The Tutorial

posted by Simon Kemp

One thing we’re very proud of at Oxford is the tutorial teaching system. In most weeks of the undergraduate course you’ll write an essay on a topic to do with literature, linguistics, film or some other part of your course. You’ll hand it in for your tutor to read, and then you’ll have an hour, in a pair or trio, or occasionally just you, to talk through the topic with the tutor, exploring it from all angles, clearing up any questions or misunderstandings arising from the essay, and testing out your views. It’s a great way to really get to grips with a subject, and a chance to share ideas with a world expert in the topic. Here’s an example of a modern languages tutorial in action:

No et moi: Who lives in the Invisible City?

posted by Simon Kemp

‘La ville invisible’ (the invisible city) is the metaphor that introduces the final section of Lou’s presentation to her class in Delphine de Vigan’s No et moi. The novel reproduces the section in full (in fact, it’s the only part of Lou’s speech that the book does include). Here’s what she says:

Il y a cette ville invisible, au cœur même de la ville. Cette femme qui dort chaque nuit au même endroit, avec son duvet et des sacs. À même le trottoir. Ces hommes sous les ponts, dans les gares, ces gens allongés sur des cartons ou recroquevillés sur un banc. Un jour, on commence à les voir. Dans la rue, dans le métro. Pas seulement ceux qui font la manche. Ceux qui se cachent. On repère leur démarche, leur veste déformée, leur pull troué. Un jour on s’attache à une silhouette, à une personne, on pose des questions, on essaie de trouver des raisons, des explications, et puis on compte. Les autres, des milliers. Comme le symptôme de notre monde malade. Les choses sont ce qu’elles sont. Mais moi je crois qu’il faut garder les yeux grands ouverts. Pour commencer. (p. 70)

 à même le trottoir : (right) on the pavement

recroquevillé : huddled up

faire la manche : to beg

se cacher: to hide

repérer: to spot, notice

la démarche : the way [they] walk

déformé: stretched out of shape

troué: with holes in it


So the ville invisible is the same city in which everyone else lives (Paris, in Lou’s case), but it is the city made up of homeless people. Her first examples are those we might expect: people sleeping on the streets surrounded by their belongings, under bridges, in stations, lying on cardboard or huddled on benches. Begging for small change. They’re invisible because people choose not to see them: embarrassed, afraid or indifferent, we walk past without acknowledging the presence of the homeless, acting as if there was nobody there.

But these are not the only people Lou is talking about, and this is not the only kind of invisibility in the invisible city. The homeless are not just the people we avoid looking at, but the people we see without realizing they are in distress. The second part of Lou’s paragraph focuses on the people who hide their homelessness, but whose status can be betrayed by small clues in their appearance:

On repère leur démarche: You can spot them by the way they walk (because of drugs or alcohol? untreated injuries? or simply the fact of having nowhere to go?)…

On repère […] leur veste déformée: You can spot them by a stretched-out jacket (bulked out by extra layers of clothing beneath it for warmth?)…

On repère […] leur pull troué: You can spot them by the holes in a worn-out jumper.

Lou has found herself starting to ‘tune in’ to the presence of these people, people like No, and she’s here encouraging her classmates to try to do the same thing. The first step is to see the invisible people, to start to realize just how many of them there are. Then you can try to do something to help them.

The idea of the invisible city crops up several more times in the course of the novel, for instance on p. 76 and 119. As Lou thinks more about it, it develops into an image of a parallel world, occupying the same space as ours but treated as if in a different dimension: ‘ce monde parallèle qui est pourtant la nôtre’ (p. 119). Lou refuses to accept that her world must remain separate from No’s. The story is her quest to find ‘un endroit où les mondes communiquent entre eux’ (p. 76).

How subtitled films can help you learn a language

This post originally appeared on the Oxford University Creative Multilingualism site.

I have an indistinct memory of five-year-old me bashfully articulating my first English words. I was so fascinated by the mystery lying behind what I thought was a secret code that I would listen to my father’s music collection and try to translate the lyrics. Our English lessons at school involved doing boring and repetitive exercises and my friends rapidly lost their enthusiasm for languages, but mine was kept alive by music and some animated cartoons my mother used to buy me.

