Try out life as an Oxford student for a week this summer!

posted by Simon Kemp

Would you like to spend a week with us this summer, living in an Oxford college, learning about a modern foreign language and its culture, and getting a taste of what it’s like to study here as a student? All entirely FREE of charge, food and accommodation included? (We’ll even pay for your train ticket to get here.)

If you’re currently in Year 12 of a state school, and have some free time in July this year, please do think about signing up for the course, or for one of the dozens of others on offer, including German, Spanish, or ‘beginner languages’ to give you a little experience of Russian, Portuguese and Italian languages and cultures. The French summer school runs from 2-7 July this year as does the Linguistics summer school.  Spanish and the Beginner Languages school both run from 16-21 July, while the German summer school is from 23-28 July.

Here are the details of the French week:

This UNIQ course is a chance to immerse yourself in the literature, theatre, poetry, film and linguistics of the French language.You will spend daily sessions at the Language Centre practising and improving your existing language skills, followed by fascinating lectures and seminars, and the chance to use the world famous Taylorian and Bodleian libraries for private study.

Our aim is to give you a taste of what it is really like to read French at Oxford, and to give you a sense of the unrivalled breadth of our course. Throughout the week, you will have the opportunity to hone your language skills and consolidate your knowledge of French grammar. You will also participate in classes introducing you to an exciting array of topics, ranging from Linguistics and 17th-century tragedy to French-language cinema and 19th-century poetry.

You will be expected to do some preparatory reading before the course so that you can make the most of the week you spend here: we’ve chosen Annie Ernaux’s 20th-century classic autobiographical text La place.  We will post a copy of the book to all successful participants in early June. Following a lecture that will explore some of the key themes and contexts surrounding Ernaux’s book, you will have the chance to test out (and flesh out) your ideas in a seminar. On the Friday, you will even experience an Oxford-style tutorial, in which you and three other students get to discuss your close reading of a poem with a specialist.

Student Experiences

“I really enjoyed the intimacy of the Alumni Dinner. Also, I enjoyed the morning grammar classes and the 17th Century French Theatre lecture as I was not expecting to enjoy it but really loved it!”

“The mentors were really friendly and easy to relate to, and the tutors were not as scary as I had thought they would be! It was a real adventure and one I wouldn’t hesitate to do again.”

You can find details of all the courses on offer here, along with information about how to sign up. The deadline for applications is January 24th, so you don’t have long to think about it, I’m afraid. We hope to see you in July!

Literature Masterclass at Oxford

Image result for taylor institute oxford

On Tuesday in Oxford, the French department opened its doors to sixth-formers from local state schools for a new kind of outreach event. With the new literature component in A-levels, many students are faced for the first time with the prospect of having to write short essays in French about famous French literary texts, from Moliere’s Tartuffe to Delphine de Vigan’s No et moi. Since teaching people how to analyse French literary texts is very much our thing, we thought we might be able to help out.

Over a hundred students from a dozen schools were invited, filling the Main Hall of our modern languages faculty. We started with a session on techniques of analysis, talking about words and imagery, perspective, tense and theatricality in the literary text, and attempting a little live analysis of a text. Then, after refreshments, we split into small groups for some close study of text that students are, or soon will be, studying in school, including L’Etranger, No et moi , Un secret and Un sac de billes. With lunch at an Oxford college as well, it was hopefully a useful introduction to literary study and an experience to remember.

We’re hoping to build on this with more online posts relating to A-level texts, of which last week’s look at Un sac de billes was the first. Further literary posts are on their way throughout the coming year.

[Lastly, I promised the visitors I’d post some of the photos from the day, which I shall definitely do, just as soon as my phone and this blog platform work out how to talk to one another properly…]

 

 

 

Un Sac de billes: What does the bag of marbles have to do with anything?

billes

posted by Simon Kemp

Joseph Joffo’s memoir of his time as a Jewish ten-year-old on the run with his older brother in Nazi-occupied France is justifiably famous, and it seems to be a popular choice among the set texts on the new A-level syllabus. As the first in our series answering questions about these texts, let’s see why the book has the title un sac de billes, given that marbles don’t feature in the book beyond the opening chapters.

