Studying French in university- what’s it really like?

It’s not Arts, it’s Applied Languages.”

Such was my reply when anyone would have the audacity to query my university course choice. For those of you that aren’t familiar, I studied French and English- ie, an Arts degree- in UCD and Arts degrees get quite a bad reputation. However, I’m convinced that we got the last laugh- few of the  other more ‘intellectual’ courses got a year abroad as part of their course 😉

Choosing French and English to study in college was a rather difficult choice for me- I was more than aware that I wouldn’t have a specific “job” label when I finished college and I was more than tempted to opt for primary school teaching. However, I actually really enjoyed my course.

I can still remember my first French lecture. I didn’t know anyone on my course before beginning, and was suddenly surrounded by people with varying levels of French. You need a minimum of a Leaving Cert H4 grade in French to study the language in UCD, which is the equivalent of a C2 on the traditional grading system. So on your first day, expect to be surrounded with as many “A” students as “C” students. I found this extremely overwhelming. While I loved French and had received a good Leaving Cert grade, I found myself surrounded by people who claimed to be already fluent in the language, and also claimed to spend summers in their houses in France. On reflection, I’m convinced that I just sat in the wrong corner of the room- I later found out that the vast majority of people didn’t have any property ownership in France and many had yet to visit the country.

Studying French in college demands a lot of continuous work. I remember naively feeling quite frustrated that I wasn’t already fluent a few months into the course, but in hindsight that’s perfectly normal. It’s also quite normal to feel daunted by the level of work involved. Naturally, I wanted to learn every single word in the language but this wasn’t always possible. My usual vocabulary study technique was to keep a vocabulary copy and write down every single new word that I encountered. I also signed up to’s “mot du jour” service where a new word or verb would be emailed to me everyday.

Grammar will understandably form a large, compulsory section of studying French in university. In retrospect, this is where many people fell short- around 40% of my class failed the exam in first year, and were duly forced to drop French altogether. While I understand that that sounds relatively extreme, I really believe that it’s the same scenario every year. I accept that grammar is certainly a difficult area of the course, but good basic grammar is imperative to having a good grasp of the language. I would advise other French students to really take the time to sit down and learn the grammar. If there is something in particular that you’re struggling with- keep working on it. Unfortunately, I really think that poor grammar skills will follow you around and trip you up in the long run- be it a final year oral exam or an important conversation on Erasmus. The sooner you master it, the more confident you will get. Stick with it!

There is also the question of Erasmus. Admittedly I was particularly homesick for my first year in college and was utterly convinced that I wouldn’t complete the optional Erasmus year. I refused to believe that it really would be the wonderful experience that the French department tried to convince us about- weren’t French boys creeps? Wasn’t it supposed to be expensive? In UCD, the French Erasmus programme is optional, but students are strongly advised to apply for a place. Students will be sent a list of destinations and are asked to pick two in order of preference. Places will be allocated according to students grades- so the higher scoring students will get their first choice, etc. Places are limited so lower scoring students may not get offered one. However, nothing is certain- if students fail French exams at the end of second year they will lose their place. So extra pressure for those second year summer exams- or “motivation.” 😉

As I’ve mentioned above, I was relatively unenthusiastic about the prospect of Erasmus in my first year of college. However, in second year I had warmed towards the idea- or enough to apply for the programme anyway. I admittedly didn’t put much thought into choosing my destinations- I knew that I couldn’t afford Paris and I wanted to live in a city, so Lyon and Lille it was! I got offered Lyon and was delighted- but still terrified and undecided. I accepted the place, muttering to myself that I could always “drop out last minute”- but luckily that didn’t happen and I loved it!

I would highly recommend that all French university students complete an Erasmus year. I understand that Erasmus may not be an option for some students financially, but I urge you to remember the magical CAF (read here) and Erasmus grant! While Erasmus is great for meeting new people and also for your CV, it’s also priceless for language skills. Some of my friends didn’t complete Erasmus and their concern was that they would be in final year in a class with others who had completed Erasmus, and therefore had much superior language skills than them. Unfortunately, this is true to an extent- I did find that myself and others who had completed Erasmus were much more confident and competent in our French language skills compared to others who didn’t complete it, and our exam results did reflect this. If you can’t complete Erasmus, all is not lost- I urge you to spend summers working in France. Here are some ideas!

French literature features heavily on the French university course. In UCD, literature was weighted 50% and language 50%. The literature was extremely challenging, and while I enjoyed it (English literature was my other subject in college!) others found it extremely difficult. Those that were “fluent” in French often found that the literature element of the course dragged down their overall marks. I definitely wouldn’t let this put you off if you’re considering French at university- all it really demands at the end of the day is a good understanding of the text and relatively good essay writing skills. It’s definitely doable.

Overall, I really enjoyed studying French at college. However, I’d advise students to remember that you cannot cram a language- you really need to be prepared to continuously work towards acquiring fluency. Ensure that you don’t “lose” your French in summer- if you can’t make it to France, make sure that you set aside a few hours in the week dedicated to French work.

Profitez-en bien!



2 thoughts on “Studying French in university- what’s it really like?

Add yours

    1. Hi Emma! Thanks for your comment. Really the grammar was all sorts- subjunctive, present, past, etc but in much more detail! We used the book “French grammar and detail” by Hawkins and Towell for all our grammar work so I hope this helps.


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