At the age of fourteen, I applied for a linguistic high school where I studied French, English and Spanish. By eighteen, I was fluent in four languages, including my mother tongue (Italian). I had the chance to spend some time abroad as a teenager and that was crucial in my language development since I learnt things that books could not teach. At university, my studies were mainly concerned with literature and critical reading methods. I learnt how to pull apart the narrative structure of a novel in order to have a full understanding of it, but still, I felt ill-prepared to engage in conversation and unable to act naturally whilst speaking in a foreign language. It was during my master’s that I had the chance to join the staff of a local film festival, which gave me the opportunity to view films from a different perspective and understand how they can be an effective language learning tool. The pages of books turned into minutes on screen, descriptions into long shots, and words into gestures. My job was to translate the subtitles from English to Italian, requiring patience and attention to detail, because every word has to be weighed on a scale where weights and measures are ever changing.

Film is an extremely powerful communication medium and aims for the noblest purpose: knowledge. One can see and hear language used at the same time and, as a result, language stops being just about grammar and syntax, and comes to life. The auditory component is essential to the learning process and, with the help of subtitles, watching films can be an effective way to learn or hone language skills. In Italy, subtitles are quite unpopular and people have favoured dubbing over subtitles ever since Benito Mussolini imposed a protectionist policy in order to safeguard the Italian language from foreign influences. I believe this is now anachronistic and also a possible cause of diversity denial. The use of original-language films with subtitles would encourage people to experience other languages and lead them to a new awareness and to a more open-minded attitude.

Teaching English to children as a private tutor helped me to experiment with different learning methods and to be creative, as kids need constant entertainment and stimulation. The use of animated cartoons with English audio and subtitles helped the children to develop their language skills as their school lessons seldom involved listening exercises. It requires a significant effort at the beginning, but the results are remarkable in the long run. First, one has to get used to the sound of the language; then, subtitles help retain what one has heard and re-read unclear dialogue bits. Last but not least, contextualisation is crucial and the use of certain expressions or idioms is clearer when boosted by visual information.

Now I’m working at the Oxford Language Centre Library thanks to the Erasmus post-graduation project. We have books written in about 200 languages and a wide collection of films in their original language with subtitles that students often use, confirming that they are an essential learning tool.

Marta Triberio is currently doing an ERASMUS in the Oxford Language Centre Library. She has a Master’s degree in Comparative and Postcolonial Literatures at University of Bologna (Italy) and previously worked as an Audiovisual Translator at Lucca Film Festival.

Interview Questions: What makes a novel or play ‘political’?

Oxford University has released another batch of typical questions from admissions interviews, to give people a better idea of how our admissions process works. Here is the French sample question (and answer!), preceded by an introduction from the university’s Director of Admissions and Outreach. You can find the full set of questions from various subjects here.

‘We emphasise in all our outreach activity that the interview is primarily an academic conversation based on a passage of text, a problem set or a series of technical discussions related to the content of the course students have applied for,’ says Dr Samina Khan, Director of Admissions and Outreach at Oxford. ‘But interviews will be an entirely new experience for most students, and we know many prospective applicants are already worried about being in an unfamiliar place and being questioned by people they have not met – so to help students to become familiar with the type of questions they might get asked we release these real examples. We want to underscore that every question asked by our tutors has a purpose, and that purpose is to assess how students think about their subject and respond to new information or unfamiliar ideas.

‘No matter what kind of educational background or opportunities you have had, the interview should be an opportunity to show off your interest and ability in your chosen subject, since they are not about reciting what you already know. Tutors want to give candidates a chance to show their real ability and potential, which means candidates will be encouraged to use their knowledge and apply their thinking to new problems – with tutors guiding the discussion to ensure students feel comfortable and confident. They are an academic conversation in a subject area between tutors and candidate, similar to the undergraduate tutorials which current Oxford students attend every week.’

No matter what kind of educational background or opportunities you have had, the interview should be an opportunity to show off your interest and ability in your chosen subject.

Dr Khan adds: ‘It’s important to remember that most interviews build on material students will have encountered in their studies or touch on areas candidates mention in their personal statements. Most commonly tutors will provide candidates with material to prompt discussion – for example a piece of text, an image, or a sample experiment whose results they are asked to consider. It is often best to start responding by making very obvious observations and build up discussion from there – solving the problem quickly is less important than showing how you use information and analysis to get there.

