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Language teaching

"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 

Cambridge is well known for offering a scriptural language from scratch as a compulsory element in the first year, with many prospective students choosing Cambridge because of the advantage studying a scriptural language offers. You can choose to study Hebrew, Quranic Arabic, New Testament Greek or Sanskrit. Often compared to code-breaking, this can be one of the most rewarding and enlightening aspects of the course. Languages are taught in small groups (2-10 students) in the faculty - these classes are a great way to meet other freshers from across the colleges.

As languages are new to nearly all of our undergraduates, we know that prospective applicants have a lot of questions. We hope that the answers below are helpful. If you have a question that isn't answered here, do get in touch with our Outreach Officer .

Frequently asked questions

What will I get out of learning a scriptural 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. You’ll become aware of the impact of translations on studies of scripture - controversial debates over scriptural meanings have been ongoing in all traditions for centuries. You will be working towards reading set passages of crucial significance such as, for example, parts of Genesis from the Old Testament. By reading some of the original language, you will be able to comment on different versions of a text and reflect on the impact translation can have on our understanding of religion. You can see the current set texts for all four languages here

Working with fragments is also a big part of training as a religious historian, and is an exciting way to experience religious devotion in material terms. The code-breaking and lateral thinking skills derived from scriptural language study are new skills which you can take into your learning elsewhere.

I'm not studying a language right now. Is that a problem?

You do not need to study languages to study Theology, Religion, and Philosophy of Religion at Cambridge.  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.

Learning an ancient language is not like learning a modern language in school - there are no oral assessments, and you will not be developing day-to-day vocabulary. Instead you'll be thinking about the construction of language itself and asking how meanings are affected by small linguistic details. You will be reading important scriptural texts which are crucial to religious traditions.

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

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 

The 50Treasures website contains images of religious objects and manuscripts found in Cambridge's museum and college collections. As well as being beautiful works of art in their own right, many of the manuscripts have interesting histories and you might find it interesting to explore the relationship between the texts and images:

How many lessons will I have?

There are three classes a week, lasting between one and one and half hours. In addition, students receive a number of supervisions (one-to-one meetings) during the year and revision classes 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 in the longer paper descriptions, here.

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).