Fun with Grammar: Cooking with “de”

Today’s task is to make this cake:


To assist you, you will be provided with a state-of-the art kitchen, plus a glamorous French movie star to pass you the ingredients as you need them. You can choose between Gaspard Ulliel or Ludivine Sagnier:



There are two slight issues with Gaspard and Ludivine. The first is that neither of them speaks a word of English, so all your instructions will have to be in French. (To be fair, Gaspard is able to tell people in English that he’s nert going to be ze person ′e is expected to be any more, but that’s frankly more of a hindrance than a help in a baker’s assistant. You should maybe have gone for Ludivine.) Secondly, like many film stars, they’re actually not that bright, and need to be told clearly and precisely what to do and when to do it.

To start with, then, you’re going to have to show them each of the ingredients. Go through the list below with your chosen assistant. The French is in magical inviso-text that you can reveal by highlighting it. (I’ll include all the answers at the bottom of the post too, in case you’re on a touch screen and can’t highlight easily.)

Voici le sucre. (the sugar)

Voici la tablette de chocolat. (the chocolate bar)

Voici les pépites de chocolat. (the chocolate chips)








Voici un bol. (a bowl)

Voici une cuillère en bois. (a wooden spoon)

Voici des oeufs. (some eggs)

Voici du beurre. (some butter)

Voici de la farine. (some flour)

That list, as you may have noticed, covers all the articles French uses. There are definite and indefinite articles for masculine and feminine, singular and plural, countable and uncountable nouns. If you’re not familiar with that last distinction (also known as ‘count’ and ‘mass’ nouns), it’s simply that in English and French, some things can be counted (one egg, two eggs/un oeuf, deux oeufs) and some things can’t ( you can have some flour/de la farine, but you can’t have two flours/deux farines).

As in English the definite article le/la gets used for both countable (the egg/l’oeuf) and uncountable (the flour/la farine) nouns.  The indefinite article un/une can ONLY be used for countable nouns (an egg/un oeuf), which is why we need to use the alternative du/de la, sometimes called the partitive article, for uncountables (some flour/de la farine).

Now it’s time to get baking! As you require each item, you need to tell your glamorous assistant that you need it, using the construction ‘j’ai besoin de’, I need, or literally translated, I have need of. That will mean combining the French de, meaning of, with each of the possible French articles. Inviso-text on!


J’ai besoin du sucre. (I need the sugar)

J’ai besoin de la tablette de chocolat. (I need the chocolate bar)

J’ai besoin des pépites de chocolat. (I need the chocolate chips)









J’ai besoin d’un bol. (I need a bowl)

J’ai besoin d’une cuillère en bois. (I need a wooden spoon)

J’ai besoin d’oeufs. (I need some eggs)

J’ai besoin de beurre. (I need some butter)

J’ai besoin de farine. (I need some flour)

How did you do? As you can see, it’s basically a matter of grammar maths, of knowing what you get when you add de/of to each of the three definite articles, the three indefinite articles, and the two partitive articles (the reason there are only two partitive articles is because uncountable nouns don’t have plurals). Here’s the arithmetic laid out:


de+le = du

de+la=de la

de+les= des

de+un= d’un


de+des= de

de+du= de

de+de la= de

As usual, the French have confused things by having different words that look and sound identical scattered through the system. So du, de la and des can either mean ‘some’ or ‘of the’ depending on their function in the sentence. This doesn’t help the learner who’s trying to memorize how it all works. One thing that may help, though, is to notice that in the last three sums on the list, where you’re adding ‘de’ to ‘du/de la/des’, the ‘de’ simply takes precedence over the ‘du/de la/des’, which disappears.

If you have all that straight, there are two further advanced baking manoeuvres you may like to try in order to complete the lesson. Firstly, what happens when your feckless celebrity whines that they don’t have the ingredient you need (je n’ai pas…)? (Answer below.)

