Category Archives: Why study French?

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages, Reason 90: Because the Humanities Matter

posted by Simon Kemp

Modern Languages at university form part of a family of subjects, along with history, English, philosophy and several others, known as the Humanities. This week’s Good Reason to study modern languages is because it’s a humanities subject, and because all the humanities are important. (You can find the other reasons by clicking the ‘100 Reasons’ tag at the bottom of this post.) The American writer and academic, Francine Prose, makes an eloquent case for studying the humanities in a recent article, and suggests why these subjects might be more important than ever in today’s world. Here’s an extract:

Those of us who teach and study are aware of what these areas of learning provide: the ability to think critically and independently; to tolerate ambiguity; to see both sides of an issue; to look beneath the surface of what we are being told; to appreciate the ways in which language can help us understand one another more clearly and profoundly – or, alternately, how language can conceal and misrepresent. They help us learn how to think, and they equip us to live in – to sustain – a democracy.

Studying the classics and philosophy teaches students where we come from, and how our modes of reasoning have evolved over time. Learning foreign languages, and about other cultures, enables students to understand how other societies resemble or differ from our own. Is it entirely paranoid to wonder if these subjects are under attack because they enable students to think in ways that are more complex than the reductive simplifications so congenial to our current political and corporate discourse?

 I don’t believe that the humanities can make you a decent person. We know that Hitler was an ardent Wagner fan and had a lively interest in architecture. But literature, art and music can focus and expand our sense of what humans can accomplish and create. The humanities teach us about those who have gone before us; a foreign language brings us closer to those with whom we share the planet. The humanities can touch those aspects of consciousness that we call intellect and heart – organs seemingly lacking among lawmakers whose views on health care suggest not only zero compassion but a poor understanding of human experience, with its crises and setbacks.

Courses in the humanities are as formative and beneficial as the classes that will replace them. Instead of Shakespeare or French, there will be (perhaps there already are) college classes in how to trim corporate spending – courses that instruct us to eliminate “frivolous” programs of study that might actually teach students to think.

You can find the full article here.

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.

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages: Reason 91


posted by Simon Kemp

You get to read.

You get to read stories, poems, novels and plays.

You get to lose yourselves in the worlds created by some of the greatest authors in history, and venture into other lives and other minds awaiting you between the pages.

You get to shed a tear for Emma Bovary as her dreams of romance are slowly crushed.

You get to cheer on Julien Sorel as he climbs slippery social ladders up into high society and regular ladders up into other people’s bedrooms.

You get to hiss the judge who condemns a man to death because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral.

And you get to do all three at the same time, and feel oddly confused about why you’re doing that, as the Marquise de Merteuil weaves her clever schemes around the love-lives of unsuspecting innocents.


Yes, your language confidence and your knowledge of French culture and history will come on in leaps and bounds as you read these stories.

Yes, you’ll develop your skills in critical thinking,  researching for evidence, building and defending arguments, and articulating your ideas as you analyse these texts, and you’ll take all of these vital skills away with you to the workplace, where they are much in demand.

But a Modern Languages degree at Oxford offers more than that. It offers the opportunity to to be charmed…

to be provoked…

to be moved to tears…

to be shaken in your beliefs…

… as you link minds with some of the great men and women of European culture and encounter their greatest masterpieces. Some of these masterpieces — let’s not get carried away here — won’t really grab you, and you’ll slog through them dutifully before writing a tidy essay about them. But then you’ll open some other book on the course, and who knows which one it will be, and it will speak to you deeply and drag you down into itself. And when you finally look up from it, you’ll feel like you’re looking at the world with fresh eyes.

Discovering literature with us is an experience that will stay with you the rest of your life, and an experience that will leave you changed.

Are you tempted at all?

Evening Sun
Evening Sun

Brexit and Modern Languages

Post-Brexit front page of a French newspaper. The caption reads: ‘Massive shock in the United Kingdom and many questions in the EU member states after a Brexit victory of 51.9%, due notably to Boris Johnson.’

posted by Simon Kemp

There is shock and dismay in Modern Languages at Oxford, you won’t be surprised to hear, as there is more widely across the university. I have seen professors in tears in the days following the news that Britain has voted to leave the European Union. What does it mean for Modern Languages as a subject, and for you as someone who may be considering studying a language at university?

