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

Nobel Prize Number Fifteen

You may have heard last week that the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the French novelist, Patrick Modiano. It’s the fifteenth time a French writer has won the prize since its inauguration in 1901, putting France at the very top of the Nobel league table, with more prizes for literature than all the countries of Africa, Asia and South America put together.  How far this demonstrates something exceptional about French literary culture, and how far it’s a matter of the personal tastes of the Swedish jurors who award the prize, remains open to debate…

The very first Nobel Prize for Literature went to a Frenchman, the poet Sully Prudhomme in 1901. Next up were the Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral, writing in the Occitan language (1904), serial novelist Romain Rolland (1915), and Anatole France (1921), who followed the Nobel with the further ‘distinction’ (in his words) of having his entire literary output condemned by the Catholic Church the following year. The philosopher Henri Bergson and novelist Roger Martin du Gard complete the pre-war line-up. It’s probably fair to say that none of these first six is very widely read these days, although Bergson’s essays about consciousness are enjoying something of a revival in the era of cognitive science. During this period, the prize committee managed to miss both Émile Zola (who died in 1902) and Marcel Proust, although we should forgive the latter oversight, since Proust died before the later volumes of his masterpiece were in print.

Sully Prudhomme: yes, please.

Post-war, the Nobel jury have a better record of picking winners who last. The novelists André Gide (1947), François Mauriac (1952), Albert Camus (1957) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1964) who turned it down, plus the slightly more left-field choice of the poet Saint-John Perse (1964), make up the next generation. Samuel Beckett (1969) is counted by the Nobel organization for the Ireland of his birth rather than his adopted homeland, otherwise the French total would be sixteen.  Avant-garde New Novelist Claude Simon won the prize in 1985, followed by Chinese émigré,  Gao Xingjian (2000). Lastly, J. M. G. Le Clézio, who writes about colonisation, immigration, and the confrontation of cultures, won the prize in 2008.

Jean-Paul Sartre: no, thank you

All the French winners have been men, as you can see, and this in a period when such luminaries as Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar, Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras were writing. The Nobel prize for literature didn’t have a great record through the twentieth century in recognizing women writers of note from any nation, although it’s now getting better. Perhaps Marie NDiaye or the French-Algerian writer, Assia Djebar, will catch their eye soon and make good this failing by providing French literature with its first female laureate.

Simone de Beauvoir: not asked

Modiano, the new Nobel laureate, is a writer whose work I know well and like a lot. I’ve written about him a couple of times, and he features prominently in the undergraduate option I teach about French representations of the Second World War, the Occupation and the Holocaust.  He’s a prolific writer, with over thirty novels published, along with the screenplays to several films. His novels are short, accessible, and are usually variations on the same theme of troubling and faded memory, a struggle to capture an identity (the character’s own or someone else’s), and a dark and secret past that often connects to the Nazi Occupation of France. A few years ago, when I read a dozen Modiano novels in the space of a few months, I did get the feeling that he sometimes comes close to writing the same story over and over again, but he does it so well, in such haunting and moving style, that we can forgive him a certain, shall we say, specialization in his work.

Patrick Modiano

A lot has been written online about Modiano in the past few days. You can read introductions to the man and his work in English here and here, and in French here or here, plus a guide to the five ‘most essential’ Modiano novels here. He’s an excellent writer to take on as your first attempt on a French novel in the original language. Rue des boutiques obscures is probably his best known novel, about an amnesiac detective attempting to uncover his own missing past. My favourite, though, is the non-fiction Dora Bruder, about Modiano’s discovery of an advertisement placed in a 1941 Paris newspaper by worried parents looking for their missing daughter, and about his subsequent efforts to uncover her story. Dora Bruder will be making an appearance in our book club early next year, when we’ll talk a little more about French literature’s reluctant new global celebrity.

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?

Well:

£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…

Fun with Grammar: ‘She has broken the leg to herself!’

posted by Simon Kemp

I’d like this blog to be useful for all aspects of studying French, including grammar, but I don’t want reading it to feel too much like work. So here’s a new thread of occasional posts, offering a highly unsystematic dabble here and there in the French language to come up with a few choice nuggets of tricky grammar.  I’m going to pick out the things I wish someone had put straight for me when I was learning… the things examiners slip into the grammar questions in our first-year exams to trip up the unwary… the things my undergraduates are STILL getting wrong after having it pointed out half-a-dozen times….

Let’s start with this sentence:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe.

It means, ‘She’s broken her leg’, or literally, ‘She’s broken the leg to herself.’ French grammar tests are always full of women breaking their legs, cutting their fingers, washing their faces, not due to a worrying obsession with female body parts, but to see whether you’ll translate it correctly as:

Elle s’est coupé le doigt.

Elle s’est lavé le visage. (etc.)

…or whether you’ll succumb to the temptation to add an extra ‘e’ to those past participles. So why is it cassé, coupé and lavé, not cassée, coupée and lavée? To answer that, we need a little excursion into the rules of French agreement.