Marbles are, of course, where we start in the story, with the game being played in the street between Jo and Maurice. Why start the story at this moment? Well, the episode is filled with foreshadowing of the story to come:

  • Maurice and Jo will return from the game to find two S. S. officers at their father’s barber shop, leading to their first real encounter with the Nazis and their antisemitism.

 

  • The game of marbles itself is watched by Mémé Epstein, who, Joffo mentions, is a Jewish woman who has found safe haven in Paris from the pogroms, attacks on Jewish people in Russia and Eastern Europe earlier in the century. A repeated theme in the story will be the fact that this kind of mass persecution of the Jews has happened before (including to Jo’s Russian grandfather), and that means it could happen again in the future.

 

  • And, most clearly, marbles come to symbolize the bond between the brothers. Maurice wins Jo’s last marble off him, fair and square, but, knowing how much he likes it, gives it back to him:

 

Un frère est quelqu’un à qui on rend la dernière bille qu’on vient de lui gagner.

 

The bond between the two boys is a central theme of the story, and their concern for each other is what will allow them to survive the coming ordeal.

 

The returned marble itself is also rather special. It looks a little like a miniature globe, and Jo likes to pretend he has the world in his pocket:

 

Il est bon d’avoir la Terre dans sa poche, les montagnes, les mers, tout ça bien enfoui. Je suis un géant et j’ai sur moi toutes les planètes.

 

There’s not much in the way of symbolism or metaphor in Joffo’s memoir, but this is one definite symbol. The world-marble gives Jo a fantasy of immense power, which is ironic as his extreme powerlessness is about to be brought home to him. But there’s also the fact that there actually is now a giant holding the whole planet in its grip, metaphorically at least. Fascism’s influence over the  world, its threat to humanity as a whole, and its pervasive power that can’t be escaped, no matter how far you run, is implicit in the image.

 

But hang on a minute… what about the bag?

 

There’s no bag of marbles in the opening scene. In fact, Joffo specifies that the marbles are in Maurice’s pockets, which are bulging with them : ça lui fait des poches comme des ballons.

So where’s the bag of marbles?

billes2

It turns up in Chapter Three, in a much briefer scene than the opening marbles game, but one that reinforces many of the same themes. Jo has gone to school with a yellow star sewn onto his clothes for the first time, and as a result has found himself insulted by his classmates, ignored by his teacher, and finally, beaten up in the playground. His non-Jewish friend Zérati, who feels guilty at having drawn attention to Jo’s star in the first place, runs after him and proposes a trade:

 

Mon étoile. Pour un sac de billes.

 

The marbles are handed over in another act of kindness : not between brothers this time, but between Jo and a non-Jewish person, foreshadowing the unexpected kindness the brothers will encounter from French people as they travel, and perhaps showing a better world of common humanity that the coming years will very nearly snuff out entirely.

billes3

So the marbles play a double role in the story, covering the twin themes of the book: on the one hand, immense power holding the world in its grasp in Jo’s fantasy, and its flipside of vulnerability in Jo’s real status, and on the other hand, the solidarity that will enable Jo and Maurice to survive the années noires of the Occupation.

 

And as well as all this, the marbles are just what you know marbles are: a children’s game. Perhaps that game in the street, just before meeting the S. S. officers at their home, is the last true moment of childhood in Jo’s life. Certainly, his childhood is over a little while later as he leaves home with his brother. Looking back, Joffo remarks of that night:

 

C’en était fait de l’enfance.

 

His childhood is over, not only because he will lose the security of home and the care of his parents, as he has to fend for himself in the world. It’s also over because any childhood illusions he may have had – that grown-ups are wise and good, perhaps, or that the world is a safe and predictable place – are about to be brutally dispelled.

 

There’s a reason marbles don’t feature in the book beyond the opening pages. They’re for children, and Joseph Joffo’s childhood ended at the age of ten.

