• Arnest Lim

Learning a Language in University: Worth the MCs?

Updated: Jan 26


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Picture this. You're a newly matriculated NUS freshman registering for modules for your first semester. After selecting your core modules, you find yourself left with 4 Modular Credits (MCs), just enough for one more module. Trawling through various faculties' webpages in a bid to decide on an Unrestricted Elective (UE), you're inexplicably drawn to one in particular. Next thing you know, you're trapped in the net cast by the Centre for Language Studies (CLS).


With 13 different languages to choose from, it's no wonder that many students, such as myself, embark on their language learning journey in their first year. But is taking a language module in NUS worth the MCs? Let's talk about that, using my own experience from AY 21/22 semester 1.


Motivations and Merits


Why do students want to learn a language? Cultural appreciation? A challenge? For the flex? Whatever it is, all students have their own reasons behind taking up language mods. For me, I gained an interest in Korean culture some years back and self-studied the language. Unfortunately, a few months of using language learning app Duolingo wasn't enough and upon entering NUS, I decided to trade the app for a human teacher by taking a Korean mod. I had hoped that with "proper" lessons, my mastery of the language would improve and when air travel to Korea resumed, I could (at least) hold a simple conversation with locals.


Presumably what many students envision themselves as after taking language modules.

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There are also those who plan to participate in the Student Exchange Programme (SEP) and for these students, NUS’ language modules will be:

  • Extremely helpful for their exchange

Studying alone in a foreign land can be daunting, especially if the main language there isn’t one you already speak. In this case, knowing the host country’s language would be very beneficial for your stay. You’ll be able to get around easier, ask for directions when lost, order food, and make new friends among other things. Without the stress of being lost in translation, your exchange will likely be much more enjoyable.


Regardless of students' motivations, NUS' language modules are definitely a good start in getting comfortable with a chosen language because they provide a:

  • Conducive learning environment

While the exact curriculum varies for different levels and languages, lessons usually focus on teaching new grammar and vocabulary. Like with most other modules, class sizes are small (around 20 students), giving everyone a chance to participate and practice, absolutely essential for learning a language.


For many students, language modules also provide an escape from the occasional monotony of core modules. Combined with experienced and well-versed lecturers, this makes for a conducive learning environment as everyone is genuinely interested in what they’re learning.


A possible over-generalisation on my part since I've only taken 1 language? Maybe, but I'm fairly certain that these are sentiments that others will echo. And hey, you don't have to pay extra since it's already part of your school fees!


But for all their merits, these language modules have downsides as well, with the most apparent problem being...


Rigour


It has to be said, learning a language is no walk in the park. In fact, of the 10 hardest languages in the world, NUS offers 5 of them (Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean). Requiring immense amounts of preparation and practice, language modules will inevitably take up a huge portion of your time and brain capacity. Even Level 1 modules that are designed for complete beginners with zero knowledge of the language present an enormous challenge, let alone higher level ones.


As someone with prior learning experience, I was required to take a placement test so that I would be allocated a suitable module for my standard. Surprisingly, I was deemed capable of reading LAK3201 (Korean 3), the first intermediate Korean module, and I was absolutely destroyed by the:

  • Workload

Me during my first Korean 3 lecture.

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Our lecturers covered new grammar and vocabulary every lesson, and this meant the teaching pace was fast. On top of reviewing what was taught previously and prepare for future classes, I also had to brush up on my elementary grammar and vocabulary since I didn’t take LAK1201 or 2201 (Korean 1 or 2). With 60% of my grade banking on my mid-terms and finals, which tested understanding of the language, staying on top of this module was a struggle, even with ample time to clarify doubts.


While the weightage for other components were lesser, they weren’t any easier. Apart from writing essays in an unfamiliar language (15%), I also had to do a video project (25%) which required me to hold a 4 to 5 minute conversation with a groupmate. The scripting process for that was tough, memorising it was even tougher and making the conversation sound natural was probably the toughest of all. Bottom line is: language modules are no cakewalk.


There’s also another “danger” to taking language modules, specifically the Level 1 ones, and that comes in the form of:

  • "Smurfs"

Unlike this lovable blue guy, language module "smurfs" are not fun to deal with.

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A gaming term that describes an experienced player deceiving others into thinking they’re less capable, “smurfs” are commonplace in Level 1 language modules. As mentioned earlier, NUS requires those with prior experience with a language to take a placement test so that they can be allocated a suitable module befitting their capabilities.


However, many students decide to take Level 1 language modules without “declaring” their experience, in the hopes of scoring well. This is despite the fact that their ruse being uncovered could result in them being kicked out of the module and issued an “F” grade. The presence of “smurfs” skews the bell curve as they score higher for tests and assignments, which will inevitably increase the chances of scoring lower for students who really are beginners.


Of course, this problem is less common if not non-existent for the higher level modules as students are generally on an even playing field at that point. That said, although these “smurfs” have an unfair advantage initially, a beginner can even the playing field with sheer hard work.


While different language modules will surely provide different experiences, the same rule applies to all of them. In order to internalise and really master a language, one needs to put in constant effort. No language module is by any means an "easy A".

 

So, is taking a language module really worth the MCs? Well, if all you’re looking for is to clear your UEs with minimal effort, don’t hold your breath. But if you're genuinely interested in picking up a language and you're prepared to put in the hours, go for it! It'll certainly be an enriching experience that provides a breath of fresh air amidst your other modules.


For more info on NUS’ language modules, check out the following links-


CLS Website: https://fass.nus.edu.sg/cls/


General Mod Info: https://nusmods.com/modules?sem[0]=1&sem[1]=2&sem[2]=3&sem[3]=4&dept[0]=Centre%20for%20Language%20Studies, https://luminus.nus.edu.sg/module-search

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