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Learning a language

"Really enjoying Hebrew. The teaching is great and the staff have made this, easily, my favourite module."

"Absolutely great – I have loved this course and it has been great fun learning this language and it is a valuable skill."

"Lectures/classes have taken into account different levels of grammatical knowledge and gone at an appropriate pace – taking time for everyone to understand."

"I thought I would find Greek quite hard, but the staff are making the subject very accessible and I am greatly enjoying it. Thank you – looking forward to next term."

Anonymous student feedback forms, 2014-15 

In your first year you will select five modules (papers) to study. One of these will be a scriptural language. This will give you foundational skills that you will need throughout your course of study.

As the languages are new to the majority of undergraduates, we are often asked lots of questions about studying them at Cambridge. We hope that the answers below are helpful and you may also wish to read the more detailed information found at www.divinity.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/data/PartI.pdf If you have a question that isn't answered here, please get in touch with our Outreach Officer, Laura Jeffrey,

More information about the other papers you can choose from in your first year (Part I) is available at www.divinity.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/outreach/what

Frequently asked questions

Why do I need to learn a language?

Developing a knowledge of a scriptural language will give you a deeper understanding of the religion it relates to and will support your study in that area. Additionally, you’ll become aware of the impact of translations on studies of scripture. By reading some of the original language, you will be able to comment on different versions of a text and reflect on the impact they may have on our understanding of the religion.

I’m not very good at studying languages at school. Does this matter?

You do not need to achieve certain grades in modern or classical languages at A-level or GCSE to apply to study Theology, Religion, and Philosophy of Religion at Cambridge.  In fact, a good proportion of students have not formally studied any language beyond the age of 14.  All our classes are therefore designed to cater for complete beginners.

The teaching of scriptural languages is of an excellent standard at Cambridge. Staff are supportive and attentive to the differing needs of students. You will be in small groups that meet regularly during term. This will enable you to become familiar with terms and concepts quickly. You’ll make satisfying progress so that you feel comfortable with the language well before the exams at the end of the year.

Which languages can I choose from?

You select one language from Hebrew, New Testament Greek, Qur'anic Arabic or Sanskrit. These relate to the core religions taught in the Faculty, respectively Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism and Buddhism.

Which elements of the language will I study?

The scriptural languages are taught in the written form. The emphasis is on learning the grammar and vocabulary you need to be able to start reading the language. Therefore most of your work will be reading and writing in the language. You will of course learn pronunciation in class, but there is no assessed oral component.

How should I prepare?

Most students are new to the language they will be learning and so no prior experience is assumed. However, if you choose to learn New Testament Greek, an online course is available to introduce you to key concepts before you arrive in Cambridge www.greek.divinity.cam.ac.uk.

Although not aimed at students new to the language, if you are interested in studying Hebrew, you may wish to look at the Artefacts of Ancient Judaism website to give you a flavour of what understanding a language will enable you to do http://artefacts.lib.cam.ac.uk/index.html 

How many lessons will I have?

There are three classes a week, lasting between one and one and half hours. Some students will have a greater aptitude for language learning and be more familiar with grammatical concepts. Where numbers permit, students may be grouped into different classes to help support their language learning.

In addition, students receive a number of supervisions during the year and revision classes in the before exams.

How much of a text will I be expected to become familiar with?

Our students study a small section of each text; you’ll be very familiar with it by the end of the year. Details of the specific texts covered are available at www.divinity.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/data/PartI.pdf

What are the exams like?

You will be asked to translate passages from the scriptural language into English from prescribed text(s), comment on grammatical forms, and translate sentences from English into the scriptural language.

For how long will I have to study the language?

Students are only required to study a scriptural language in their first year.

What if I want to study it for longer?

Many students carry on with the language in the second year and some will continue into their third year. It is also possible to start a new language in your second or third year (at beginners’ level).