Definite articles work the same way in negative sentences (I don’t have the…) as they do normally : Je n’ai pas le sucre. Je n’ai pas la tablette de chocolat. Je n’ai pas les pépites de chocolat. However, ALL the indefinite and partitive articles (I don’t have a/any…) are replaced by de: Je n’ai pas de bol. Je n’ai pas de cuillère en bois. Je n’ai pas d’oeufs. Je n’ai pas de beurre. Je n’ai pas de farine.

And finally, what difference does it make if the hapless screen-idol hands you a substandard item, and you’re forced to tell them to give you another one/the other one (use ‘autre’) ?

Adding an adjective before the noun makes no difference to seven of the eight sentences: Donne-moi l’autre sucre; donne-moi l’autre tablette de chocolat, etc. The one exception is with ‘des’ meaning ‘some’, which changes to ‘de’ before an adjective. So you’d say ‘Donne-moi des oeufs’ for ‘give me some eggs’, but ‘donne-moi d’autres oeufs’ for ‘give me some other eggs’. (This rule isn’t always strictly obeyed by French speakers, by the way, but you need to use it if you’re speaking or writing formally.)

I hope that was useful. At least Gaspard seems to have enjoyed it.

gaspard ulliel

Inviso-free answers:

Voici le sucre. Voici la tablette de chocolat. Voici les pépites de chocolat. Voici un bol. Voici une cuillère en bois. Voici des oeufs. Voici du beurre. Voici de la farine.

J’ai besoin du sucre. J’ai besoin de la tablette de chocolat. J’ai besoin des pépites de chocolat. J’ai besoin d’un bol. J’ai besoin d’une cuillère en bois. J’ai besoin d’oeufs. J’ai besoin de beurre. J’ai besoin de farine.

Definite articles work the same way in negative sentences (I don’t have the…) as they do normally : Je n’ai pas le sucre. Je n’ai pas la tablette de chocolat. Je n’ai pas les pépites de chocolat. However, ALL the indefinite and partitive articles (I don’t have a/any…) are replaced by de: Je n’ai pas de bol. Je n’ai pas de cuillère en bois. Je n’ai pas d’oeufs. Je n’ai pas de beurre. Je n’ai pas de farine.

Adding an adjective before the noun makes no difference to seven of the eight sentences: Donne-moi l’autre sucre; donne-moi l’autre tablette de chocolat, etc. The one exception is with ‘des’ meaning ‘some’, which changes to ‘de’ before an adjective. So you’d say ‘Donne-moi des oeufs’ for ‘give me some eggs’, but ‘donne-moi d’autres oeufs’ for ‘give me some other eggs’. (This rule isn’t always strictly obeyed by French speakers, by the way, but you need to use it if you’re speaking or writing formally.)


French Film Competition 2015


posted by Kate Rees and Will McKenzie

As in recent years, the Oxford University Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages is organising a French Film Competition, run with the help and generosity of Routes into Languages and the Sir Robert Taylor Society.

The Competition has been a successful and entertaining way of getting young people interested in France and French culture. The challenge of the competition is to re-write the ending of a film in no more than 1500 words. It is open to all students of secondary-school age, from years 7-13. This year we’re also encouraging Youtube submissions for a new filmed entry category, so please feel free to re-imagine the endings of the chosen films in as creative a way as you can.

There is a choice of films in each age category, Le Petit Nicolas (2009, directed by Laurent Tirard) or Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis (2008, directed by Dany Boon), for years 7-11. Both are comedies: Le Petit Nicolas offers a glimpse into the mindset of a young French schoolboy confronted with the prospect of a new baby sibling, while Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis humorously explores misunderstandings about life in the north of France.



Students in years 12-13 can opt to re-write the ending of either Dans la maison (2012, directed by François Ozon) or De Rouille et d’os (2012, directed by Jacques Audiard). The first is a study of the twists in a relationship between a teacher and his student. The second focuses on the relationship between a boxer and a young woman badly injured after an accident at a marine park.



We very much enjoy judging the competition and are always impressed by the imagination and wit of the submissions. Entries should be submitted by email to by noon on 27th March 2015.

A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning student in each category, with runner-up prizes of £25. For further details about entering the competition (including the points in each film where we’d like you to take up the story), please see the link below, which offers more details about how to enter. It’s great fun and an excellent exercise in creativity! So please do enter!