‘We know there are still misunderstandings about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information as possible out there to allow students to see the reality of the process. We now have mock interviews online, video diaries made by admissions tutors during the interview process, and lots of example questions to help students to familiarise themselves with what the process is – and isn’t – about.’

Here is a sample question:

Subject: Modern Languages (French)
Interviewer: Helen Swift, St Hilda’s College

Q: What makes a novel or play ‘political’?

Helen: 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 (of whatever type they mention, 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 judgment about content or style? Could it be seen in and of itself a value judgment? 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? And so on. The interviewers would provide prompt questions to help guide the discussion. 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; ideally, they would recognise themselves that they were changing their viewpoint, and such awareness could indicate aptitude for sustained, careful reflection rather than a ‘scattergun’ effect of lots of different points that aren’t developed or considered in a probing way. Undoubtedly, the candidate would need to take a moment to think in the middle of all that – we expect that ‘ermmm’, ‘ah’, ‘oh’, ‘well’, etc. will feature in someone’s responses!

Emma’s Modern Languages FAQs

posted by Emma Beddall, final-year undergraduate student at Somerville College reading French and German

Why French?

French is a fantastic language with a rich associated culture and history and has a strong literary tradition.  Not only is it a language spoken by our closest neighbouring country and a number of others, it is also widely spoken around the world by many as a second language.

Why Oxford?

If the course appeals to you, why not Oxford?  The French course is different to many other Modern Languages degrees  and provides a truly unique academic experience which allows you to gain an insight into another language and its literature.

How is the course structured?

The first year of the course essentially counts as an introduction to a wide-ranging selection of French literature through the set texts, as well as developing language skills such as translation.  Second year onwards, you then have the chance to make choices based upon your interests.   Third year is generally spent abroad (although there are certain courses, such as French and Arabic in which the year abroad occurs in the second), before returning to Oxford for the fourth and final year of the course.

What makes the Oxford course different?

The French course offered at Oxford is very different to the courses offered in Modern Languages elsewhere.  The main difference is that the study of French at Oxford is very literature-focused, whereas other courses tend to have more modules in topics such as politics, film, cultural studies and linguistics.  Furthermore, there is the opportunity to study a broad range of literature, including medieval and early modern texts which are infrequently offered for study at undergraduate level at other universities.  Although the course is more traditional in nature, there are a wide range of options available and these include modules on European cinema, linguistics and translation, among others.

What if I’ve done no literature?

It is not a problem if you haven’t already studied French literature before coming to Oxford, the most important thing is a willingness to study and engage with literature.  Everyone arrives having done different things at school, especially given that the range of A-level courses (or their equivalents) tend to focus upon different aspects, some include literature while others, for example, involve studying French films.  Furthermore, you may well have previously studied literature in English classes or written essays in various subjects and many of the skills will carry across.  I’d also advise trying reading some books in French, and you really don’t have to start off with the imposing classics of French literature, unless you really want to!

Is the course just literature?

No, and we don’t spend all our time just writing essays on literature.  Although the course does allow you to study literature in depth and this is an important component of the degree, the course is not solely focused upon literary studies and there is also language component, with oral exams, translation both into and out of French and French cultural studies.  Having heard a lot about the literature side of the course before attending Oxford, I was actually surprised by the extent of the language content within the degree.

What if I’m not sure I want to do a year abroad?

The most important thing I can state is that there is time and you do not have to immediately embark on a year abroad.  At present, going to university is a big step, especially if you are coming straight out of school, and the very idea of living abroad for a year may seem intimidating.  However, after two years of studying, you will likely see things differently and probably feel very different as an individual. The year abroad is an obligatory part of the course, except under specific circumstances, and most people end up loving it and the many experiences it offers.  After all, very few other courses give you the chance to spend a year partway through your degree going and doing something completely different of your choosing.

What options are there if I don’t want to do just French?

You can study French as part of a Joint Honours with a number of other subjects.  Furthermore, it is also possible to combine French with another language, both European languages and others such as Russian and Arabic.  For full details on available course combinations with French, see the prospectus.