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année

noel

posted by Simon Kemp

This blog is about to head off on its Christmas break, with just time for a 2016 round-up before we go.

photo [8485]

We started the year on a culinary theme with the delicious French tradition of galette des rois, and revisited the topic of food from time to time with a Belgian stew called Waterzooi, marmite from Geneva, some big, round bread, and the great oignon/ognon spelling controversy.

choix

Further language horrors were on view in French translation fails and tattoo fails, and we examined the French language from its ancient Frankish roots to the modern-day twittersphere.

livre-en-gros-caracteres-meursault-contre-enquete

We’ve also suggested some French novels you might like to try, including D’argile et de feu, Meursault: contre-enquête, and Eux sur la photo, and talked about the film Persepolis.

blog2

Along the way, we’ve also found time to explore a lively range of topics, such as French theatre in the time of Shakespeare, French kids’ books in the nineteenth century, the colourful life of Jean ‘Nicotine’ Nicot, and the curious tale of the Bodleian library’s fake book.

libe

The prospect of Brexit dominated much of the year, and we considered its impact on modern languages in universities. We also managed to find out what our students and your teachers have been up to recently. We launched our 2017 French Film competition, and the new Spanish flash fiction competition alongside it. And lastly, slipped in here and there, were a few posts about what you can do here at Oxford University, why you might want to, and how you can go about applying to come and study with us.

billes

We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in January with the first in a new series of posts answering a question about an A-level set text. We’ll start by asking why a memoir that doesn’t really seem to be about marbles (or, for that matter, bags) should have been given the title Un sac de billes.

French Film Competition (Now with added Spanish Flash Fiction Competition!)

gasoil

posted by Jenny Oliver and Jonathan Patterson

UPDATE: For details of the Oxford Spanish Department’s new ‘Flash Fiction’ competition, see below, after the French Film Competition.

The Department of French at Oxford University is looking for budding film enthusiasts in Years 7-11 and 12-13 to embrace the world of French cinema. To enter the competition, students in each age group are asked to re-write the ending of a film in no more than 1500 words.

You can work in English or French. No additional credit will be given for writing in French, but incorrect French grammatical expression will not be penalised: this is an exercise in creativity, rather than language!

The judges are looking for plausible yet imaginative new endings. There are no restrictions as to the form the entry might take: screen-play, play-script, prose, prose with illustrations. We’d also love to see filmed YouTube entries: feel free to experiment!

For 2017 we are inviting you to choose one film, either classic or contemporary, as per your age bracket:

Years 7-11:

Jean de Florette (1986, dir. Claude Berri) [PG]

OR

MicMacs à tire-larigot (2009, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet) [12A]
Years 12-13:

Paris nous appartient (1961, dir. Jacques Rivette)  [12]

OR

Microbe et Gasoil (2015, dir. Michel Gondry) [15]

 

To help you choose, here are the trailers.

For Jean de Florette:

For MicMacs:

For Microbe et Gasoil:

And, instead of a trailer, a scene from Paris nous appartient:

 

A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning student in each age group, with runner-up prizes of £25.

For further details about entering the competition (including the points in each film where we’d like you to take up the story), see the FAQs below. Each essay should be accompanied by a cover sheet.

Essays and cover sheets should be submitted by email to french.essay@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk by noon on 31st March 2017.

 

And now, a message from the Oxford Spanish department:

Spanish Flash Fiction Competition: NEW!!

Did you know that the shortest story in Spanish is only seven words long? Here it is: ‘Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí’ (Augusto Monterroso, “El dinosaurio”).

Write a story in Spanish of not more than 100 words, and send it to schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk by noon on Friday 31st March 2017 with your name, age and year group, and the name and address of your school.

A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning entry in each category (Years 7-11 and 12-13), with runner-up prizes of £25. The judges will be looking for creativity and imagination as well as good Spanish! The winning entries will be published on our website.

 

 

 

FAQS:

  1. What counts as ‘the ending’ of the film?

We’d like you to start your re-writing from the following points:

Paris nous appartient: from 1:52:55, when Philip asks Terry, ‘Pourquoi lui as-tu dit de venir?’

