Literature Masterclass: Time & Tense

Approaching a text in a foreign language for the first time can be both exciting and daunting at once. How do we begin to analyse the way the text works? What should we pay attention to in terms of linguistic features and the structure of the text?

One of the simplest but also most important aspects of a text we can analyse is the tense in which it is written. Tenses are something we are aware of from day one when we are learning a foreign language: indeed, as non-native speakers we are perhaps more aware of different tenses in a foreign language than we are in our mother tongues. But sometimes, when we are focussing intently on an unfamiliar grammatical system, it can be easy to lose sight of how that grammar can be used for literary effect.

In the presentation below, Dr Simon Kemp, Tutor in French at Somerville College, gives an introduction to Time and Tense in French literature. Focussing on a few extracts from texts on the A Level syllabus, he takes us through some of the various effects the use of different tenses can produce.

A Two Minute Introduction to Goethe

This post was written by Isabel Parkinson, who studies German & Philosophy at Worcester College.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born, rather poetically, on a summer’s day in Frankfurt in 1749 just as the church bells were striking noon. In true sensitive-artist style he studied law as a young man and detested it, preferring to attend poetry lectures instead and write Baroque-style verse for his lover. Goethe became a literary celebrity at just twenty-five when he wrote Die Leiden des jungen Werthers – a quite beautiful story that’s not only unchallenging enough to be read for pleasure, but has been so excellently translated that no knowledge of German is required. It’s achingly melancholy and endearingly optimistic in equal measure with a core of reverent, self-sacrificial, and occasionally obsessive love; the young hero Werther is so desperately infatuated with Lotte that he sends his servant to her house when he himself cannot visit, just to have someone in his home who has seen her.

Werther made Goethe an overnight success, and by the 1790s he was collaborating and communicating with the other major player in the German literature scene, Friedrich Schiller. In 1809 Goethe published his third novel, Elective Affinities. It is written in prose, rather than in the epistolary style of Werther and is a similarly excellent story, with not so much a love triangle as a love square or maybe even a pentagon.

Goethe turned his hand to many things – politics, science, prose – and his epic reworking of the classic legend Faust is an example of his dabbling in the closet drama genre. Part One is closely connected to the original famous legend, while Part Two – published in 1832, the year of Goethe’s death – pushes the story and the soul wager to its conclusion. The rich detail and sheer length of Goethe’s Faust may unfairly paint it as an impenetrable work; these misconceptions hide a vividly imagined and often quite humorous tale. It is true that one can make much of the religious, moral, and philosophical questions, but they are balanced with lighter touches such as a shape-shifting poodle and Mephistopheles accompanying Faust on a double date through a garden – and what Oxford student can fail to identify with the dissatisfied academic who trades his soul for knowledge and pleasure?

The Humboldt forum: negotiating Germany’s past and future

This post was written by Dr Richard McClelland, a stipendiary lecturer in German and St Hugh’s and New Colleges. Dr McClelland gives an overview of this year’s Taylor lecture, by Neil MacGregor. You can watch the lecture here.

On Tuesday 13th February 2018 we were thrilled to welcome Neil MacGregor for the annual Taylor lecture. An alumnus of the university, MacGregor is the former head of the British Museum and the instigator of the popular exhibition, radio series and book ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’. His lecture, ‘The Humboldt Forum: Two Brothers, a Palast and a Schloß’ outlined the background to his current position as Founding Director of the Humbodlt Forum in Berlin. When completed, the Forum will occupy a cluster of buildings and will contain museums, teaching rooms for the nearby Humboldt University and public spaces open to all. The Forum will be located at the eastern end of Berlin’s Unter den Linden, the long imperial boulevard that stretches across Berlin to the Brandenburg Gate. And, as MacGregor states, it has caused quite a stir…

This isn’t, after all, just any building site, but one that is redeveloping what MacGregor describes as ‘the most contested of all of Berlin’s “sites of memory”’: the former site of the Hohenzollern Stadtschloss. Completed in the middle of the 17th century and exuding Baroque opulence, the Schloss was located on the famous Museuminsel. A deliberate choice, this site represented the bringing together of influential strands of public life as a physical embodiment of the Prussian and subsequently Imperial German crown: power in the palace, knowledge in the museums and, thanks to the nearby Berlin Dom, religion.

The Berliner Stadtschloss under construction. Photo by Ziko van Dijk.

Following heavy damage in the Second World War, the authorities of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) decided to tear the palace down. This decision was met with public outcry because it could have been saved; indeed, the similarly damaged museums were spared demolition. But the imperial grandeur did not project the correct image for the newly-founded workers’ state. In its place the authorities constructed the Palast der Republik, a people’s palace that housed the Volkskammer, the parliament of the GDR, and recreational facilities including a bowling alley. In 1990 it even became the home of the first democratically elected parliament in East Germany. Following Unification, however, it was left empty, the decaying shell an uneasy reminder of the communist past right in the heart of Germany’s new capital. In a decision that echoes the one taken some fifty years earlier, authorities demolished the building in 2008 because it contained asbestos. Or so runs the official line; again, the building didn’t project the right image for the new Republic.