Is it okay if I haven’t done any other languages before?

Yes.  You can do just French or study French with another subject.  However, there is also the chance to start another language from scratch (known as ‘ab initio’) and study it alongside French, if you would like the chance to learn a new language.

Can I study at Oxford with a disability?

Yes, there are many students studying at Oxford with disabilities or long-term health condition.   It may be particularly useful to speak to people at the Colleges or the department on an open day if you have any queries.   There is also a range of support available, including the Disability Advisory Service for the university, welfare structures within the individual colleges, and the student-organised Oxford Student’s Disability Community (OSDC).

Is the interview scary?  How do I prepare?

Think about what you’ve put in your personal statement, especially the books you’ve read and any statements you’ve made about why you want to study French, as these are likely to be the start point of discussion.  I actually spent quite a lot of my German interview talking about the Harry Potter series and the challenges it poses for translation.  You will likely be nervous beforehand and the interview sounds like a daunting prospect, but try to see it as a chance to discuss things that interest you with another likeminded person; you will likely be surprised by how quickly the time passes!

Does my personal statement have to be full of classic French literature?  Should I make my personal statement sound like I’ve read loads of things?

First things first, honesty is always the best policy and if you claim you’ve read things you haven’t, you will potentially get caught out at the interview and this will inevitably be awkward.  If you happen to have read some French literature, go ahead and write about it.  However, you can also think outside the box, the idea is to show your enthusiasm for the French language, so don’t hesitate to write about your favourite French book, even if it isn’t the most literary of texts, or a French language film or play you’ve seen or how you’ve read the English translation of a classic French work.


Modern Languages beyond the undergraduate degree

This week, doctoral student Philippe Panizzon tells us a little about what it’s like to study modern languages at Oxford at post-graduate degree level.

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Oxford I opted to study Francophone Literatures whilst also specializing in the works of André Gide and Marguerite Duras whose literary output engages with French colonialism. In my Master of Studies at the University of Oxford I pursued my interest in Francophone Literatures further, focusing on canonical authors from North Africa such as Kateb Yacine and Assia Djebar. During my Master of Studies I also familiarised myself with relevant literary theory and criticism, such as feminist and queer theory, which also acted as preparation for my D.Phil. The good thing about the University of Oxford is that as a graduate student you can discuss your research interests with both established academics and among other graduate students. Thinking through my project with members of the French sub-faculty provided varying perspectives on the subject and stimulated further thinking on the topic. Furthermore, the French sub-faculty, with its close links to the Maison Française in Oxford, regularly welcomes scholars in French from other universities (either from UK or abroad). This provides the opportunity to get acquainted with other academic traditions beyond UK and engage with and follow the latest cultural and political trends in France and the Francophonie.

My D.Phil. project, which is fully funded by the St Anne’s College – Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages scholarship, analyses the discourse of homosexuality which takes shape during North Africa’s decolonization and independence, with particular reference to the works of North African authors Jean Sénac, Abdellah Taïa and Rachid O.. I aim to discover to what extent these authors respond to French metropolitan queer writers, whose implicit involvement with the colonialist project inflects their work with imperialism and racism.  To what extent are these authors more ambiguous or critical of French neo-colonial rule? Does Western queer theory do justice to writings by North African authors embedded within Arab/Muslim cultures? I benefit from being supervised by Professor Jane Hiddleston whose work and research specialises in Francophone Literatures, Postcolonial theory and Deconstruction. Thanks to these regular interactions with my supervisor my project has gained more precision and my thoughts are constantly pushed to the limits.

Despite having nearly 700 years of tradition, the University of Oxford has been open to my research interest in queer writers and queer theory. Oxford has an active research community studying feminist and queer studies and the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages has some great specialists in these areas.  While doing the D.Phil., we also get training for teaching undergraduates, while the countless courses offered by the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (Torch) have prepared me for the job-market. Graduate research becomes a well-rounded experience, rooted in scholarship but decidedly not walled off from the “real world”.

Bons mots: le tuba et le trombone

posted by Simon Kemp

It’s always interesting (well, I think so, anyway), to see how languages decide to divide up  the world.

