Prepare for people using different language

Gareth Hughes

Gareth Hughes is the Clinical Lead for Student Space and is a psychotherapist, researcher and writer on student wellbeing, including the book Be Well, Learn Well

Encountering words, phrases and terms that we don’t know can make all of us feel foolish or like we don’t belong. But just because you don’t understand something yet, doesn’t mean you won’t or that you are in the wrong place. You have already demonstrated an ability to learn and you can master the language you encounter at university too.

Every social group or organisation creates its own language. Think back to school or the workplace – you and your peers probably developed slang terms or jokes that would have been confusing to anyone who wasn’t part of your group. Even in your own family, you may use particular words or phrases that no one else uses to describe particular things. The same is true within universities – they create their own language.

The problem is that when we don’t understand what people are saying, our brain reacts. We read it as a sign that we don’t really belong because if we did, we would understand what we are hearing. This can be exacerbated if there are other reasons for us to doubt how much we belong; such as our gender, ethnicity, class, age, disability or background.

The problem can be confounded further by the way we perceive universities as places full of intelligent, well educated people. Rather than thinking – “I don’t know what that means because I’ve not encountered it before,” we might instead think “I don’t know what that means because I’m not intelligent enough to be here.” This in turn, causes our emotions to rise, blocking our ability to think clearly and learn the new terms we’ve encountered.

However, if you accept that any new place will have its own language and that you will learn it in time, then you can stop this from having a negative impact on your wellbeing. Remind yourself that we all have to learn new terms and words all the time, that you have done so in the past and you can do so again.

Be aware that universities actually contain differing languages depending on circumstance, academic discipline and the particular university you are attending.

Institutional language

Every university has its own way of speaking. Staff who move from one university to another, quite often have to relearn what things are called – the name of the Department that supports student mental health might be called Student Services in one university, Student Wellbeing in another and Student Life in yet another. The same can be true of processes, events or job titles.

Places may have a formal name (Room 003) and a name everyone uses (The green room).

You should also be prepared for your university to change the words they use, if they have a restructure or re-organisation.

Education language

The language used to talk about teaching and learning in Higher Education is different from the language used in schools. Rather than ‘class,’ you may be asked to attend lectures, seminars or tutorials. Teaching staff may be referred to as lecturers, tutors or academics – sometimes these words may be used interchangeably.

If you aren’t sure what you are being asked to do, it is ok to ask. As a new student there is no reason why you should understand these terms until they have been explained to you.

From a University context, staff are very understanding and willing to help you as much as they can. … The more you email and talk, the easier it becomes to get what you need to survive and thrive!

Disciplinary language

Each academic subject also has its own language. Often this can make learning a new concept more difficult at first. This is perfectly normal and you will have the experience of being confused by a term until one day you realise that its meaning is actually quite straightforward. Much of academic study and research is about trying to find precise ways of speaking about specific subjects. This leads academics to creating new terms, in order to be more precise. Once you have learned these terms, this will help you too. But be aware that absorbing this terminology is a process. Don’t put pressure on yourself to understand them all straight away.

Its also worth bearing in mind that within an academic subject, a term may have a different meaning from its everyday usage. For example, in everyday life positive emotions are those that we enjoy (like happiness). However, in psychology, positive emotions are sometimes considered to be those that motivate us to act towards something (so anger could be considered a positive emotion, in these terms). Don’t feel unduly concerned by this and the differences will sink in.

Becoming familiar with these new languages will help you settle in more quickly. It may help to do a little work before you arrive at university. Engaging with student forums, looking at the university website and doing some reading about your subject can all help you become more fluent.

Page last reviewed: October 2023