Neil MacGregor gives the Taylor lecture, February 2018. Photo by Henrike Laehnemann.

In developing the Forum, then, MacGregor and the other directors must negotiate the legacy of imperial Germany, and the legacy and memory of the GDR – and address the questions, debates and often visceral reactions that each legacy provokes. The Forum, then, is an engagement with multiple strands of Germany’s history. Furthermore, it also embodies a very public debate on the legacy and impact of the nation’s past. It raises questions of how Germany remembers its past, and what this mean for the future image of Germany being projected globally. And, as MacGregor said, it also represents a very different narrative of the past than typically addressed in Britain.

Virtual Book Club goes French

Last month saw the launch of our virtual book club with an episode in Russian.

This month, we’ve moved on to discuss an extract of a text written in French. This episode focuses on a passage from Suzanne Dracius’s La Virago. Dracius is an author and playwright who was born in the Caribbean island of Martinique, which is a French overseas territory. Dracisu grew up on the outskirts of Paris, and her writing draws on her dual heritage as both Caribbean and French.

Watch as Dr Vanessa Lee guides some undergraduates through a discussion of gender assumptions, narrative suspense, and reader expectations in this text, touching on details like the use of tenses and imagery. To receive a copy of the text, as well as future book club updates, email us at with your name and school.

What do Shakira and the works of Cervantes have in common?

This post was written by Sarah Wadsworth, a first-year Spanish & Arabic student at St Anne’s College.

“What’s the hardest thing about studying Golden Age Spanish?” my friend says, repeating the question I asked her, pretending to think. She laughs. “The fact that all the words sound the same. They all begin with ‘al’!”

Gross overestimation it undoubtedly is, but in considering the lexicon of just one Spanish text – in this case, Cervantes’ novela Rinconete y Cortadillo – I can see where she’s coming from. Words like ‘almojarifazgo’, ‘alcabala’ and ‘almofía’ abound even in this short story that we study in first year. It’s something we have both noticed, the prevalence of a little syllable which in turn speaks to a wider history of language transference.

IND119216 Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1615) 1600 (oil on panel) by Jauregui y Aguilar, Juan de (c.1566-1641); Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid, Spain.

For almost 800 years, there was Arabic social and cultural hegemony from Andalusia to Toledo and even into southern France at the Moorish empire’s peak in the 8th century. Though the Reconquista (‘Reconquest’) would eventually return power to the Catholic monarchs with the surrender of Granada in 1492, the effects of centuries of linguistic transference were already evident, a consequence of history that still echoes in so many Spanish words. The influence of Arabic is visible both in the esoteric terms mentioned above and in more vernacular language, as is demonstrated by the Spanish word “hasta” (meaning “until”) and its Arabic cognate “حَتَّى” or “ḥatta”. The place names Andalucía and Almería are also of Arabic origin; they are just two of the hundreds of Arabic names for various regions, cities, towns and villages across the Iberian Peninsula.

Bras’lia – DF, 17/03/2011. Presidenta Dilma Rousseff recebe a cantora Shakira Mebarak. Foto: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR.

From the Moorish characters of numerous Spanish ballads to the magnificent architecture of the Alhambra, it is a past that continues to resonate in both Spanish literature and the language itself. But the modern twist on the tale? Given the emigration of Arabic speakers to Latin America from the 19th century onwards, there are now significant Middle Eastern communities in the New World too, like that in the Colombian city of Barranquilla. There are those with roots in both cultures who have risen to fame – the singer Shakira is just one notable example. The linguistic connections between Arabic and Spanish seem as potent today as they were more than 600 years ago.


Life as a Languages Assistant in Germany

This post was written by Emma Gilpin, a third-year French and German student at Oriel College.

One of the most important elements of a modern languages degree is the year abroad. It’s not something you are generally thinking about when you’re first applying to university and it’s all so far into the future but it certainly comes around quickly! I am a third-year student of French and German at Oriel and I am currently on my year abroad, working as a languages assistant in Cologne, Germany.

Lots of people choose to be languages assistants when they are planning their year abroad because, honestly, it’s such a great option! There are lots of possibilities available when you start planning how you want to spend the third year of your course, especially if you are studying two languages. I personally thought it would be great to be a languages assistant in Germany for 6 months as it would leave me plenty of time to spend in France later in the year (writing lots of CVs and job applications turned out to be a great way to keep up with my French!) I also wanted to spend a little more time in Germany as I have always found German a bit more difficult than French, but I have improved lots and am now hoping I still remember how to speak French!

The great thing about the year abroad is that you have so much freedom to choose what you want to do, whether you want to be studying or working, as well as the freedom to live where you want to, travel, meet new people and learn new skills. At times, it can be hard being away from home but there is plenty to keep me busy. Working in a school is a lot of fun and I often feel like I am learning as much from the students as they are learning from me! Not having to work on weekends is also a revelation after 2 years studying at Oxford so I have enjoyed exploring Cologne, travelling to new places and making sure never to miss out on opportunities to try new food (it’s all part of the cultural experience).

