Category Archives: Applying to study modern languages

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.

 

Starting from Scratch

These days, most languages that you might want to study at university can be started from scratch. Oxford offers beginners’ courses in all our languages apart from French and Spanish, which means you can pick up any one of the following that takes your interest:

German

Russian

Italian

Czech

Portuguese

Greek

Polish

Plus, within each of our language courses are options to explore further related languages, including Bulgarian, Croatian, Ukranian, Catalan, Galician, Yiddish, Occitan.

And as well as the Modern Languages Faculty, two other Oxford faculties teach languages, several of which are available to combine with ours in a two-language degree.

The Oriental Studies Faculty offers Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew or Turkish (last four available in a combined course with modern languages).

And the Classics Faculty offers Latin and Ancient Greek (both available in a combined course with modern languages).

So if you’re at all curious about trying something new, there’s lot’s to choose from.

Around the time that Oxford opened its Beginners’ German course, the Guardian newspaper published a story exploring beginners’ languages in UK universities. Here’s an extract:

Though it’s difficult to detect in admissions statistics, university language courses are changing, with more opportunities for students to study a language from scratch. Ab initio courses, as they are termed, once the preserve of Russian, Chinese and Arabic, are now being extended to include more familiar languages: Spanish, sometimes French and especially German. In some universities, such courses are long established, but others are making new forays: Oxford offered beginners’ German for the first time this year (available in joint honours to students with an A-level in another language); King’s College London, went further and this year offered German from scratch with a range of subjects. Manchester has introduced French from scratch – plus the chance to add a language as a minor degree subject.

For Lauren Valentine, 19, completing the first year of a single honours French degree at Manchester, the university’s new “flexible honours” programme has allowed her to fulfil her dream of learning Spanish, foiled when her school split her year into two random language groups and she ended up with French. “I was always embarrassed on family holidays when all I could say was una cola lite,” she says. “I couldn’t do Spanish at sixth-form college either, and I didn’t have the confidence to apply for joint honours with Spanish ab inito because I thought it wouldn’t ever be as good as my French.
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“We did a lot of intensive grammar in the first year, and I feel that my Spanish is now above A-level standard, though the vocab will take more time to bed in. The course has given me even more than I’d hoped, and I now want to go into translation or interpreting.”

The new Manchester programme, introduced this year and allowing students to take a “minor” in a range of subjects including languages, is designed to catch students who might not have considered languages, or perhaps lacked the confidence to apply to study them at degree level. While the university still demands at least one good language A-level for traditional joint honours language courses, the minor courses require no prior language experience. This year, 30 out of 53 students taking a minor chose a language, and the vast majority plan to carry on – with a few even switching to full joint honours.

The scheme allows students to “dip their toe in the subject” for a year without risk, says assistant undergraduate director, Joseph McGonagle, and if they do continue they can get a language on their degree certificate. “The feedback is brilliant – they are grabbing it with both hands.” The hope is to double the numbers this September, he says. “This is about rebuilding from a low base – or a different base. We can’t let the popularity of school languages decline and not address that at university level.”

[…] At Oxford, ab initio German introduced this year has proved popular, and nine students are signed up for September (compared with 70 who have German A-level). Beginner students are taught very intensively and therefore their numbers will, for now, be capped at 16, says Katrin Kohl, professor of German literature.

The new course, Kohl notes, has attracted students drawn to German in diverse ways: perhaps through an interest in the economy, through family connections, or after reading something influential.

Jocelyn Wyburd, chair of the university council of modern languages and director of the language centre at Cambridge, sees the expansion of ab initio as “universities grappling with a pipeline problem” – a “woeful” 48% of the GCSE cohort last year took at least one language.

A strong fight back by language departments, mainly through the Routes into Languages campaign, plus government initiatives, may ultimately see a turnround in language take-up in the UK. But for now, Wyburd says, universities are “reinventing their rules. Each department is devising its own pathways and constantly reviewing what are the non-negotiables.”

Can ab initio rescue languages? “It can. Will it? I don’t know – I’d love it to. But it’s not a panacea.”

Ninety-Six Percent

posted by Simon Kemp

96%. That’s the satisfaction rate among our students with the French undergraduate course at Oxford.

That compares with an average of 93% satisfaction for courses across Oxford university, a satisfaction rate of 88% for courses across the ‘Russell Group’ of universities, and a satisfaction rate of 84% for undergraduate courses in all UK universities.

We’re very proud of that achievement, and always working hard to make sure our course is the best, most challenging and stimulating course that we can make it.