In practical terms, there is nothing to worry about any time soon. University courses and UK student funding arrangements remain unchanged. Courses in European languages and cultures at Oxford and elsewhere will continue to enrol students, and students of modern languages will continue to take a year abroad in their degree as before. It’s true that some year-abroad options, including many university exchanges and internships, currently take advantage of European Union support through the ERASMUS programme. This support will be in place for at least the next two years, and very possibly longer.  While it’s uncertain what arrangements will be in place in the longer term, we can be confident that student exchanges to European universities, work placements in European firms and teaching assistant posts in European schools will continue, regardless. No matter what happens between the UK and the EU, European schools and businesses still consider English-speaking students a valuable resource and are keen to host them, while European universities will still invite British students over for a year in exchange for a year at a British university for one of their own students. All of this was happening long before we were part of the EU and ERASMUS, and will carry on happening if we leave. So if you’re concerned about whether you should take a modern languages degree in post-Brexit Britain, then I don’t think you need to worry. Nothing fundamental will change where our courses are concerned in the next few years, nor is there likely to be a major change in the careers and life-opportunities they offer.

But something has changed.

Britain is pulling out of the European Union. Some people are afraid that, in the years to come, Britain will be turning away from the continent, turning inwards on itself. It may be that, decades from now, British people will have fewer opportunities to live and work in other European countries, fewer occasions to experience life among the French, Germans, Spanish or Italians. Less chance to make friends with our neighbours. The United Kingdom has reached a fork in the road, and the path we’ve chosen seems to be leading us away from the peaceful, prosperous and vibrant community of cultural and economic exchange that we’ve been part of for as long as most of us can remember. Nobody can really predict with any confidence what lies ahead of us as the century unfolds.

We know that Britain’s young people — the 18-24-year-olds who were eligible to vote in the referendum and the sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who were not — are the people most likely to see the worth of the European Union, and the people most keen to see us remain a part of it. Perhaps you’re one of these people, and you’ve been looking forward to studying European languages and cultures at university, spending time in Europe on a year abroad, and then going on to a career that makes use of your skills.  Perhaps what happened last week has left you feeling bewildered and discouraged.

If that sounds like you, I urge you to take heart. Britain’s future relationship with Europe is uncertain, and it will be up to your generation to shape it. Where we go from here will be largely up to you. It’s never been more important for open-minded, outward-looking people to get involved. Learn to communicate in another European language. Get to know another European culture. Find out for yourself who our fellow Europeans really are. There are many big challenges ahead and many more difficult decisions to be taken as we continue to work out our new place in the world. If you’re going to rise to the occasion, you’ll need to be prepared.

A detailed view of the earth from space with night lights --- Image by © Matthias Kulka/Corbis

100 Good Reasons to study modern languages at university: Reason 92

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, Tom Hollander as Major Corkoran, Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper - The Night Manager _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: Mitch Jenkins/The Ink Factory/AMC Itís the first TV adaptation of a le CarrÈ novel in more than 20 years and the first adaptation of The Night Manager. The novel, originally released in 1993, has been updated as an contemporary interpretation ñ the original novel is based predominantly in South America and Mexico - and sees Roper selling weapons to the Colombian drug cartels. The story has been updated so that it is set in the modern day Middle East ñ it is very current with the first episode opening with the Arab Spring in Cairo. Olivia Colmanís character, Angela Burr, was written as a man in the novel (Leonard Burr) but the decision was made to make the character female to modernise the story. Olivia was also pregnant when she got the part, so they incorporated this into the story too. Susanne Bier (director): ìWe had decided that Burr should be played by a woman, rather than a man as in the book, because we thought there was an exciting chemistry between a woman and a man engaging in the power struggle that Roper and Burr have.î Hugh Laurie has been trying to get the adaptation made for many years, having read the novel when he was young ñ he tried to get the rights but they were owned by Sydney Pollock who originally tried to make the novel into a film. Hugh Laurie (plays Roper): ìI fell in love with this book when I first read it back in 1993. Iíd worshipped le CarrÈ since I was a teenager, but this story, in particular, I found endlessly intriguing, powerful and romantic, mythic almost.î

posted by Simon Kemp

While the Intelligence Services may not recruit their spies with a tap on the shoulder and a whispered conversation any more, they’re still very interested in modern languages graduates. If you’re interested in languages, you might as well bear them in mind as a career option…

Not long ago, The Guardian published an article on the topic. The full article is here, but here’s an extract:

If Kim Philby or Guy Burgess were able to stroll today around the famous Great Court of their old Cambridge college, Trinity, they might raise an eyebrow at the scruffiness of some students, but otherwise little has changed. It’s not just the surroundings that are remarkably consistent; so is one of the job opportunities: spying.