I feel really grateful to have this opportunity as part of my degree (how cool is it that chatting to my flatmates basically counts as work here?) and have not only learned lots of German but other skills too, like how to find a flat to live in for 6 months, how to navigate the tram system in a foreign country and how to teach a class of rowdy year 8s about a topic I’ve never read about- I’m hoping finals will be a breeze after that!

Look out – it’s our Virtual Book Club!

Last month, the Modern Languages Faculty at Oxford launched our virtual book club. For all you bookworms out there, this is a chance to engage more with literature beyond your school curriculum, and in languages other than English.

Each month we will focus on a different language but will always provide the text in translation, as well as in the original language. At the start of the month, we will circulate the texts chosen, which will be poems or short prose extracts, by email. At the end of the month we will upload a video discussion of the text with some of our academics and undergraduates.

The first episode focussed on a passage from the Russian novel The Naked Year, by Boris Pilnyak. It is available below. To receive a copy of the text or to sign up for future episodes, email us at with your name and school.

A glimpse of our Year 9 Languages afternoon

Last week, the Medieval and Modern Languages team at Oxford had the pleasure of meeting a group of Year 9 students from several schools across Oxfordshire. We spent an afternoon with them doing workshops on film subtitling in French, German, and Spanish, picking up some Russian, Portuguese, Italian, and Hebrew ab initio (from scratch), as well as being treated to an introduction to linguistics. At the end of the afternoon, Dr Simon Kemp, who teaches French at Somerville College, gave us an overview of Modern Languages at university. If you are considering languages as an option at degree level, take a look below at Simon’s presentation…

Joint Schools Part 2: Applying

Last week, Georgina Ramsay, who studies French and English at The Queen’s College, gave us an introduction to studying a modern language alongside another subject. This week she tells us more about applying…


Once I was certain I was going to apply for English and French the first challenge was writing a personal statement that conveyed my passion for both the subjects. Something I would advise when it comes to writing personal statements for joint-honours degree courses is to find connections between the two subjects because, after all, the reason you are applying for two subjects rather than one is because you think they are complementary.

Admissions Test

Something to consider when applying for a joint-honours course at Oxford is that you might have to take two admissions tests. For me that meant taking both the ELAT and the MLAT on the same day. Before the day of the tests try to do as much practice in timed conditions as you can, using the past papers available online. If possible – especially with the MLAT – it can be useful to ask your languages teacher to have a look through it or go over anything you are unsure of. On the day of the tests remember to pace yourself!


As you are applying for two subjects you need to be interviewed, and then accepted, by both tutours for both subjects. One of my concerns as my interview approached was speaking in the foreign language in my French interview. This is a common worry but remember that tutors do take into account that you are an A-Level student and also that you are probably nervous, so they are not expecting anything at all close to fluency. In fact, I remember in the last few minutes of my interview being asked a question in French and stumbling through and probably making mistakes. Do your best but do not worry about perfectionism! When it comes to analysing literature in the foreign language tutors are also aware that you may not have done this before but as the course places a large emphasis on literature it is definitely something to be aware of when applying.

Joint Schools: What are they?

At the University of Oxford you can study Modern Languages in combination with a number of other subjects: Classics, English, History, Linguistics, Middle Eastern Languages, and Philosophy. In this post, Georgina Ramsay, who studies French and English at The Queen’s College, tells us about what motivated her to do a Joint Schools degree. More information about Joint Schools Degrees can be found through the course listings on the University admissions pages. Over to Georgina…

It wasn’t until I was applying to university that I came across the term ‘joint-honours’ but I was definitely glad when I did. I had always assumed that I would apply to study English at university but following GCSEs, the first year of A-Levels and then attending the UNIQ Summer School I started to really consider the possibility of studying French. As excited as I was by the prospect of continuing to improve my French skills I was still conflicted between my two favourite subjects.

Taylor Institution (Modern Languages Library), Oxford

It was whilst researching degree courses that I realised that it was possible for me to continue with both English and French as there were some universities, including Oxford, that offered joint-honours degrees. I narrowed down my options, taking into account the split between the two subjects (some institutions place more emphasis on one subject) and what I liked about the Oxford course was that there was a 50:50 split.

English Faculty Library, Oxford

As an avid reader and bibliophile I had wanted to study English Literature because I liked the window it gave me into the world, history and different cultures. However, these reasons also applied to why I wanted to study French. A-Level French had been my first introduction into reading literature in another language and I had really enjoyed it. I realised that in studying French I would have access to a whole new world of Francophone literature.

After now having completed a full academic year I am certain that deciding to apply for both English and French was the right decision. I am now in my second year and I am still realising more and more the connections that can be made between the two sides of my course. For example, last year on the English side of my course I was really interested in postcolonial literature and looked at works by Frantz Fanon, a Martinican writer. I also studied Aimé Césaire in my French classes where I also learnt more about France’s colonial history. As a result I was able to see Fanon’s influence on Césaire and ultimately each side of the course was enriched by the other – which was what I had hoped for when I decided to apply.

Next week Georgina will tell us some things to consider when applying for a Joint Schools degree.

PS. We maintain that Modern Languages has a prettier library. 😉

A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!