Category Archives: Applying to study modern languages

Why I chose German ab initio

Last week, we heard an overview of German at Oxford from Prof. Henrike Lähnemann. This week, Hannah Hodges, a current second-year undergraduate of French and German at St Peter’s College, tells us what motivated her to study German from scratch or ‘ab initio’.

The popular YouTube videos “German compared to other languages” didn’t really help me when justifying my decision to choose German as my ab initio language. Who would rather commit to four years studying the language whose word for butterfly is Schmetterling and not papillon or farfalla ?

Now in my second year of the ab initio German course, I stand by my decision to take up German as part of my degree. Why? Well, despite its reputation for being complicated, German is actually quite a logical language (at least compared to the endless list of French grammar exceptions anyway!). I may still stressfully pause before I say anything in order to figure out which translation of the I am going to use, but I can (kind of) see the logic behind the dreaded cases. Moreover, after spending seven years trying to decide when to use the passé composé, imparfait, passé simple or passé antérieur (what even is this?) in French, you can imagine my relief that in German there are only two commonly used past tenses and it’s not (too) important which you use in speech. And future? No need to worry about verb stems: with German you can use the present tense and just add a word like morgen (tomorrow) or nächstes Jahr (next year) which makes it pretty obvious you’re talking about a point in the future – logical, right?

Joking aside, the thought of reading Thomas Mann’s paragraph-long sentences does at times make me question my own choice, but the usefulness of German in understanding the development of modern European thought and being able to read seminal texts in their original language such as Immanuel Kant’s Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? (Answering the Question: what is Enlightenment) is rather rewarding. But perhaps the best thing is that German has the reputation of being a difficult language. Therefore, when you casually drop into conversation that you only started learning it a year and a half ago and someone asks you what the longest German word you know is,  you can confidently roll off the compound noun  Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung. Moreover, you can explain why the word is logically constructed. Trust me, people will think you’re amazing. So, don’t be put off just because the word for daisy is Gänseblümchen.

German at Oxford

In February we ran an open day for prospective students of German at Oxford. In the recording below, Prof. Henrike Lähnemann gives an overview of German at Oxford.

We offer German at a variety of entry levels, from post-A Level to beginner. The first-year course is designed to provide a structured introduction to the areas of the subject which will then be explored in depth later on. It is closely tailored to the entry level in order to equip all students with the necessary knowledge and skills. Whatever the starting-point, students study the same course for the second, third and fourth years.

In the first year, you will consolidate and improve your language skills while exploring issues of twentieth-century German society and developing an appreciation of German language and literary culture. A key element for post-A-level students is a course entitled Deutsche Gesellschaft und Kultur seit 1890. This is taught in German, in lectures and small classes, and is the basis for an integrated study of modern German language and literature. In tutorials and classes students on all of the first-year pathways will explore a range of literary texts and develop their oral and
written presentation skills in both English and German. The emphasis is on literature from 1890 to 1933 – a period of huge social change and industrial advance, and of the redefinition of the modern German nation through politics and war.

But students are also introduced to texts from other periods of German cultural history, from the medieval to the contemporary. The second and final years permit you to choose from a wide array of subjects, including the study of literary texts and cultural history from 800AD to the present day, modern linguistics and linguistic history, and a constantly evolving range of special authors and special subjects, including: Old Norse Sagas, Yiddish, women’s writing, medieval Minnesang, Nietzsche, cinema studies, the literature of the GDR, contemporary writing, advanced translation.

One of the great attractions of the Modern Languages course is the year abroad. Many students go as language assistants to schools in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. This offers an excellent opportunity for becoming integrated in a German-speaking community, and it is well-paid work which leaves time for you to continue your studies, travel and pursue other interests. Students of
German have also worked for international companies, in art galleries and museums, and at dance or theatre school. Others have studied at one of the many German universities with which Oxford has ties. Immersion in the language and society is an enormous benefit to our students. The key is to enjoy and to learn.

Most students at Oxford study German with another language, but it is also possible for post-A-level students to take “German sole” – in which case the first year course includes film, and medieval
and philosophical texts. Alternatively post-A-level students can combine German with Classics, English, History, Linguistics, a Middle Eastern Language, or with Philosophy.

A glimpse of our Year 9 Languages afternoon

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

Joint Schools Part 2: Applying

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

Applying

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

Admissions Test

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

Interviews

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

Joint Schools: What are they?

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

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

Taylor Institution (Modern Languages Library), Oxford

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

English Faculty Library, Oxford

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

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

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

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

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.

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.