Top universities remain a useful place to find new entrants, not just linguists but also those with increasingly vital technology skills, or with the more varied and nebulous talents needed to be an agent in the field.

However, these days the net is cast far wider. For a couple of days this week if you entered “Russian language” and “university” into Google’s UK search engine, above the results popped a jaunty, paid-for advertisement. “Understand Russian?” it asked. “Help protect the UK.” A link took you to MI5’s careers website.

One Cambridge student said she knew of a handful of the 20 or so final-year Russian linguists who were contemplating the security services. She thought it an unlikely path for her, but still asked to not be named in case she changed her mind.

Another student, in her second year, who received the same email and also asked to speak anonymously, said it was a tempting route for students facing an uncertain economic landscape and laden with significant debts. “It’s probably an attractive career for a lot of people. Everyone is so concerned about not getting a job at all, so if you’re being offered something so secure, why wouldn’t you think about it?”

As a modern job it is not just secure, but also a very different working environment from the often lonely, drink and cigarette-fuelled world of the 1950s traitors. Characters such as Burgess – who spent much of his time during a posting in Washington drunk and was described in an FBI file as “louche, foul-mouthed … with a penchant for seducing hitchhikers” – would not be tolerated for long.

MI6 declined to comment on its recruitment policies but pointed the Guardian to the careers section of its website. This now includes a “wellbeing” page, which stresses a commitment to health and safety, and talks of counsellors being available to staff. Anonymous profiles of intelligence officers include a woman who recently took maternity leave and praises the work-life balance.

MI5 also declined to comment but GCHQ, the Cheltenham-based communications and interceptions centre, said it was “always looking to recruit those with language skills relevant to the world today”. A spokesman said: “A combination of workforce changes and the requirement from government that GCHQ continues to deliver on its mission to keep the UK safe means that we are currently looking for those with skills in a number of languages, one of which is Russian.”

Among ways to attract new people was through “regular engagements with universities”, the spokesman added.

Sitting in a cafe in one of the university’s modern buildings, the Cambridge students who spoke to the Guardian said many more of their peers were applying for the Foreign Office fast-track scheme for budding diplomats, now also much changed, with a first round consisting of internet-based aptitude tests.

Both said returning to Russia as an intelligence operative rather than a diplomat could prove difficult.

“If you’ve spent time in Russia and got to know Russian people it could almost feel a bit strange returning there as a spy,” said the second-year student. “It’s almost as if you’re betraying the Russian people you know, or at least your relationship with them might be very different.”

Her friend echoed this point: “When I was in Moscow I volunteered at a fostering commune, which was amazing. It would be very different going back there as a spy. If you like the country and like the people it could be difficult to do that sort of job.”

She added: “When I started my course Russia wasn’t the big enemy. It’s strange how it’s all changed so quickly. I didn’t expect my degree to be so in demand like this.”


But what’s it really like? History and Modern Languages

posted by Simon Kemp

Next in our occasional series of short films about Oxford’s various courses with modern languages comes one of our most popular combinations: History and Modern Languages. Click the video below to see students and tutors talk about the course.

You can find out all the details of the course and how to apply for it here, and details of all our courses here.

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages at University: Reason 93


NIAMEY, NIGER - AUGUST 12: Nigerois boys play a game of soccer on August 12, 2005 Niamey, Nigeria. Niamey is the Capital of Niger. Niger is experiencing a food crisis which is threatening the lives of thousands in the impoverished West African nation. A combination of sever drought and a locust plague has caused the famine which has affected at least 2 million people in Niger and approximatly 5 million in the region. Niger is the second poorest country in the world, with 64 percent of the 12 millions inhabitants surviving on less than USD1 (81 euro cents) day. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

French is a growing language. There are currently 220 million French speakers in the world. By the year 2060, there may be 760 million.

A recent study that claimed French would be the world’s most widely spoken language by 2050, overtaking Spanish, English and Mandarin, may have been a bit over-optimistic. Nevertheless, the number of French speakers around the world is growing sharply, especially in francophone Africa. As L’Express discussed in a recent article,  population growth and increasing levels of education in Africa are an important factor in the growth of the language in countries where it is the official language, as well of countries where it plays a mediating role between several local languages, or serves as the language of administration, business and the media.

