tackling the same courses as thousands of other students while being less prepared than my peers. The challenge was almost fun in a way. Although you do have to put in extra work compared to others to keep up, knowing that you are capable of what so many others are, and more is rewarding and keeps you motivated to continue your journey of learning new material in a new language.

Reading, writing, and speaking in a new language are all obvious hurdles one must overcome when choosing to adopt a new language in university. It can be quite daunting to throw yourself into a new language with little to no preparation. Some first steps to take include:

  1. Be patient with yourself. Learning new material and relearning old material in a new language takes time and practice, lots of it. It’s important to remember that mistakes are inevitable and that is how you learn. Go into this with an open mindset and positive attitude.

  2. Familiarize yourself with this new language by surrounding yourself with it. Although it can be scary to experience every aspect of your life in a different language, it will make it all that much smoother of a transition. Try to find clubs, watch tv shows, and read books… that are in the language you are trying to familiarize yourself with. The more exposure the better and soon enough, you’ll improve.

  3. Take pride in your journey. Understand that it is special and beautiful that you possess the gift to understand and learn in multiple languages. Many people don’t have that skill and although it is hard to tackle a new language, it is so rewarding too.

  4. Because language is closely related to culture, actively seek out opportunities to keep yourself connected with your culture. Leaving your language behind can be so isolating and can negatively impact your mental health. Remember to take care of yourself by surrounding yourself with what makes you feel at home. That could take the form of decorating your room with your culture as the inspiration, calling friends and family back home to speak in your native language, or even finding a club for your culture or mother tongue at your school, McMaster is home to many of these kinds of clubs.

  5. Make use of the resources available to you. Meet with your professor for office hours, they have undoubtedly had other students in similar positions as you and might have some great advice for tackling their specific course. Use online resources to practice the language you are learning (Like Duolingo) and translate the words you don’t quite understand (Like DeepL translate). Implementing all of these will help tackle what can feel like such a large obstacle and make your learning experience just that much easier.

So, what do you get out of studying in a new language? The opportunity to immerse yourself in a completely different culture, becoming a more well-rounded, worldly person, and opening many doors to a new, foreign world are just some examples of the many benefits that come along with studying in a new language. Although the journey to success is rough and seems quite long, the benefits are unmatched. Some things just can’t be taught in the classroom, and the lessons you learn along with the qualities you develop through studying in a new language are just some of those things.

Thank you for taking the time to read my post! I hope that you can take away at least one piece of advice. If there is one thing I want to share with all the students studying in English (or any language) for the first time it would be to take pride in your accomplishments and know that you are capable of so much. Never give up and your efforts will not go unnoticed. If you’re on the fence about deciding to study in a new language or having any doubts about your decision, remember that you can always learn a new language, but you can’t go back to get the opportunities you might miss if you don’t at least give learning in a new language a chance.

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