The trailers for all four films are below:

Bons mots: l’éponge et le bâtard


posted by Simon Kemp

The French language, as we know, is never that keen on pronouncing words as they’re spelled. Almost any French word you care to mention contains a consonant or two that doesn’t make it to air. This explains why French schoolchildren still spend time doing dictées, trying to write out a precise transcription of a passage being read aloud by their teacher.

All of these silent letters used to be pronounced in Old French, but while pronunciation gradually shifted over the centuries, spelling was less inclined to move with the times. It did, however, allow for a certain degree modernization. In 1740, the Académie Française introduced spelling reforms that went through the dictionary and deleted more than ten thousand silent letters. All of them were in fact the same letter: an ‘s’ following a vowel in the middle of a word. They hadn’t been pronounced for years, and so they finally got the chop. Espier became épier, ancestre became ancêtre, coste became côte. The disappearance was marked by an accent over the vowel that came before the ‘s’ (in most cases a circumflex accent, or an acute accent over a letter ‘e’ where appropriate). And that’s the spelling that has persisted until today.


Rewind back to the middle ages. In the wake of the Norman conquest, English was helping itself to great swathes of the French language. The language of the conquerors was the language of power and administration, and Old French terms found their way from the royal court into the everyday language of the British people. A millennium later, many are still here, with their Old French ‘s’ still alive and well, hundreds of years after it disappeared from modern French.


The upshot is that there are now scores of words in modern French with an ‘é’ or a circumflex vowel, where the addition of an ‘s’ after the vowel produces a recognizable English word. Let’s try a little exercise in reconstitution. Answers at the bottom of the post.

Easy ones first. How about these?

le mât

la crête


la hâte

la tempête

la forêt

le bâtard


And these ?




une épice


en dépit de

une éponge


And what about these, which are slightly trickier, but still just about recognizable :

l’huître (f.)

le maître

la guêpe

la pâtisserie

l’écureuil (m.)

la coutume

For English speakers, when faced with an unfamiliar French word that has an acute-accented ‘e’ near the start or a circumflexed vowel in the middle, it’s always a good idea to try adding back in the missing ‘s’, to see if an English word magically appears.



  1. Mast, crest, honest, haste, tempest, forest, bastard (in the literal sense of illegitimate son – the French don’t use the word as an insult!).
  2. Scarlet, strange, study, spice, respond, despite, sponge.
  3. Oyster (it doesn’t look much like it, but if you think of the French pronunciation – ‘wee-truh’ – and add an ‘s’ into the middle of that, the similarity is clearer), master, wasp (the shift from Old French ‘gu-’ to English ‘w-’ is quite common, e.g. ‘Guillaume le conquérant’ to ‘William the conqueror’), pastry, squirrel, custom (‘coutume’ used to be spelled ‘coûtume’ but later lost its circumflex. ‘Le coût’ (cost) still has it).



Bookshelf Film Club: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amélie) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet


posted by Simon Kemp

If you haven’t seen it, you’ve surely heard of it. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 rom-com was a world-wide hit, and is now one of the most successful French films ever made.

Amélie is a waitress in a café in the Montmartre district of Paris (a real café, as it happens, that now makes a tidy living out of serving expensive coffee to Amélie fans). Her solitary life is transformed when she discovers a talent for secretly changing people’s lives for the better. She sets about fixing her friends, neighbours and co-workers, matching up lovebirds, avenging the downtrodden, comforting the lonely, all without anyone realizing that Amélie is behind it. But can the incurably shy young woman find the courage to fix her own life? (Spoiler: yes.)

It’s quirky and surreal, an unrealistic fairy-tale of a story set in an unrealistic picture-postcard Paris. Some people complain that it is too whimsical, twee, and sentimental, but those people have withered hearts and do mean things to kittens for fun, so we can dismiss their opinion. Amélie is a lovely film. Put your cynicism aside for a couple of hours, and bask in it.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s a scene from the film, in which Amélie decides to teach the bullying local greengrocer a lesson:

Un été chez Montaigne


posted by Jessica Allen

 One of the key features of the modern languages degree is that the third year is usually spent abroad. At Oxford, we are exceptionally lucky in that we are able to spend this year however we want as long as our plans are approved by our tutors. With no work which counts towards our degree to complete, it’s therefore a year in which we are able to really focus on becoming fluent in our language(s) as well as exploring any particular interests we happen to have, whether these are academic, extra-curricular or related to career choices. I study both French and German, so this time last year I was faced with the enviable situation of having to split my fifteen months between two languages. Having long ago decided that I wanted to study at a German university, I was left with the task of slotting in France around the two four-month long semesters.

The first window I had was the summer vacation after my second year. Back in January a fellow Oxford linguist and one of my tutors mentioned on the same day that it was possible to undertake a stage (internship/work experience placement) at the Château de Montaigne, where the sixteenth Century Humanist Michel de Montaigne lived and composed the Essais, for which he is best known today. As a huge Montaigne fan I couldn’t believe it, so I sent a letter detailing my love to Montaigne to the address on the website. A few weeks later contracts were signed and I had a two month placement for the summer. The deal was very good: five days of work per week in exchange for free accommodation within the walls of the nineteenth century château itself, plus 70 euros a week and a gorgeous leather bound book.

The tower from quite an unusual angle.

Life at the château was incredibly varied and fulfilling, which was a pleasant surprise, given its location in a tiny village with absolutely no services and with the nearest larger village a 50 minute country walk away. I woke up naturally every morning at about 7am when the sun began to shine through the crack between the shutters of my room, which was in a converted wing of the château where Montaigne’s own horses most probably lived. I then had a few hours for reading, writing and breakfast before my working day began at ten. The job itself consisted of selling tickets and merchandise in the gift shop and hosting wine tastings, as well as undertaking a few duties in the huge wine warehouse, which was certainly very enlightening for someone who knew little about wine beforehand. But the most exciting thing was the guided tours. Twice a day I collected the heavy key and walked from the reception area through the woods to the château and the attached fourteenth century tower, the only part of the building which was not destroyed by a fire in the nineteenth century. The guided tour, an account of Montaigne’s life and work, is based in and around the tower and lasts about forty five minutes. At first, the idea of doing this in French was daunting, however once the facts were clear in my mind I found myself really enjoying this linguistic exercise, and actually only gave a handful of tours in English or German. The best part of the job was definitely meeting so many fellow Montaigne fans who were always happy to exchange ideas, as well as introducing several people to his life and work who had never encountered it before.

The reception area for the attraction with our kitchen on the floor above

Our working day was over at six thirty. At this point, the three girls who worked permanently at the château would head home, leaving us four stagiaires (interns) to our own devices. We would cook together whilst watching the sun set over the vineyards. Despite being so isolated, there was always plenty to do, not least exploring some of the abandoned rooms of the chateau which no one seemed to have visited for hundreds of years. This isolation was also excellent for my language skills, for there was no chance of finding a big English-speaking group to socialise with, and between the seven of us we almost exclusively spoke French. It was a lovely environment because we were all girls aged between 20 and 24, and occasionally in the evenings we would have dinner parties or decamp to one of the many rustic soirées in the surrounding villages.

This immersion into French rural culture also forced me to develop a whole new set of practical skills, for example changing the gas, hand washing sheets and towels, and cleaning up petrol spills. On my days off I really wanted to see some of the picturesque Aquitaine region. Luckily, where there’s a will there’s a way, so with the aid of an ancient, gearless bicycle, I would leave the château when it was still dark, catch the once daily train out of the nearest village after a perilous bike ride through the vineyards and, by 8 or 9am, I would have reached my destination. I visited Bordeaux, Bergerac, Sarlat, and several of the surrounding villages, each of which had its own little quirks and was well worth the early start. The only train home was at 6pm, but at that point I was usually starting to miss the comforting air of the château anyway.

Bordeaux (1)
One of the days in Bordeaux

After two months I was sad to leave and still miss the opportunity to really engage with French language, literature and culture in a practical context on a daily basis. Maybe it seems odd that a twenty year old girl considers her best summer ever to be the one she spent living in an isolated château deep in the French countryside, but I’ll never forget the time I spent retracing Montaigne’s footsteps, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this experience to others looking for a rewarding, short-term work placement in France on their year abroad.

La Boetie’s house in Sarlat….quite nice for a complete contrast (!)

Joyeux anniversaire!


posted by Simon Kemp

One year ago today I set up this blog with colleagues and students of the French department at Oxford University as a way to promote French language and culture, and encourage people to consider studying for a degree in modern languages at university (preferably at our university). I was pleased in the early weeks as the hit count on the blog started to creep up into three, then four figures, as we started to get visitors from other European countries and beyond.

Now, twelve months later, we’ve seen our quarter-of-a-millionth hit, we welcome up to six thousand visits a day, and have visitors from over a hundred nations, including Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Tuvalu. And the numbers are still growing every month.

So I wanted to take a moment to thank you for visiting and supporting this blog. We’re nothing without our readers and commenters, and I’m delighted that we’ve found an audience out there, interested in reading about French literature, French film, French grammar, even, and what it might be like to come to Oxford to study them.

Over the course of the year we’ve offered our reading recommendations for those of you who are interested in exploring French literature, in the original language or in translation, including all of these:


Capture d’écran iPad 1




And we’ve suggested some films you might like to try as an introduction to French cinema, including these:



We’ve explored why musketeers are allergic to muskets, why French Voldemort is embarrassed by his middle name, why French grammar guides obsess over women injuring themselves, and how the pioneering spirit of M. Eugène-René Poubelle has left an enduring mark, if a grimy one, on the French language.

From the students of the university, we’ve learned, among many other things, how to book a hotel room if you happen to get stranded in fourteenth century France, how French people pronounce the word ‘lunch’, and how to win the Year Abroad (by being mistaken for a French person by a French person, apparently).

We’ve also learned what it’s like to apply here, what it’s like to study here, and how you might go about writing a personal statement or preparing for an admissions interview if you were interested in coming to Oxford as a student.

There’s lots more to come. If you find this a useful resource, do please tell people about us, and help word to spread. If there’s something you’d like to see more of, something new we could be doing, or something we could be doing better, then let us know through the comments. Thanks for reading, and I hope our regular Wednesday posts can carry on trying to keep you informed and entertained for a while yet.

The Things French People Do

An interesting little piece from Slate magazine for you this week. Kyle Murao, an American exchange student in Paris, writes about the French customs he found ‘wonderful but strange’ during his stay in the country. They make a nice portrait of France through American eyes. If you’re British, they’re also quite interesting as a way of measuring how far across the Atlantic you are culturally: are they as strange and wonderful to you as they are to someone from the US? Or are they perfectly normal things that we Europeans, British and French, like to do?

Over to Kyle:

Some French customs that I found wonderful but strange are:

Faire la bise. The double kiss on both cheeks. I miss this more than anything, because in the year that I spent in France, I kissed more beautiful women this way than I ever did before or since. You kiss everyone you meet, and if you kiss someone as if leaving but then still hang out at the party, it’s very rude. These days the double kiss is mostly done woman-to-woman or woman-to-man, but older generations also practice it man-to-man, with no sexual meaning at all.

Feeding children delicious adult food. None of this disgusting baby food or plain, tasteless crap. French parents don’t destroy their kids’ taste for good food before it’s developed by feeding them chicken fingers. They make them sit there and eat roquette salad and cassoulet de Toulouse.

Not drinking everything (milk, juice, water) ice cold. Rather, drinking it at room temperature. In fact, when you’re brought water at a café, you will sometimes get a puzzled look from the waiter if you ask for ice.

Helping complete strangers out of a sense of social solidarity. In America you avoid touching strangers for fear of legal liability if they get hurt while you’re helping them. In Paris, if you see a blind or disabled person at a corner, it’s considered completely normal to grab his arm and walk him across the street. If you’re out of spare change for a metro ticket and you don’t have a pass, it’s also very common for someone nearby to simply give you money to buy one. I had this happen several times, both as recipient and giver.