According to the Observatoire de la langue française, there are likely to be 715 million French speakers in the world in 2050, which is 8% of the expected global population of nine  billion.  This is then forecast to increase to 760 million francophones by 2060. This may well cause it to creep up the rankings of global languages from its current fourth place, behind English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.

The centre of gravity of the French language is also shifting southwards. In 2050, 85% of French speakers will be in Africa. That figure rises to 90% of young people aged 15-29, given the starkly different demographics of the European and African continents.

The future is definitely francophone, even if it’s not necessarily French.

Subtitling Geordie Shore


What’s it like to be fluent in more than one language?

What language do bilingual people dream in?

Are they more emotional in their one language? More rational in another?

Never mind those questions. How about these:

How does stand-up comedy work in India, when performers and audience members may speak English, Hindi, Tamil, Urdu or several other languages, and not necessarily the same ones?

And most importantly, what’s it like to be employed to watch entire seasons of MTV reality show Geordie Shore, translate all the dialogue into your native language, and then try to boil it down into coherent subtitles?

Yes, Geordie-Shore-Subtitler is a real job, that actual people are doing across Europe right now at this very minute. Would you like to meet one of them? And would you like to find out how “I should have a degree in pulling women” comes out in German subtitles?

Of course you would.

Well, all these questions are answered here. It’s an episode of the BBC Radio Show, Fry’s English Delight called English Plus One, in which Stephen Fry looks at bilingualism, and talks to people who combine English with another language.  He finds out what it’s like to live in two languages at the same time, and also why it might be a good idea to pick up a second language and become bilingual yourself.


The programme is thirty minutes long and available to listen to (in the UK at least) until the end of September. Geordie Shore in German is around twenty minutes in.


Employability (Part Two)

posted by Simon Kemp

A couple of weeks ago we examined the statistics that show modern languages to be one of the best subjects to study at university in terms of the employability of its graduates. Today I want to tell you about some of the jobs my own students have gone into after graduation, to give you an idea of the range of opportunities open to people with a modern languages degree.

Let’s start with the City:

International business and finance are popular destinations for modern languages graduates, especially those who thrive in an atmosphere of high stakes, high pressure, and high salaries. Increasingly interconnected global markets need global communicators, and people with the ability to conduct business in languages other than English are much in demand. A former student of mine now works in the Gherkin, with access to the exclusive private dining under the panoramic glass dome on the top floor. What’s it like? I’ll tell you after she’s remembered to invite me.



There’s no need to stay in the UK, of course. As we saw earlier, more modern languages graduates get their first job abroad than graduates from any other subject. One of our former students now works at the Deutsche Bank headquarters in Frankfurt (above). Another, who maybe has slightly different priorities in life, headed straight back after graduation to the Caribbean island of Martinique, where he’d spent his year abroad during the degree, to carry on teaching English to local children.

Another major destination for our students is law. While it’s possible to become a lawyer by doing a three-year undergraduate degree in law, it’s also possible, and very popular, to take an undergraduate degree in another subject, followed by a one-year ‘law conversion’ course at masters level.

The combination of a modern languages degree and law conversion is a common route into the profession, with the obvious advantage that it also opens doors into international law. The reverse method, by the way, doesn’t work: you can’t top up an undergraduate law degree with a year-long modern languages course. That’s because it takes time to gain fluency in a foreign language: it’s not just a matter of learning the rules, but of letting them percolate into your brain through practice and reinforcement over a period of years.

Then, there’s the civil service.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the British Foreign Office are desperate for qualified linguists. There are posts in Britain, or also working abroad in British consulates with the diplomatic service. Plus, there is the European Union: many modern languages graduates go on to work as translators, interpreters, administrators or political analysts at the EU. And, of course, there are the Security Services, for whom languages are of utmost importance. On-screen, James Bond has to date been seen speaking fluent French, Spanish, Danish, German, Russian and Egyptian Arabic, which is quite some achievement. Have any of my students followed in his footsteps to GCHQ, MI5, MI6? Would I be able to tell you even if I knew…?

Journalism is another destination for our graduates. I now have several of my former students working for the national and international press. Not only do your language skills enable you to become an effective foreign correspondent, you’ll also learn through your degree to become an expert user of the English language, gradually honing your skills in expressing compelling arguments in clear and precise prose, as well as your skills in meeting deadlines for your copy (possibly by staying up very late and pressing ‘send’ at 11:59 pm on the due date).