French, for instance, decided that there were two kinds of long wet things flowing through the landscape. They were either un fleuve (if they end up flowing into the sea) or une rivière (if they end up flowing into a bigger river).  English never really saw the difference, and used river for both.

On the other hand, English decided that it would use the word flower for a pretty thing with petals, except if there happened to be lots of them together on a tree, in which case it would need the special word blossom. For French speakers, however, une fleur is une fleur, whether it’s alone in a flower-bed or one of hundreds on a cherry tree.

It’s interesting, too, to see how French and English go about using the same word for two quite different things. They rarely do it in the same way. In English, a key is a thing you use to open a door, and also a thing you press on a computer. In French, you open a door with une clé (or une clef), but computers (and pianos) have une touche. It’s always nice to come across the rare occasions where the two languages are in tune, like with un bélier which is French for a ram, in the sense of male sheep and also in the sense of battering ram.

Best of all, though, is when you discover that French uses the same word for two different things, and, as an English speaker, it had never even occurred to you that those two things had anything in common.

I have two examples for you, which are, oddly enough, both brass instruments. Le tuba and le trombone are indeed the French words for a tuba and a trombone, but do you know what else they are?

Un tuba is also the normal French word for…

a snorkel.

While un trombone also means…

a paper-clip.

Now that you see them, it makes perfect sense, and it only seems a shame that English speakers never thought to call snorkels tubas and paper-clips trombones.

Can you think of any other examples?

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages, Reason 89: Get into film and TV

Jessica Benhamou is a British-Israeli producer and writer who works in film and journalism. She produced the short film ‘Juliet Remembered’ which was shown at the Oxford International Film Festival. This post originally appeared on the Oxford Creative Multilingualism site.

I’ve been working in film and TV journalism since graduating in 2012 with a BA in Modern Languages. Highlights include working on Netflix’s “The Crown” and BBC Panorama. The latest short film I produced, Juliet Remembered, is also screening at the 2017 Oxford International Film Festival. I find that I draw on the skills I developed every day.

Superficially, my ability to speak and write in French has allowed me to travel and opened the doors to more opportunities. I’ve worked in Paris at France24, in Tel Aviv for i24news on their French channel and as a live-translator for Sky News. Beyond working in French, other linguistic and analytical skills have been highly transferrable for my creative work as a writer and producer.

Translation requires a precision and attention to language that I use all the time as a writer. Translation is a precarious balancing act where the writer tries to faithfully preserve the sense, style, tone and message of an original sentence in the most succinct way. Writing requires a person to be a wordsmith, and a screenwriter has to be particularly economical like a translator. You have to quickly establish an immersive world with compelling characters in 90 pages. Unlike novels, you cannot afford to have lengthy descriptions, vague images or share a character’s inner thoughts (unless you’re using a voiceover). You have to show a person’s character through action, dialogue, sound and visuals. Not only that, but your story has to be truly satisfying in a much shorter timeframe. Every word counts in a screenplay.

Studying a foreign language teaches you how to listen. A linguist knows how to detect subtle intonations, rhythm, irony and comic timing in a foreign language. This has helped me in post-production where the film comes together layer by layer. First you have the visual edit, followed by the sound design, music, colour grade and special effects. Having a good ear may help you detect whether a sound effect for clothes brushing seems more like leather or satin. It will help you know what kind of music would heighten a particular scene and engage an audience in the right way without being too didactic.

Beyond the linguistic component, a Modern Languages student learns about other cultures and other ways of thinking. Studying foreign works has allowed me to diversify my pool of resources. You may already be familiar with British classics and it can be useful to find your inspiration elsewhere. More generally, reading widely and critically for my degree has prepared me for the volume of script reading I have to do now. I can quickly assess the potential of a story or why a script is not working. Writing essays as part of my course taught me about the importance of structure and momentum. Both the script and the edit in post-production have to be tightly reigned in, but also keep moving resolutely towards a conclusion.

Finally, a Modern Languages degree teaches you about the power of imagination – to empathize with the lives of others. The desire to learn about other cultures surely attracts individuals with a curious, adventurous nature, who are looking to engage meaningfully with the world around them.