Bagging your own groceries while shopping. I had to get used to having someone else handle all my food at the store when I came back from France. (Perhaps this is why you never see grocery carts overflowing with unhealthy food.)

Going to a family-run pharmacy to buy medicine. You can’t buy drugs at big stores, and there’s no equivalent of Walgreens.

Being able to drive a car like an absolute maniac and having motorists not be considered second-class citizens versus jaywalkers (as they are here in the U.S.).

Talking about politics at the dinner table. Here in America, I at least was always taught that discussing politics at dinner was rude. But the French love frank, intellectual debates, and I can’t recall any dinner parties where politics wasn’t discussed.

Tearing off the awesome crusty end of a baguette and eating it while you walk home.

Bookshelf Book Club Halloween Special: ‘Le Horla’ by Guy de Maupassant

‘Il nous faut autour de nous des hommes qui pensent et qui parlent. Quand nous sommes seuls longtemps, nous peuplons le vide de fantômes.’ 

‘We need thinking, talking men around us. When we are alone for a long time, we fill the emptiness with ghosts.’

French literature may not be as well-known for its ghost stories as English and German, but it has produced some real spine-chillers, particularly among nineteenth-century short stories  by writers like Théophile Gautier, Prosper Mérimée, and Guy de Maupassant. ‘Le Horla’ (1887) is a story by Maupassant, whom you might have heard of for his Prussian War satire, ‘Boule de suif’, or the novel Bel ami, filmed a couple of years ago with Robert Pattinson in the title role.

‘Le Horla’ takes the form of a diary written by a man who lives alone, but who comes to believe that he is not alone. Gradually, he begins to sense an invisible, malign presence shadowing him. He names it the horla, a made-up word that suggests hors-là, a creature from the beyond. Evidence for the entity’s existence is slight: a full glass of milk at the narrator’s bedside at night is empty when he wakes, without his remembering having drunk it, and other small, uncanny incidents. But in his mind, the narrator has all the evidence he needs: he is overwhelmed by the insistent feeling of a demonic being in the room with him. Unless, that is, in his mind is the only place the creature exists…

‘Le Horla’ is a superior chiller from one of the great masters of French literature, and an excellent choice of reading material for a dark autumn night when you’re alone in the house. In French, you can get it in a stand-alone volume or as part of a collection, as well as in English translation or in a helpful French/English parallel text version. There’s also a lesser-known earlier version from 1886 which doesn’t use the diary form; the 1887 story is the one you want. I take no responsibility for any subsequent sleepless nights, and just remember, you can’t see the horla, so leaving the lights on won’t help at all…

Tricky Questions

Student and tutor talking

posted by Simon Kemp

The Oxford admissions process is in the newspapers again, following a university press release listing some of the questions Oxford tutors ask candidates at interview.

‘The questions published by Oxford confirm the stereotype of the contrary and offbeat’ concludes The Guardian.

‘Are Welsh worse than English at remembering phone numbers? How to win a place at Oxford,’ offers The Mirror headline, wildly mangling a question from experimental psychology.

The Telegraph bills them as the ‘unanswerable questions’ in Oxford’s ‘notoriously difficult interview process’.

Commenters below the line in all the newspapers seem unimpressed with our questions and with our method of recruiting students through interviews.

I have a small confession to make. I was supposed to be in the line-up of admissions interviewers for the press release. I even submitted a typical question from a modern languages admissions interview when they asked me for one. It didn’t make the cut. My question was this one:

I see from your Personal Statement on the UCAS form that you’ve been reading L’Etranger by Albert Camus. Would it be fair to use the term “hero” to describe the main character of the novel, do you think?

Admittedly, not the snappiest. But, as I tried to suggest, if we’re hoping to demystify the Oxford admissions interview, then the biggest myth we need to tackle is the one that says that Oxford interviews consist of a series of bizarre and/or impossible questions barked at the hapless candidate out of the blue and without any context to help answer them.

