Category Archives: Why study French?

Employability (Part One)

paris_italy_2011_33-1posted by Simon Kemp

The Higher Education Statistics Agency recently released their latest report on what happens next to university graduates . They asked four hundred thousand ex-students, who had finished a degree at a UK university in the 2013-14 academic year, what they were doing six months later. The results, in spreadsheet after spreadsheet of data, are all here, if you’d care to explore them.

So, how does modern languages do? How does it compare with other subjects in terms of the employability of its graduates?

Well, as it turns out, it does pretty well. Six months after graduating, 88% of modern languages graduates were in employment or post-graduate education. That’s above the average for all subjects, and better than physics, chemistry, business studies, social studies, history and philosophy (all at 87%), or media studies, agricultural studies and computer science (all at 86%). It equals maths, biological sciences, design and engineering, and is bettered only by medical science, architecture, law and education. Given that the last two of those are also available to modern languages graduates via one-year teacher-training or law-conversion courses, and very popular destinations among our students, it seems fair to say that there’s hardly a better passport to a career than a modern languages degree. (Except maybe architecture or medicine, I guess, but we can’t all spend our working life doodling skyscrapers and getting coughed at by people with the flu. If that’s what you fancy, then please go ahead with the medicine and/or architecture. Everyone else, though, ought to think seriously about a modern languages degree.)

Looking deeper into the data, it’s no surprise to see that modern languages graduates top the charts for people getting their first job abroad, with 6% of the cohort working overseas. The subject also has one of the highest percentages of people going on to further study, with 19% of students studying for a postgraduate qualification, and a further 7% combining postgraduate study with work. Modern languages are useful in so many fields, that it’s common for students to follow up their degree with a one-year masters course in business, law, international relations or some other specialist area into which they will take their language skills.

This is, incidentally, why modern languages often get overlooked when newspapers publish ‘top ten’ lists of employable degree subjects: since the criterion  is to be in full-time work six months after graduation, the large number of modern languages graduates doing masters courses messes up our stats. Another chart on the HESA site looks at current employment levels for people who finished their degree in the previous year, 2012-2013. There, modern languages is riding high, with 92.2% of graduates from full-time degrees in employment, again beating physics, chemistry, maths, engineering, computer science (still at a startlingly low 86.5%), history and business studies. Once again, only medicine-related subjects, law and teaching have higher employment rates than modern languages.


So those are the statistics; what about the reality? Next Wednesday I’ll tell you about some of the destinations my own modern languages students have gone on to after their degree. (And, by the way, if there are former Oxford modern languages students reading this who’d like to share their own stories of life after university, do send them to me at, and I’ll include them in a later post.)

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

As well as studying a modern language on its own or with another language offered by the faculty here, you have the option to take a degree in one of the six ‘joint schools’ combining modern languages with another humanities subject. If you’re interested in how languages work, how they evolve over time, how we acquire them as children and what happens in our brains as we speak and listen, then you ought to seriously consider a degree combining modern languages and linguistics. Here’s the short film made by Oxford University to introduce the subject:

Bidules, machins, and trucs from a year abroad: why I love my degree


posted by Madeleine Chalmers

I’ve often been asked why I chose to do a degree in French. My answer is, because it constantly surprises me. The novels, poems, and plays I read for my course at Oxford make me laugh, cry, and think. They might puzzle me occasionally, and always challenge me, but they never leave me indifferent.

Literature, which we read in the original French, forms the backbone of the French course at Oxford. This might sound absolutely terrifying, and not very appealing. Reading in French is a long hard slog, but if you stick with it, it will reward you in ways you couldn’t imagine. I read my first French novels at school with a dictionary balanced on my knees, impatiently deciphering every other word. It was tiring, frustrating, and extremely slow, but absolutely addictive. Reading in English, my eye would skip easily across the page. In French, it felt like I was having to fight for every word, and so, strangely, each word really seemed to matter.

I’ll always remember the rush of joy and pride I felt when I finished my first French book without a dictionary. All of a sudden, I felt as though I had gained access to a whole passionate countryful of new stories, feelings, and ideas – a country I no longer wanted to leave. Reading is an intensely personal experience. Your mind and your feelings come into contact with the mind and feelings of an author who may have lived and died centuries before you were born. He or she offers you his or her vulnerabilities, sense of humour, and ideas about the world – and they collide with yours. The more you read in French, the more fluent you become and the easier it gets, but I promise that you’ll never lose that original thrill of recognition, when, across time and language, an author’s message comes through loud and clear, and it feels as though they were speaking only for you.

A French degree is the experience of other voices and other perspectives. As such, it’s incredibly varied. ‘French literature’ at Oxford encompasses everything written in French – from the earliest Medieval writings to books published last year, from mainland France to French-speaking countries across the world. Options in film, philosophy, and art allow you to get to grips with French culture through approaches which you may not have studied before, while translation and linguistics will make you see language in a whole new light.