Jean de Florette: from 1:38:34, where Ugolin confronts Jean and says: ‘Monsieur Jean, il faut que je vous parle franchement…’

Micmacs from 1:16:44, when the message is relayed: ‘On lance!’, ‘On lance!,’ ‘On lance!’

Microbe et Gasoil from 1:29:23, when Microbe says ‘C’est possible de changer l’aller-retour contre deux allers, s’il vous plaît?’

  1. Does ‘re-writing’ mean I have to change everything?

There is nothing stopping you from watching the ‘real’ ending and then modifying it as you see fit. Indeed, you might find this helpful. Please note, though, that we’re looking for creative, entertaining and inventive new endings, which address as fully and plausibly as possible the strands of the story that are left unresolved at the end-points we’ve specified above.

  1. What form should the essay take?

There is no particular expectation as to how you submit your entry — you might like, for example, to submit it in screenplay format (with descriptions of camera angle, voice-over, lighting etc.), or as a play (with speech-prefixes and dialogue) or in prose, as in a novel. You might even like to submit your ‘new’ ending via YouTube or other social media! If so, email us the link with your attached coversheet. The form should be the one you feel shows your creativity in the best light.

  1. Where can I or my school/college get hold of the films?

The DVDs are readily and affordably available via Amazon (http://www.amazon.co.uk or http://www.amazon.fr). 

  1. Is there a limit to the amount of entries any one school can make?

Yes. There is a limit of 15 entries per school per age group.

  1. Should I enter as an individual or can I enter as part of a group?

We would ask you to keep to individually-named submissions, please: this is just to ensure as much as possible parity and fairness between entries, and to avoid any distinction between smaller and larger groups.

 

‘Marmite genevoise’

 

marmite-en-chocolat

posted by Catriona Seth

One of the most famous characters in Geneva’s folklore is ‘la mère Royaume’. Her feast is celebrated every 12th December, on the anniversary of the republic’s victory against the duke of Savoy in 1602, which is known as ‘l’Escalade’. The name comes from the Savoyards’ attempt to invade Geneva by climbing (‘escalader’) the walls of the city on wooden ladders in the middle of a cold winter night. There was fierce fighting as the Swiss inhabitants, struggling to defend their political and religious freedom, repelled the invaders, many of whom were mercenaries. ‘La mère Royaume’ who was said to be in her sixties, and hailed from Lyons, took a pragmatic approach: she poured a cauldron full of hot soup out of her window onto a Savoyard soldier. Her ‘marmite’ became the stuff of legends—and yes, the marmite you love or hate to have on your breakfast table is called after the French word for cauldron which inspired the shape of its original jar.
In Geneva, hot vegetable soup is served during the ‘Escalade’ festivities; pudding is a chocolate cauldron filled with sweets wrapped in red and yellow, the colours of Geneva, and little marzipan vegetables. It is smashed ceremonially with the following words being repeated by all: ‘Ainsi périrent les ennemis de la République!’, ‘Thus the enemies of the Republic perished!’.
There are serious aspects to the celebrations which many consider to be Geneva’s most important public festivities, like processions to honour the dead of 1602, historical re-enactments or a service of thanksgiving, but one of the best-loved traditions is a recent one: the ‘Course de l’Escalade’ or ‘Escalade race’ which was first run in 1978. course-escalade-2016It is hugely popular and, made up in fact of several races according to the distance you want to run, your age etc. It happens in early December and is the largest event of its kind in Switzerland with tens of thousands of men, women and children taking part, some in fancy dress. Doubtless many of those who start when the whistle is blown and they hear ‘A vos marques, prêt, partez!’ (literally ‘on your marks, ready, go!’) and reach the ‘ligne d’arrivée’ or finishing line, want nothing more than to tuck in to a bowl of hot ‘soupe de légumes’ as the onlookers toast their success and the memory of ‘la marmite de la mère Royaume’ whilst reflecting on the irony of ‘Mother Kingdom’s cauldron’ having helped save the Republic!course-historique137-2

(NB. 2017 French Film Competition for schools in next week’s post.)

Book Club – Hélène Gestern, Eux sur la photo

arton927posted by Catriona Seth

Published in 2011, Eux sur la photo (translated into English in 2014 as The People in the Photo) is the first novel by Hélène Gestern who has published three more since, all to critical acclaim, including her most recent one, L’Odeur de la forêt (2016), which is on the longlist of the prestigious ‘Fémina’ book prize. Eux sur la photo, which won several literary prizes in France, is about a young woman’s quest for her origins. She was only a very small child when her Mother died and she wants to learn about the woman she hardly knew. She finds a photograph and her hunt for clues starts there. As the story unwinds, we get to know more about her and about Stéphane who recognises his Father next to Hélène’s Mother on the snapshot when she has it published in a newspaper column in an attempt to get to gather information. The characters join forces to fill in the blanks as they face the fact that they have a common background about which they knew nothing. Their investigation of their parents’ past becomes a voyage of self-discovery as they learn to trust each other and their feelings. The book is also a reflection on memory and memories as well as on the power of photographs both to reveal and to conceal scenes and sentiments. There are descriptions of different pictures and various documents like letters, text messages and emails. This means the pace is varied but also that there is never a dull moment and the chapters are short and compelling.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book—what the French call the ‘quatrième de couverture’:

Une petite annonce dans un journal comme une bouteille à la mer : Hélène cherche la vérité sur sa mère, morte lorsqu’elle avait trois ans. Son seul indice : deux noms sur une photographie retrouvée dans les papiers de famille. Une réponse arrive : Stéphane a reconnu son père.
Commence alors une longue correspondance, parsemée de détails, d’abord ténus puis plus troublants. Patiemment, Hélène et Stéphane remontent le temps, dépouillant des archives et cherchant dans leur mémoire. Peu à peu, les histoires se recoupent, se répondent, forment un récit différent de ce qu’on leur avait dit.

Parsemer : To scatter
Ténu : Tenuous
Troublant : Unsettling
Dépouiller : Here, it means to scrutinise or to examine something thoroughly.
Se recouper : Here, to overlap.

This is the first paragraph of the book itself:

Le photographe a fixé pour toujours trois silhouettes en plein soleil, deux hommes et une femme. Ils sont tout de blanc vêtus et tiennent une raquette à la main. La jeune femme se trouve au milieu : l’homme qui est à sa droite, assez grand, est penché vers elle, comme s’il était sur le point de lui dire quelque chose. Le deuxième homme, à sa gauche, se tient un peu en retrait, une jambe fléchie, et prend appui sur sa raquette, dans une posture humoristique à la Charlie Chaplin. Tous trois ont l’air d’avoir environ trente ans, mais peut-être le plus grand est-il un peu plus âgé. Le paysage en arrière-plan, que masquent en partie les volumes d’une installation sportive, est à la fois alpin et sylvestre : un massif, encore blanc à son sommet, ferme la perspective, en imprimant à la scène une allure irréelle de carte postale.

This scene of three people with their tennis rackets on a sunny day in the mountains is the photograph which sets Hélène’s thoughts in motion and makes her decide to find out more about her Mother’s past.
Bonne lecture !people-photo146-2

Un Grand Pain Rond

pain-rondposted by Simon Kemp

The most distinctive thing about the sound of spoken French is its use of so-called nasal vowels. These are quite literally vowel sounds that come out of your nose: part of the air you’re breathing out as you speak has to go through your nostrils, rather than all through your mouth, as with the more common oral vowels. French is unusual in being so keen on them. English doesn’t have any, and nor do German or Spanish.

In fact, there are only three European languages — French, Portuguese and Polish — that actually make them part of the language to the extent that they have oral and nasal versions of the same vowel, and speakers and listeners distinguish between them.

So, in French, the words

gras

and

grand

use the oral and nasal versions of the same vowel.