Unexpected skills gained on the year abroad

posted by Emma Beddall

Emma Beddall studies French and German at Somerville College. She is just returning for her final year from an exchange at a German university.

As my time spent abroad nears its end, I find myself thinking often of what I’ll bring back with me from my year abroad (and how I can possibly manage to get my possessions back to England, although that is another story…).  I am pretty sure that most students returning home will almost certainly bring back a range of physical things, from a collection of postcards with slogans in foreign languages – even the most banal of phrases sounds so much more sophisticated in another language – to photos of places they’ve visited and things they’ve done to all sorts of mementos and probably a fair few foreign-language books.

I know that next year, I’ll probably love having all these things in my university room as a reminder of my experiences that will allow me to reminisce nostalgically about my time abroad.  However, I think that perhaps most of the things I will bring back with me won’t be so easy to put on display. I’ll always treasure the memories, but the skills I picked up along the way might just be the most important and unanticipated benefit from my year abroad.  Some of the skills I’ve developed are big ones, some of them relatively irrelevant, but overall I suspect I’ll carry them with me throughout my life.


Language skills

It is undeniable that spending an extended period in Germany has definitely improved my German, and alongside it my confidence in using the language.  When you’re living in a foreign country, there really is no way to avoid being submersed in the language, and sooner or later you’ll probably find that you even talk to yourself in the foreign language.  After a while abroad, you will most likely possess a comprehensive vocabulary of words that really should exist in your native tongue and a tendency to confusion as to the grammar and spelling rules in your own languages.

While in a classroom setting, you always have the fall-back option of being able to swap to your native tongue when you just don’t know that word you need (or being able to look it up in a dictionary); in a real-life conversation, you generally can’t.  As a result, I have had to substantially increase my skills at playing the equivalent of Taboo mixed with Charades, in order to get across what I want to say without that vital word!


Packing skills

Given the tendency to accumulate all those physical souvenirs of your adventures abroad I mentioned earlier, you will also be highly likely to end up with more stuff than you started with.  As a result of this, you have two options a) decide upon a very minimalist approach and discard as many material possessions as possible at the end of the year, or b) get very good at packing.  I have gone for option B.

I am still not keen at packing, but I have become decidedly more skilled and logical at doing so.  I can now cram a ridiculous amount of things into hand luggage (most notably this once included a 24-volume lexicon that aroused the suspicion of Security) and have learnt all sorts of tricks, such as channelling my inner Hermione by carrying my heaviest hardback books as a little ‘light reading’ for the plane!


Life skills

Using a different currency also provides its own challenges, and constantly converting euro prices into pounds sterling is definitely a way to practise those rusty mental maths skills.  This is made more complicated by fluctuations in the exchange rate.  An alternative is to find something in your new country and base all prices on that, for example a scoop of ice cream costing a euro, but this doesn’t work so well when they then increase the price of ice cream (which now sadly costs me 1 and a half ‘ice creams’).

A year abroad is definitely a step up from university, where your family are potentially nearby and you are surrounded by staff and other students, and in addition to this, you have to communicate in a foreign language.  If you have issues while abroad (and it is pretty much inevitable that at some point you will end up in the wrong place), you are generally the one who will have to sort them out.  As a result, I’ve definitely become far more independent and more confident in my own ability to deal with situations, and this is something that has also happened to a lot of my friends who have spent time abroad.

As well as developing problem-solving skills, year abroad students seem to gain a talent for spontaneous trip organisation.  This ideally involves a really long coach journey, potentially to an unusual destination.  If you’re living in continental Europe, everywhere is basically now on your doorstep and it is a great opportunity to travel and try new things!





C’est la rentrée !

posted by Catriona Seth

            If you happen to be in France, there is one term you will see all over the place at this time of year: la rentrée. Obviously, it means the fact of re-entering… but what do you re-enter? ‘Papeteries’ or stationers and ‘Librairies’ or bookshops will give you a clue to one aspect of the ‘rentrée’ every schoolchild knows about: ‘la rentrée des classes’ or ‘la rentrée scolaire’, when everyone goes back to school. Nobel prize winner Anatole France relates a young boy’s thoughts and demeanour in his autobiographical Le Livre de mon ami, which was first published in 1885 : ‘Vivent les vacances, à bas la rentrée. Il avait le cœur un peu serré, c’était la rentrée. Pourtant, il trottait, ses livres sur son dos et sa toupie dans sa poche’. The spinning top in his pocket tells us a little about what games might have been usual at playtime in a nineteenth-century ‘cour d’école’. If he had come from Germany or parts of Eastern Europe, the young pupil might have been packed off for his first day at school with a ‘Schultüte’, a cone filled with sweets and small presents.