You can explore statistics on many aspects of our French course here, and through the Unistats link to the government website, you can compare data on our course with those at other universities. (If you do, one odd statistic I noticed is the suggestion that our French course has ‘0% coursework’. I presume they mean ‘0% compulsory coursework’, which is true, but in practice almost all our students choose to include at least one coursework portfolio or dissertation project among their final exams.)

Note too that 92% of our students agreed that teaching staff were good at explaining things to them (which leaves a little room for improvement still, but compares very well to our rival institutions), and 90% of students were in full-time work or study (such as Masters courses) six months after graduating. The excellent employability prospects of a modern languages degree, from here at Oxford or from anywhere else, is something we’ve talked about before, and really can’t emphasise enough.

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.

 

Number One

oxford-university-radcliffe-camera

posted by Simon Kemp

This week, just a little supplemental note to the post a few weeks ago noting that, according to the QS university rankings, Oxford modern languages faculty is the best modern languages faculty anywhere in the world.

Now, according to the Times Higher Education, it seems we’re also part of the best university in the world. According to their global rankings, which (in their words) are ‘the definitive list of the world’s best universities, evaluated across teaching, research, international outlook, reputation and more’, Oxford University is number one. It’s the first time in the twelve years that the ranking has been compiled that a UK university, rather than a US one, has gained the top spot. Their full list, with detailed breakdown of how we do on teaching, research and other measures, is here.

I mention this not just because I want to brag about it, but because it helps to prove the point I really want to make which is that

(a) we’re a great place to study modern languages,

and so,

(b) you should really think seriously about applying to come and study them with us.

We’re looking for bright, talented and well-motivated people from all backgrounds to come to Oxford and join our modern languages courses. Last year we invited 87% of the people who applied to us to study modern languages to come for an interview, and offered places to 34% of applicants. That shows, I think, that wherever you’re from and whatever your story, we’ll take your application very seriously and think carefully about whether we can offer you a place. We’re always delighted to hear from potential students. If you think you might enjoy studying with us, what do you have to lose by applying?

We’re waiting to hear from you.

 

Oxvlog on Oxford Admissions Interviews

OxVlog

posted by Simon Kemp

As I’ve mentioned before, the Oxvlog Project on Youtube is a good way to find out what Oxford is really all about from the students themselves. There are students from many different subjects talking about all aspects of their experience at Oxford, and they’re talking particularly to school students who are thinking about applying here and want to find out more. Here’s Connor, who’s studying German at Somerville, talking about what it’s like to come to Oxford for an interview for a place on the modern languages course:

You can find Connor’s other vlog posts, along with many more, here.

But what’s it really like? European and Middle Eastern Languages

posted by Simon Kemp

Here, in the latest of our occasional series, is another short film about what you can do with modern languages at Oxford. European and Middle Eastern Languages is a popular and fast-growing two-subject “joint school” with modern languages. If you choose to study it, you can combine any one modern language out of French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, Czech, Portuguese or Greek with any one Middle Eastern language out of Arabic, Hebrew, Persian or Turkish. French and Arabic is a popular combination. Students taking it can use their options in each course to investigate the long and sometimes fraught history between France and Arabic-speaking North Africa and explore the wealth of connections between French and Arab cultures.

Here are tutors and students talking about the course:

There’s more information here if you’re interested, and you can find out about all our courses here.

Top Teachers

OUITA

posted by Simon Kemp

A nice tradition in Oxford is our Inspirational Teacher Award, where current first-year Oxford undergraduates are asked to nominate teachers or careers advisers who inspired them to apply to Oxford, fostered their passion for a particular subject or supported them through the application process. The students asked to nominate teachers are all from UK state schools or colleges with a limited history and tradition of sending students to Oxford.

fis

This year, one of my own students at Somerville, Fis Noibi, who’s studying French and Arabic, nominated the head of sixth form at her old school, and he was selected as one of the winners.

Mr Course, from Robert Clack School in Dagenham, was named as one of 10 inspirational state school teachers from across Britain. In an interview with the Barking and Dagenham Post, Fis said Mr Course is ‘more than deserving of the award because, if not for him, I would not be doing my current course, let alone in this university. Mr Course is such an inspiration’

The winning teachers were honoured at an awards ceremony at St Peter’s College.  The award scheme, which was established six years ago, recognises the crucial role teachers and careers advisers play in encouraging talented students in their schools or colleges. Here are the teachers and students, with Fis and Mr Course four minutes in: