Have you ever studied in a foreign country, in the local language?
June 16, 2012 12:48 AM   Subscribe

Getting a 2nd Bachelor's in a European country "as a local" - no courses in English. Please share any and all of your experiences! More details inside.

Hello Everyone - pending the acceptance of my application, which is likely, I'm going back to school to study Environmental Engineering.
It's been a dream of mine since I took a few courses in that subject during my first Bachelor's program. Hooray!

In addition to being a completely new subject for me (my original degree was in arts/humanities), I have the additional challenge of studying it in a foreign land - my husband's homeland, a large European country. And necessarily, in the language of this country.

I've already scoured MeFi for information on study strategies and tips for and from successful STEM students. It's been immensely helpful for me in my self-study and the courses I've been taking to prepare.

Now I'd like to query the hive mind for anyone's experience of studying in a foreign language and country. What was it like for you? Have any of you also done a full degree program in a foreign language? Or studied abroad a bit? Any and all stories, tips, advice, suggestions, warnings, etc. are very welcome!

Just for a bit more specific information - I've been living here for 2 years and passed the university's language requirement exam with high marks, so it can be assumed that I'm an "advanced" user of the language (although it doesn't really feel like that, haha!) and that general culture shock shouldn't be an issue anymore.

Thanks in advance!
posted by Pieprz to Education (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A friend of mine did a STEM PhD in France, following undergraduate work in the States. Her knowledge of French sounds like it was much lower than yours (just a bit in HS) and she was taking crazy-advanced Physics course from the start and did fine.

She said it was very tiring at first listening to all the lectures in French and for the first few weeks, she didn't understand much of the incidental conversation. The nice thing, though, about science and engineering, is that since much of the work is equation based, so though you may not understand the very detailed explanation that goes along with the equation, you should be able to understand the equation.

The funny thing she told me is that anything she learned about in undergrad (basic physics, etc) she thinks about in English, where anything she learned in her PhD program she thinks about in French. Pretty neat, I think.
posted by chiefthe at 1:08 AM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did an MA in Germany, in German. I was a very advanced speaker of the language before I started (such that I could converse with locals for a while before they even realised I was not a native speaker), yet I was shocked at first at how that did not translate into an ease with the academic-style German I needed to write my assignments. I got quite low marks on the first (for someone used to straight As!) and that panicked me into reading a bunch of academic German and really studying the style. After that it was okay.

I also found it harder to concentrate in lectures than I did at home. Partly because German universities don't place such an emphasis on "attracting" students and trying to keep their attention as I had been used to back home, and rather treat them as adults responsible for their own education. So lectures can be a bit dry and boring, and they don't make an effort to explain everything to you in detail: it's assumed that if you don't understand something you will go and look it up, and that if you are struggling, you'll start a study group, or engage a tutor.

The overall system of education is very very different from what it was in English-speaking countries I know of, and it took me at least the full first year to figure out how everything worked, including the unspoken rules of interaction with peers and professors.
posted by lollusc at 2:13 AM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, I should add, I was in the social sciences/humanities. From what I saw of the sciences, they follow a model much closer to the systems in English-speaking countries.
posted by lollusc at 2:13 AM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot can depend on which country you're in – I'm guessing from your profile that it's Poland? :) I mention it because in France, it was easier to get into the linguistic swing of things than it ever has been for the administrative side (I've lived here for 13 years and have dual citizenship since last year). As you have advanced language skills, on that end, you'll probably be fine! Also, as you've lived there for two years already, and have a native "in" with your husband, the cultural ins and outs won't be too opaque, although you should probably reassure yourself that you will be surprised from time to time. Everyone is, that's just how things go!

As for the administrative side... ask your husband as many questions as you can. Ask how class registration works and who to talk to if something goes awry. Ask if there's a country-wide unspoken policy about which grades are important and which aren't. For instance, in France, for undergrad degrees, you could miss all the classes, but so long as you turn in required papers and show up to take (and pass) a final exam, you could get a very high grade. I'm not at all recommending that, and there are increasing exceptions, just it's so that you'll be less taken aback by, say, seeing people you've never met before show up on final exam day and then having your jaw drop when you see them at the top of the grades announcement list (they announce course grades on printed lists here in France).

Insider knowledge on course registration is extremely important. I finished my BA in Lyon (studied French language & literature), and then went on to do my MA in comparative literature in Nice, where I've lived since 2000. Course registration materials for the first semester weren't provided until November; as soon as they were, I sent mine in. For the second semester, nothing was announced until the last week of February, which I only found out because two days after the website was updated, I got an angry call from the humanities college registrar telling me that I would be dropped from the program if they didn't get any first & second semester course registration forms from me as of that very day. Cue "?!?!?!?!"

It turns out that they had lost my first semester registration form, and as for the second semester, I was working on a high-security office site and had no access to faxes or scanners, so asked if I could create a plaintext copy to send by email. She said "yes" over the phone. I emailed the course registration. Three days later, she emailed me with the university registrar in copy and told me I would be dropped since I had shown "bad faith" and "disrespectful behavior" by sending a plaintext email.... cue "WTFuhhh??!!!!!"

I ended up sending an email to my thesis advisor, who also happened to be president of the humanities college (thank goodness), and she was able to straighten things out. It turns out that several students, curiously all foreign, had also had their course registrations "lost". If I hadn't known that raising a stink via my thesis advisor was culturally acceptable in France – and by the way, the humanities registrar tried to make me believe it was totally unacceptable – I'd have spent a year of Masters studies for naught. And I am SO used to administration things taking those sorts of detours, that it doesn't bother me very much; that's just how things work. Some administrative person decides to behave like a child, for whatever reason, and your life gets thrown into limbo unless you do the time-honored French "faire chier le monde" ("raise shit with everyone"), then everything falls into place as it should. *shrug* Perhaps Poland is more sensible. It's good to know beforehand :)
posted by fraula at 3:46 AM on June 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't make assumptions about what is expected from students in this country and field - just because stuff worked a certain way in your first degree does not mean it will this time round.

Read as much academic writing as possible in your field in the language you're studying in - it will help develop your technical vocabulary, which is not generally what they test in language tests. It will also help develop your writing style in the new language. Writing style is important if you want your markers to take you seriously.

Unless you end up having to read a lot of English language papers as part of your course be prepared not to be conversant in your new field in English. I am a native speaker of German but did my entire higher education in the UK and spent most of my professional life there. Even though I am back in a German speaking part of the world for the time being I find that I cannot have an intelligent sounding technical conversation or write professional sounding emails on technical work matters in German.

It turns out that it is easy enough to understand technical terms people use when talking to me although I have to translate them into English in my mind before I understand what the words 'mean'. But I struggle to formulate coherent responses using appropriate technical terms in German because I never learned about these things in my own language and the right words just don't come to mind in German. It does not help that I work in an international team and have to use English for about 65% of all technical communication still :)
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:54 AM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hello again - thank you everyone for your responses! This have given me lots of things to think about.

@chiefthe - haha, I've already had a mini-version of your friend's experience with some other things (administration related vocabulary at work, etc). Thanks for the encouraging story!

@lollusc and fraula - thank you both for the tips on getting "insider knowledge" - that's exactly the kind of thing i hadn't expected, but will now interrogate my husband about. ;-)
Fraula - that's very scary about your registration issues! Glad it worked out for you.

@koahiatamadl - interesting "problem" with being bilingual in a technical field, similar to chiefthe's friend in France. it will very likely be a problem for me as well. I'll have to keep my ears open.

This is one of my first Ask MeFi questions - thanks for the high-quality and relevant answers, one hardly sees this on other websites. I'm grateful :-)
posted by Pieprz at 8:22 AM on June 17, 2012

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