‘La rentrée’ is the time when everything picks up again after the summer. You will hear people of all ages and in all walks of life wishing each other ‘une bonne rentrée’. One of the specific aspects of French ‘rentrées’ is that they see the publication of a large number of books, particularly novels—there are 581 ‘romans de la rentrée’ out this year. This is what is known as ‘la rentrée littéraire’. Newspapers and magazines are full of suggestions about what to read: ‘les meilleurs romans de la rentrée’, ‘les romans les plus attendus de la rentrée’…

One of the books to watch is always Belgian author Amélie Nothomb’s new offering. She produces one book a year, regular as clockwork, and it comes out in time for ‘la rentrée littéraire’. Last year’s bore the same title as a fairy-tale by Charles Perrault, Riquet à la houppe (Ricky with the tuft) and is a fun variation on the ‘beauty and the beast’ theme. Like many of her novels, it is short and easy to read. This year’s offering, her 26th, is called Frappe-toi le cœur, a reference to a twelve-syllable line of verse (‘un alexandrin’) by romantic poet Alfred de Musset ‘Ah! Frappe-toi le cœur, c’est là qu’est le génie’: ‘Ah! Beat your heart, that is where genius lies’. He was suggesting that true genius involves feeling and not just thought. I have included his poem at the bottom of the page for those who want to read it.

And here is a little exercise on ‘rentrer’, the verb, and ‘rentrée’ the noun. See if you can fill in the blanks using the noun where appropriate and any of the following tenses for the verb: the ‘passé composé’, the ‘présent de l’indicatif’, the ‘futur simple’ and the ‘participe présent’.

Comme c’est la __________ Jeanne a un nouveau cartable. Cette année elle __________ à l’école primaire. Son frère Pierre est plus âgé qu’elle : il __________ au lycée l’année prochaine. Leur mère est une grande lectrice et s’intéresse aux romans de la __________. Après avoir déposé Jeanne à l’école, elle __________ chez elle avant de partir travailler. En __________ dans l’immeuble, elle a croisé son voisin de palier qui lui a souhaité une bonne __________. Il était très souriant : il venait d’apprendre qu’il allait avoir des __________ d’argent inattendues grâce à un petit héritage.



Answer: rentrée – est rentrée/rentre – rentrera/rentre – rentrée – est rentrée/rentre – rentrant – rentrée – rentrées

You will have noticed the meaning of ‘rentrée(s)’ in the final sentence is a different one: ‘Avoir une rentrée d’argent’ means to come into some money, not necessarily, as here, through an inheritance.


A mon ami Edouard B.

Tu te frappais le front en lisant Lamartine,
Edouard, tu pâlissais comme un joueur maudit ;
Le frisson te prenait, et la foudre divine,
   Tombant dans ta poitrine,
T’épouvantait toi-même en traversant ta nuit.

Ah ! frappe-toi le cœur, c’est là qu’est le génie.
C’est là qu’est la pitié, la souffrance et l’amour ;
C’est là qu’est le rocher du désert de la vie,
   D’où les flots d’harmonie,
Quand Moïse viendra, jailliront quelque jour.

Peut-être à ton insu déjà bouillonnent-elles,
Ces laves du volcan, dans les pleurs de tes yeux.
Tu partiras bientôt avec les hirondelles,
   Toi qui te sens des ailes
Lorsque tu vois passer un oiseau dans les cieux.

Ah ! tu sauras alors ce que vaut la paresse ;
Sur les rameaux voisins tu voudras revenir.
Edouard, Edouard, ton front est encor sans tristesse,
   Ton cœur plein de jeunesse…
Ah ! ne les frappe pas, ils n’auraient qu’à s’ouvrir !

Alfred de Musset (1810-1857)

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!