There are four nasal vowels in standard French. The four vowels of the phrase in the title, in fact:

un (also in brun, humble and parfum)

grand (also in ampoule, encre and empêcher)

pain (also in vin and impossible)

rond (also in on, ombre and maison)

Here you can hear them pronounced and see the phonetic symbol for each of the four sounds:

And here are three interesting little facts about French nasal vowels:

  • You can often spot people from the south of France by the way they say their nasal vowels. In Provence and the Midi, they often sound as if they have an English -ng at the end of it, so il vient sounds a bit like il vieng, le lapin like le lapeng. There are some lovely accents méridionaux in this trailer for the Provence-set film, Manon des sources. Listen, just before the one-minute mark, how the nasal vowels of destin (destiny) and bons à rien (good-for-nothings) come out in a strong southern accent, when the villain of the piece says: ‘Ce sont ceux qui sont bons à rien qui parlent d’un destin,’ (‘Only good-for-nothings talk about destiny’).

 

  • While standard French has four nasal vowels, some French dialects distinguish five or even six different ones. In the Champagne region, for instance, some speakers pronounce pain and pin differently, even though the dictionary says they should sound the same.

 

  • A more widespread and growing tendency, though, is to actually ditch one of the four nasal vowels, and make do with just three. Surprisingly, it’s the sound in un, which in the Paris region and increasingly across northern France is disappearing, replaced by the sound from pain. (Given that pronouncing the word un was probably one of the first things you had to learn when you began studying French, you’re within your rights to feel a little aggrieved at this.) At some point in the not-too-distant future, the two sounds are likely to be indistinguishable in standard French, making words like brin (a twig) and brun (brown) into homophones.

 

You can find out more about these and many other quirks of the French language in Henriette Walter’s wonderful book, Le Français dans tous les sens, also available in English as French Inside Out.

Plus, if you’re interested in how language works, how it develops, and how diverse it is across the communities which speak it, then you can explore some linguistics in a modern languages degree. At Oxford, linguistics courses are available as options within any modern languages course, or as half of a degree in modern languages and linguistics, which you can learn about here.

More Interview Questions

posted by Simon Kemp

It’s university admissions time again, and Oxford has been trying to take some of the mystery out of our interview process. As well as releasing the video above, the university has been asking its tutors to reveal the questions they ask interview candidates. The story has been widely reported in newspapers, as well as on the BBC website here.

One of the questions was from an interview for a place on a degree involving French:

What makes a novel or play “political”?

This was a question for a French course. Interviewer Helen Swift, from St Hilda’s College, said:

“This is the sort of question that could emerge from a student’s personal statement, where, in speaking about their engagement with literature and culture of the language they want to study, they state a keen interest in works (such as a novel, play or film) that are “political”.

“We might start off by discussing the specific work that they cite (something that isn’t included in their A-level syllabus), so they have chance to start off on something concrete and familiar, asking, for instance, “in what ways?”, “why?”, “why might someone not enjoy it for the same reason?”.

“We’d then look to test the extent of their intellectual curiosity and capacities for critical engagement by broadening the questioning out to be more conceptually orientated and invite them to make comparisons between things that they’ve read/seen (in whatever language).

“So, in posing the overall question, ‘What makes this political?’ we’d want the candidate to start thinking about what one means in applying the label: what aspects of a work does it evoke? Is it a judgement about content or style? Could it be seen in and of itself a value judgement? How useful is it as a label?

“What if we said that all art is, in fact, political? What about cases where an author denies that their work is political, but critics assert that it is – is it purely a question of subjective interpretation?

“A strong candidate would show ready willingness and very good ability to engage and develop their ideas in conversation. It would be perfectly fine for someone to change their mind in the course of the discussion or come up with a thought that contradicted something they’d said before – we want people to think flexibly and be willing to consider different perspectives…

“Undoubtedly, the candidate would need to take a moment to think in the middle of all that – we expect that “ermmm”, “ah”, “oh”, “well” will feature in someone’s responses!”

There are further details about the Oxford interview on the university website here.

And you can explore lots more on the subject in the blog archives in the ‘Applying to Study Modern Languages’ category.

 

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