One of the distinctive features of a language degree is the year abroad (the 3rd year of the 4 year course). For me, it’s felt like a chance to bring everything together: the French language and culture I’ve studied at Oxford, and French language and culture as they are spoken and lived in France today. It’s the year when a country that has seemed foreign really becomes home.

I’ve always been fascinated by France at the turn of the twentieth century – a period when certain districts of Paris became hubs for innovation by bold new artists, writers, and all-round eccentrics. My year abroad has given me the chance to see exhibitions and museums which celebrate these revolutionaries, and I’ve been able to visit their old haunts and homes. These are moments when the literature, music, art, and atmosphere of a whole time and place slide into focus – and they make all those hours flicking through dictionaries worth the effort. Over the next few months of my year abroad, I’ll try to pinpoint some of those moments – the reasons why I love my degree. First stop (in next week’s post): Montmartre!

Madeleine Chalmers – I’m a 3rd year French student at St John’s, currently on an Erasmus study exchange at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages at University: Reason 94

“Ambassador, with this precariously balanced heap of nobbly chocolates you are really spoiling us!”

 posted by Simon Kemp

So, the thing is, the British Foreign Office has forgotten how to speak foreign languages. According to an alarming article in the Independent, which you can find here, our diplomats are now so desperately short of language skills that our government can’t even work out what’s going on in the rest of the world.

The UK Government was left in the dark while Russia annexed large parts of Ukraine because British diplomats can’t understand Russian, according to a scathing new report by MPs.

Language skills at the Foreign Office are said to have become so poor that officials were unable to adequately advise the Government on the unfolding annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

“British diplomacy towards Russia and elsewhere has suffered because of a loss of language skills, particularly in the Foreign Office,” Sir Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow, told the House of Lords External Affairs Sub-Committee.

“There was quite a lot of complaint in Whitehall after the annexation of Crimea that the Foreign Office had not been able to give the sort of advice that was needed at the time. I think that is regrettable and it marks a change from when I was there.”
The revelations came to light in a report by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which has been scrutinising the Foreign Office’s performance.

The committee’s MPs found that only 27 per cent of Russian “speaker slots” at Britain’s foreign ministry were filled by someone who could speak the language to the specified level.

The figure across all languages was only 38 per cent, a fact the committee described as “alarming”.

The cross-party group of MPs found that cuts to the FCO’s budget meant the department was finding it difficult to retain the right level of expertise.

Further government cuts would “probably” mean a significant reduction in Britain’s world influence and a scaling back of its foreign policy ambitions, they concluded.
“The cuts imposed on the FCO since 2010 have been severe and have gone beyond just trimming fat: capacity now appears to be being damaged,” the committee’s MPs wrote.

“If further cuts are imposed, the UK’s diplomatic imprint and influence would probably reduce, and the Government would need to roll back some of its foreign policy objectives.”

The committee’s report also said there were serious shortages of capable Arabic speakers at the Foreign Office – despite a long history of instability in the region.

“It is alarming that the strongest criticisms that we hear about FCO capability relate to regions where there is particular instability and where there is the greatest need for FCO expertise in order to inform policy-making,” they said.

If you fancy helping this country play a role on the world stage, rather than just sitting in the world audience eating popcorn as we are apparently doing at present, then you might like to consider a modern languages degree at Oxford. A degree in Russian, perhaps, available with an A-level, or starting entirely from scratch… Or one in Arabic, maybe. Or why not both? Future ambassadors, conflict negotiators, and James Bonds apply here.

But what’s it really like? The Modern Languages Course

posted by Simon Kemp

Recently, Oxford University decided to make short films about every single one of its undergraduate courses, featuring students and tutors talking about what the course is about, and what it’s like to study it. They give a much better sense of what the courses are really like than you can get from a prospectus. There’s one video on modern languages, and six more about the ‘joint schools’ combining modern languages with English, history, linguistics, philosophy, Classics, or a Middle-Eastern language. I’ll post each of them over the course of the next few months, but for starters, here’s the modern languages film:


The full playlist of videos for all our courses is here.

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages at University: Reason 95

A planetary disk of white cloud formations, brown and green land masses, and dark blue oceans against a black background. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disk, while Antarctica is at the bottom.

There are seven billion people on the planet. Fewer than four hundred million of them speak English as their first language. Five billion of them don’t speak English at all. If you want to talk to them, you’re going to have to learn a foreign language.  Even with the ones that do speak English, you’re not going to get very far if you know nothing of their culture, and can’t understand anything they say to each other.