In fact, if you read carefully what the interviewers go on to say about their questions in the press release, you’ll realize that they’re not asking impossible questions at all. Experimental psychology candidates are not asked why Welsh people are worse at remembering phone numbers, no matter what The Mirror might think. They’re given a set of data from an experiment which suggests that people whose first language is English can, on average, hold more numbers in their short-term memory than people whose first language is Welsh. They’re also told that the corresponding words for the numbers are (apparently) shorter and less complex in pronunciation in English than they are in Welsh. After having time to read and think about the data, the candidates are then asked how they might interpret it. Not the easiest thing to do in a short time and a stressful situation, of course, but not an impossible question by any means.

Unanswerable questions are not on the menu in interviews for places on the modern languages course, either. If you’re invited for interview (and 88% of our applicants were last year), then you’ll have at least two interviews, with at least two interviewers  present in each, so we get a good, balanced view of you. The interview itself is broadly similar for all languages and all colleges of the university. A short time before the interview, you’ll usually be given a short piece of literary writing to read — a poem or prose extract from a novel — usually in the foreign language if you’re not starting from scratch. The interview will last around twenty minutes to half an hour.  We’ll begin by asking you about the text you’ve been reading, starting with simple questions about what it says, and working towards more complicated issues about its themes or structure. The point is to create a dialogue and exchange ideas, not for us to trip you up with trick questions or for you to perform a fully formed explication of the text without our help.  If you head off track, or miss something important, we’ll guide you back in the right direction. We’re hoping to find candidates able to listen, take on board new ideas, and change their minds when faced with new evidence.  After all, we’re looking for students who are responsive to teaching, not students who know it all before they even arrive.

Then, for all candidates applying for a language they’ve been studying in the sixth form, there’ll be a brief part of the interview conducted in the foreign language. Bear in mind that we already have your GCSE results, teacher references, schoolwork submission and Oxford language test, so this plays a relatively minor role in telling us what level you’ve reached in the language you’re studying. We know, too, that the interview is hardly the most relaxing environment for you to chat away in a foreign language, and we take account of the effect your nerves have on your fluency.

Lastly, we need to know how well suited you are to a course that includes literary and cultural studies, and the last part of the interview will focus on this. There may be some general questions about how (or why) literature can be a subject for study, but there will probably be some more specific discussion too. Your personal statement should include some mention of your cultural interests, and if not, we’ll invite you to tell us about them. If we find out that you’ve been exploring the literature of your chosen language a little, then we’ll take some time to ask about the things you’ve been reading, and see what ideas you’ve had about them. If, for instance, I see L’Etranger mentioned on a UCAS form, I might ask the question on it that I gave earlier.

What if I did ask that question, by the way?

I see from your Personal Statement on the UCAS form that you’ve been reading L’Etranger by Albert Camus. Would it be fair to use the term “hero” to describe the main character of the novel, do you think?

What should you answer? Well, there is no correct answer I’m waiting for you to come up with. I’d be hoping that you’d think – maybe think out loud – about the meaning of the word ‘hero’. It’s sometimes used to mean more or less the same thing as ‘main character’, so in that sense Meursault is uncontroversially the hero of L’Etranger. But, you might go on to say, the word can also imply ‘heroic’ actions or personality traits, which don’t chime well with Meursault’s thoughtlessness, indifference, and his later status as a killer without remorse. Some candidates might go further and talk about how, in spite of all that, the novel seems to be encouraging us to side with Meursault anyway, perhaps even admire him, due to the courage with which he sticks to his convictions in the face of persecution and impending death in the latter parts of the novel. Whether you finally reckon he counts as a hero or not is less important than whether you’re able to consider the implications of the question and pull together some reasons for and against. At every stage I’d be ready to offer some pointers, perhaps starting you off by asking you to consider what kinds of people are considered ‘heroic’, and how Meursault compares to them, and then seeing where you go from there.

It’s far from a perfect way of choosing our students. But with candidates coming from such a wide variety of countries, backgrounds and schooling, and with many sixth-form qualifications in languages giving us only a very limited idea of how well-suited you are to the cultural side of our courses, it’s the best method I know to seek out an academic potential that might not quite fit onto your UCAS form.

And it’s not an ordeal. It’s an experience.

Oxford under snow - and 2012's falls were more than usual Image: Toby Ord

A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!