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How To Be Successful In Language Courses

Lexi shares her best tips for navigating language classes at Carleton.

Lexi shares her best tips for navigating language classes at Carleton.

Here at Carleton, every student must study a foreign language in order to complete their Global Citizenship requirement. Some students can test out of the requirement. Most students will begin their Language Requirement first-year fall in a 101 class.

With 10 languages to choose from, you’re sure to find a language that interests you. That is Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Latin, Russian, and Spanish!

“Learning how to learn” boils down to learning how to study to retain information. In my first-year fall, I was not very good at this. I didn’t have the skillset needed to study my language of choice, Russian.

Thankfully, Carleton’s support network pulled through to help me. Not only did I start learning Russian better, I started doing better in all my classes. I’d like to share some of the advice that was given to me to help you learn your language. This advice might even help you in other courses!

Accept help BEFORE you need it.

Whaaaaat? How can you accept help before you need it? You see, Carleton has a lot of resources for language learning. For many languages offered– including Arabic, Spanish, German, French, and Russian– Carleton hires a native speaker. Called Language Associates, their job is to help you learn your language.

Many Language Associates offer tutoring hours weekly, or by appointment. They even host events where you can practice speaking the language with other Carls. The Russian Language Associate, Darina Kozhakhmetova, hosts “Russian Table” every Tuesday and Thursday. My classmates, upperclassmen, and native speakers come to Shearer Room and speak as much Russian as we can.

Student sit at a table and smile
This table has native speakers, current students, and even some students learning Russian on their own!
It may seem intimidating to be surrounded by people who definitely know more of a language than you. But, in true Carl fashion, everyone is super supportive. I remember the first time that I came to Russian Table, I was so nervous about speaking up, but Darina prompted me to ask what everyone’s name was (which was one of the only things I knew how to do at that point!).
The point of accepting help before you need it is to prevent you from falling too far behind. Language learning is like building a tower. Your foundations must be solid before you build more. Going to office hours during the first week of classes is one way to get help before you need it.

Find what vocabulary learning method works best for you. 

As a Russian 103 student who has known the Cyrillic alphabet for a little while now, I love, love, love Quizlet. But when I was first starting out, I adored paper flashcards. There’s something about writing out a word on a little piece of paper and reviewing it throughout the day.

Student picks up flashcards from the floor
I think this image accurately describes why I chose Quizlet over paper flashcards.

Now, I love Quizlet because I enjoy the Learn option, which lets me repeat typing words until I get them all correct. Instant feedback and repeated drills are amazing for language learning! Also, paper flashcards can get wet. If you have ever been caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella, you know what horrors I’ve seen.

I am also a huge fan of whiteboards! I bought a tiny whiteboard to carry with me to practice writing out words without using so much paper. Many classrooms (especially in LDC) have portable whiteboards or chalkboards on the walls. During Reading Days, Darina and I huddle in LDC 242 conjugating verbs and declining nouns.

Talk to yourself.

One of the hardest parts of learning any language is getting the pronunciation right. Did you know that some sounds in certain languages aren’t ever used by the English language? In Russian, for example, there is a vowel that is best described as “the sound one makes when punched in the stomach.” I don’t know about you, but I never practiced that sound until I started taking Russian classes!

Talking to yourself is practicing pronunciation in a low-stress environment. The more time you spend practicing, the more able you will be to recall that information in class.

I proudly walk through the Arb muttering Russian phrases. I name objects and how they exist (because objects sit, lie, stand or hang in Russian) during breakfast. I will even speak in Russian to my friends who take Spanish because the look on their faces makes me laugh.

Ice cream stands next to books
In this image, ice cream is standing, but the lid and the books are laying down.

“Focused attention, spaced rehearsal, and successful recall!”

On the first day of class, my Russian professor, Laura Goering, said this phrase to my class. I’ve never been the same.

“Focused attention” refers to dedicating your time and energy to one task at a time. You can’t learn how to conjugate the 4 irregular Russian verbs while watching TikToks! Trust me, I’ve tried. Laura Goering recommends we hide our phones in our backpacks when studying. Even looking at a black screen cuts our attention spans significantly!

“Spaced rehearsal” refers to spreading out your study time throughout the day. If you have 20 vocabulary words you need to know for the next day, you should start studying them in 5-minute chunks. If 5 minutes is too long, even 1 minute at a time works. This study method is fantastic for long-term memory. It will help you break down your study time into smaller “chunks”.

“Successful recall” refers to the moment when you are trying so hard to remember a word, and then boom! you remember it. It is that brief moment of struggle where you close your eyes tight, press your pointer fingers into your temples, and the word materializes. Your beautiful brain must struggle so it can remember the word more easily next time.

I utilize these techniques in all my classes at Carleton. I put my phone away, plan out a spaced study schedule, and make my brain work!

Student studies on the Mini Bald Spot
Надо ччить слова! Когда? Всегда! In English: You must study vocabulary! When? Always!

Recognize how far you’ve come.

At the end of 101 Language Class at Carleton, you will know so much. You will have learned foundational basics in the language of your choice. You might have learned a new alphabet, a new pronunciation, and a new way of thinking about language. You will have studied aspects of another culture too. That is something to be so proud of.

It can be hard to see how much you’ve achieved when you’re looking at how far you still have to go. Have a healthy understanding that language learning will be a life-long process. But you must not forget that you have come a very long way from where you started. Recognize how much easier it is to read the first page of your textbook in winter than it was in fall.

Student poses in front of their Russian name written in cursive
Forgive the funny face, but look how proud I was to write my name and a friend’s name in Cyrillic!

You may even get to utilize your new language skills on an Off-Campus Study trip. Check out our Off-Campus Studies blogs to see what you could do after your language requirement. Over 70% of Carls study abroad, many of which are through language programs. Check out the Russian students’ blog about their current OCS trip in Central Asia.

While language classes at Carleton seem daunting, it will be a rewarding experience. After spending so much time together (at least 4 classes!) with many of the same people, you’re bound to make friends in your classes. Nothing is as uniting as a having common goal: learning a new language!

Lexi (she/her) traded her flip-flops for snow boots when she moved from sunny Orange, California to Carleton College. She is a first-year student who is interested in majoring in Sociology and Anthropology and minoring in Russian. When she is not working in the Rec Center or color-coding her daily agenda, you can find her baking absurd amounts of banana bread with her friends.