That should be reason enough to be considering a degree in modern languages. At Oxford, we offer courses in the two most widely spoken first languages on the planet, Chinese and Spanish,  the other major languages of Europe (German, French, Italian, Czech, Slovak, Greek, Polish, Portuguese), and of the increasingly important BRIC economies (Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Hindi, Bengali), and of East Asia and the Middle East (Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Turkish), as well as minority languages like Catalan, Galician, Yiddish, Gaelic and Welsh. Most of these are available to learn from scratch, on their own or in tandem with another language or another subject. You can explore all the possibilities and combinations on our admissions pages.

How does French measure up against these other choices? Well, according to the French government, there are more than 220  million French speakers in the world, spread across five continents and 77 countries with French as an official language. It is the second most widely learned foreign language after English, and the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. French is also the only language, alongside English, that is taught in every country in the world. France operates the biggest international network of cultural institutes, which run French-language courses for close on a million learners.

The majority of French-speakers live outside Europe (which has approximately 87.5 million French speakers).

There are:

16.8 million French speakers in the Americas and the Caribbean (notably in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Quebec and French Guyana),

2.6 million speakers in Asia and Oceania (particularly in the former colonies of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia),

33.6 million in North Africa and the Middle East (especially the ‘Maghreb’ countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and Lebanon and Syria in the Middle East),

and 79.1 million speakers in sub-Saharan Africa (including Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mozambique, Niger, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Togo, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, and several others.)

French is very much a global language of the twenty-first century, and studying it at university opens doors that lead far beyond our nearest European neighbour.

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages at University: Reason 96

posted by Simon Kemp

You should study modern languages at university, because if you don’t, it’ll cost us fifty billion pounds. Every year.

According to a recent BBC report, the UK may be losing that much due to our poor language skills as a nation. A cross-party group of MPs has called for a “national recovery programme” to improve our skills in foreign languages.  Baroness Coussins, speaking for the group, claims that ‘the UK economy is already losing  around £50bn a year in lost contracts because of a lack of language skills in the workforce.’ She also suggested British businesses were losing out on export opportunities, and struggling to fill posts, because of a lack of British workers able to speak a foreign language. Apparently,  only 9% of 15-year-olds are competent in their first foreign language in the UK, compared with 42% in 14 other European countries.

What could Britain do with an extra fifty billion a year?


£50 000 000 000 buys….

625 London Eyes every year. 

three hundred thousand Ferraris.

an Olympic Games in a different UK city every two months forever.

a Twix for everyone in China  every week (with enough left over to give everyone in Spain a Curly Wurly).

a fleet of 157 brand new Airbus 380s every year.

the NHS’s full running costs for 6 months,  or enough money to double the education budget.

an £800.00 Christmas present to every man, woman, child, baby and grandma in the UK every year.

And if helping out your country in its hour of need isn’t reason enough for you, then there’s also the fact that the dire state of Britain’s language skills puts people with, say, a university degree in French in a very competitive position on the UK job market at the moment…

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages at University: Reason 98

posted by Simon Kemp

Maybe not the most urgent reason, but it’s one you’ll thank me for later. Learning a second language, it turns out, keeps your brain going for longer. The Annals of Neurology publish a scientific paper today showing the evidence that learning a second language can help keep your mind sharp into old age, and that it can in fact stave off dementia for an average of four years. In case you don’t fancy tackling the research paper itself at the above link, here’s The Independent’s take on the story:

The case for improving the national uptake of foreign languages is usually phrased in economic terms. British people are notoriously leery of extending their linguistic repertoire. Lulled into a sense of security by the omnipresence of English, we sit at or near the bottom of European tables in terms of bilingual proficiency. Organisations from the British Council to the British Academy have warned that such stubborn Anglocentrism risks the nation’s future competitiveness in an increasingly transnational economy, as workers from abroad who can speak one or two other languages elbow tongue-tied Brits out of the way. These reasons are compelling enough on their own, but they do not offer the full picture.

A new study clarifies the beneficial effects that learning a foreign language can have on the brain. Even if the lessons start late in adult life, as brain function naturally decreases, they can help ward off dementia. This builds on existing research that shows, for bilingual adults, Alzheimer’s setting in an average of four years later – at 75 instead of 71. The data is strong enough to suggest that the NHS ought to consider encouraging patients, especially the elderly, to try their hand at a new language.

Besides the travel opportunities, the sense of achievement that comes with such study might appeal. As the number of people suffering from dementia is expected to rise to over a million by 2021, prevention needs to take its place near the top of the health service’s agenda – and language-learning should now be packaged up with exercise, the other preventative tool backed up by a number of neurological investigations. It is a sad fact that the best time to treat the disease is before it’s even begun. In this case, drugs can only smooth the descent.

We have yet to fully turn the corner in embracing foreign languages, though there are positive signs in the education system. After decades of decline, the number of students choosing to study French, German and Spanish increased last year – and from this year all will be required to study one foreign language between the ages of seven and 14. Now we know that the benefits of language-learning are not limited to the young, there is all the more reason for parents to join in.