Oxford Interviews: A Helper’s Perspective

Being invited to an interview at Oxford can be both exciting and daunting. While we hope that candidates will look forward to the chance to show us their intellectual potential, the last thing they should have to worry about is logistics – the when and where of the interviews themselves. Fortunately, when they arrive in Oxford they find that there are a multitude of helpers to make them feel at home. We rely heavily on our current undergraduates during the interview period to show candidates around the colleges, take them to their interviews, and generally put them at ease. This week, we hear from fourth-year German student at St Peter’s, Isobel Cavan, who gives us a helper’s perspective:

When I came to Oxford for my interviews, I can remember wishing that my four hour train journey could be just a bit longer so I could somehow re-read all the books I’d mentioned on my personal statement! I was incredibly nervous, but when I got to the college that was hosting me I was met by a really friendly second-year student, who showed me my room, where I could get food, and where all the information about interviews would be posted. He even carried my bag up four flights of stairs! He told me the best thing to do was to try and enjoy the whole process, and although it’s easier said than done, it really is true.

And the college hosting you will really try to help you enjoy it. Each college has a group of current students whose job it is to make you feel welcome, make sure you don’t get lost, and arrange a few fun things to do when you’re not doing your interviews. This might be showing films in the common room, or organising a group of people going for ice cream at G&D’s (the best place in Oxford for ice cream). It can be really helpful to be able to get out of your room and chat to people, most of them doing different subjects, and explore the town whilst you’re here.

Whilst the interviews themselves are never going to be the most relaxing half hour of your life, they’re actually pretty fun once you get into them. And if you have any worries, or just need someone to make you a cup of tea, there should be plenty of people around in the common room who’ll be happy to help. Four years after my own interviews, I’m really looking forward to helping out this year and making sure everyone knows where they’re going. Everyone helping will have been in your shoes not too long ago, and we understand how daunting it can seem. The colleges and tutors are all looking forward to meeting you, and I hope you have a great time at your interviews.

A Flavour of Portugal

by Clare Tierney, a second-year undergraduate in French and Portuguese at St John’s College

One of the most exciting parts of learning an ab initio language (learning a language from scratch) is the ab initio culture, I came to realise. Since starting Portuguese at Oxford in October 2016, I have delved into literature from the last 500 years, works of art, film, but, perhaps most important to me personally has been the food and drink. Much to my recently-gained chagrin, Portuguese cuisine is a bit of an unknown quantity in Britain. Nando’s could speak for Portugal, though few diners are actually aware of its Luso heritage, leaving Spain’s chorizos to single-handedly sum up food on the Iberian peninsula. But Portugal can most certainly hold its own when it comes to wining and dining.

The faculty wasted no time in acquainting us with Portuguese wine, putting on a tasting of both Portuguese and Brazilian, red and white during our pre-sessional course, which is an intensive introduction to the language. Here we discovered vinho verde. Relatively uncommon in England, this lightly sparkling white is delightful, and trips to Lisbon and Porto this past summer confirmed my positive opinion. None of the binge drinking nonsense in a restaurante tradicional: it’s 6€ a bottle when dining in, which is inviting excitable young Brits like us to drink with food, i.e. responsibly! Then we come to the Sagres beer, which is affiliated with the Lisbon team Benfica, and is both light and flavourful. What’s more, it is named after the coastal promontory on which Henry the Navigator had a chapel built in 1459. At the geographical extremity of their homeland, the discoverers would pray for safety on their voyages to map the world. Nothing could be more Portuguese than this, uniting sailing the seas, beer and football in a single product.

So what about food? The ingenuity of persecuted Jews during the Inquisition has stayed part of the country’s gastronomy in the form of alheira: a deep-fried medley of meats shaped, as sausages, to resemble their Christian oppressors’ pork equivalent. The pastel de nata or custard tart was also the invention of the religious community, though in this case it was the Catholic monks’ means of generating income. From their humble origin in 1837, they were named one of the ‘Seven Gastronomic Marvels of Portugal’ in 2011. The alheira sausage was too named, along with paella’s lesser known (but clearly award-winning) sibling arroz de marisco (the self-explanatory seafood rice). And this is still neglecting the expertly made coffee at 60 cents a cup in the centre of the capital city, not to mention the infinite list of of beans and fish with their equally infinite lists of accompanying seasonings and cooking methods ranging from garlic and on the grill, to frying in olive oil. A year abroad full of omega-3, caffeine and theological heritage awaits me and my stomach!

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.