Talking of writing, there are other, more creative routes into which your degree can take you. None of my former students is a famous writer yet, but give them time. My predecessor as the Fellow in French at Somerville, Dr Enid Starkie, though, made an impression on one of her modern languages students. Julian Barnes, recent winner of the Booker Prize, hilariously and unkindly immortalized her in his great novel, Flaubert’s Parrot. Other modern linguists who went on to become writers include John Le Carré, and J. K. Rowling, whose French and Latin degree clearly shows through in the made-up words, names and spells of the Potterverse. Studying culture and communication at university is a good grounding for your own creativity, and many modern languages graduates go on to creative roles, writing, composing, performing or presenting. We can’t guarantee you a media career like modern linguist celebs Nigella Lawson, Bear Grylls or Derren Brown, but we can certainly inspire the artist and performer you have hidden inside you.

Lastly, you don’t have to use your modern languages degree just to make a lot of money or have a fascinating and fulfilling career. You can also use it to change the world. Several of my former students have gone on to work for (and in one case, found) a charity or Non-Governmental Organization. International relief and development work needs skilled multi-lingual communicators, and modern languages graduates are in high demand. So if you’d like to make a difference, a background in modern languages would be a good start.

We’ll return to this topic in a later post with some tales from actual former modern languages students from Oxford. Until then, I hope this has given you some food for thought.

Shock News: France Better than Britain!

The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper not always known for its warm and fuzzy feelings towards our continental neighbours, recently made a shock announcement.

France is better than Britain.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you maybe suspected this already, but to see it confirmed as fact in black and white by the Daily Telegraph must nevertheless come as something of a surprise.

The full article, written by Alex Proud, is here. Below is an extract:

To be fair to us, the French do have a better starting point. They hit the geographic jackpot. Their country comes with everything included. They’ve got Europe’s highest Mountain (get lost, Elbrus, you’re Eurasian at best). They have a second mountain range which is still better than anything we have. They have a third mountain range (the Massif Central) which is also better than anything we have. They have proper sunny beaches in the south, booming surf beaches in the west and Brittany in the north. They have one of Europe’s biggest canyons. In between all these stunning attractions, they have tons of beautiful and varied countryside, some quite like England, but less spoilt.
By comparison, we have a lot of islands, which, while beautiful, are off Scotland where they are too cold and wet to be particularly useful. Our mountains are big hills which lack the requisite altitude to ski on reliably or hold pretty glaciers. We do have a lot of coastline. But honestly, much of this is chilly or badly located. It’s true that Cornwall is great but the French have Brittany, which is like Cornwall, but warmer and with better food.

OK, so France is pretty. You knew that. But there’s not much we can do to change our landscape, climate or population density. However, there are quite a few things the French just do better – and these we could learn from.

Next we have the food. Yeah, yeah, I know that London is probably a more exciting place to eat than Paris these days. And I know that there is good food to be found outside London. I even know that the French quite like McDonald’s. But the fact is, if you pitch up to eat at random in the middle of nowhere in the UK, you’ll probably get average pub grub, quite possibly made in a factory in the Midlands and reheated, and likely pretty expensive. If there is somewhere serving decent food, it’ll be full of people from London congratulating themselves on being there.

In France, by contrast, you can get a good meal anywhere. It may feel a bit retro (there won’t be a horribly Anglicised Thai green curry in sight) but it’ll be honest regional cooking, inexpensive, and come with wine. What’s more, the person on the table next to you might well be a local farmer or a builder.

Aha, you say. But what about the economy? Here in the UK, we’re lucky enough to enjoy an endless stream of right-ish propaganda about how the French economy is dans la toilette. But these claims really don’t really stand up to much scrutiny.

For starters, France’s growth figures for the first quarter of this year were twice as good as ours. It’s true they do have significantly higher unemployment, but they also have extremely high productivity. In fact, as The Economist recently noted, “The French could take Friday off and still produce more than Britons do in a week.” This is not something you hear very often from our chancellor. They also have a rather better balanced economy and a considerably lower Gini Coefficient, the preferred measure of inequality. While we’re at it, they beat us on GDP per capita, earn roughly the same and have a lower cost of living.

So, maybe (and this hurts) those lazy, boozy, holiday taking, socialism-loving Frogs are actually better at making money than we are. But this shouldn’t be such a surprise. The French don’t focus obsessively on their economy. They don’t bend over backwards to please businesses or foreign billionaires. They have a healthy disdain and distrust of the wealthy. And they’re better at making the rich share. Perhaps the French realise that they live in a society first and an economy second – and this actually makes them all richer.