Category Archives: Why study French?

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.

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.