As you probably know, past participles in French, like the ‘cassé’ of ‘elle s’est cassé la jambe’, agree with a preceding direct object. (There is the exception of the sixteen special verbs whose past participle agrees with the subject — Elle est allée, Ils sont tombés, etc — but they don’t concern us here.)

So:

‘Où est ta voiture?’

‘Je l’ai vendue.’

There’s an ‘e’ on the end of the participle, ‘vendue’, because the ‘l’ is the direct object of the verb vendre (I sold it), because it’s feminine (the ‘l’ is a ‘la’, referring to ‘la voiture’), and because it precedes the word vendue in the sentence.

On the other hand, there’s no agreement here:

J’ai vendu ma voiture.

because there’s a direct object, ‘ma voiture’, but it comes after the participle in the sentence.

And there’s no agreement here:

Je leur ai vendu ma voiture.

because the ‘leur’ preceding the participle is an indirect object (I sold my car to them.)

OK so far?

 

The problem comes when you have something in the sentence that’s clearly a preceding object of the verb, but you’re not sure whether it’s direct or indirect. Sometimes it’s easy to tell, because they’re obviously two different words. The French direct object pronouns, le, la and les (him/her/it, them) are clearly different from their indirect equivalents, lui and leur (to him/to her/to it, to them).

But more often than not, they’re spelled and pronounced the same. The direct object, ‘us’ in French is ‘nous’, and the indirect object, ‘to us’ in French is also ‘nous’. Even so, they’re still two different words every bit as much as the bark on the outside of a tree is different from the bark that next door’s dog does when you’re trying to get to sleep. Here are the direct object pronouns in French:

me —- me

te —- you

le —- him/it

la —- her/it

nous —- us

vous —- you

les —- them

And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to me

te —- to you

lui —- to him/to her/to it

nous —- to us

vous —- to you

leur —- to them

 The same rules apply for pronouns with reflexive verbs, which are the ones where the object of the verb is the same as the subject (i.e. when you’re doing things to yourself). Here are the direct object pronouns for reflexive verbs:

me —- myself

te —- yourself

se —- himself/herself/itself

nous —- ourselves

vous —- yourself/yourselves

se —- themselves

  And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to myself

te —- to yourself

se —- to himself/to herself/to itself

nous —- to ourselves

vous —- to yourself/to yourselves

se —- to themselves

With the reflexive pronouns, as you’ll have noticed,  every single one of them looks the same in direct and indirect forms. It’s a cunning ploy by the French to confuse language learners as much as possible.

 

So, finally, back to our original sentence. The key to understanding how it works is to remember that there are two different ‘se’s. There’s the direct object ‘se:

Elle s’est lavée. – She washed herself.

Here, ‘se’ (herself) is the direct object of the verb laver. (What did she wash? She washed herself.)

And there’s the indirect object ‘se:

Elle s’est lavé le visage. – She washed the face to herself

…which is just the French way of saying that she washed her face, I know, but the literal translation helps me keep the grammar straight in my head. Here, ‘se‘ (to herself) is the indirect object of the verb laver.

(By the way, it’s important not to get distracted by the fact that reflexive verbs take être rather than avoir in the perfect tense: ‘Elle s’est lavé le visage’. That doesn’t make them part of that list of sixteen verbs with past participles that agree with the subject — aller, tomber, etc. — which also  take être. Reflexive verbs follow the same rules of agreement as avoir verbs.)

 

And the same goes for:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe. – She broke the leg to herself.

The verb has a direct object, la jambe (What did she break? The leg), but it is not preceding the participle: it comes after.

And the verb has a preceding object pronoun, the reflexive pronoun ‘se’, but it is not a direct object: it’s an indirect object (to herself).

Therefore, there’s no preceding direct object.

Therefore, no agreement.

Therefore, cassé.

Thank you, and good night.

Medieval French Phrasebooks: Encore Tricolore, circa 1400

‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’ [A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’[A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]

posted by Edward Mills

For those of us who are fortunate enough to study languages, holidays can be a great way to practise: there’s nothing like embarrassing your parents by ordering their train tickets for them. If you don’t speak the language, though, there is one trusty route to fall back on: the phrasebook. As an idea, phrasebooks have a long history; much longer than you might otherwise think when leafing through a Collins or a Berlitz. Some of the earliest manuals that we possess today were written for learners of French in England in the high and late Middle Ages; still objects of study today, they offer a fascinating insight into how languages were taught over five centuries ago. To illustrate this, I’ll be taking three examples, from consecutive centuries: the Tretiz, written by the wonderfully-named Walter de Bibbesworth around the second half of the 13th century; a Manière de langage from 1396; and a fifteenth-century general primer, the Liber Donati (named after the Latin grammarian Donatus).

These three texts were all written in England, and the circumstances in which they were produced reveals a great deal about the esteem with which French was held in the later Middle Ages. French was widely spoken in what is today Britain in the wake of the Norman Conquest, as part of a (very interesting indeed) triglossia[1] with Latin and English, but as interactions with the continent became more frequent the value of learning French for non-native speakers greatly increased. This is why the Manière de langage is able to state its purpose so boldly: ‘Ci comence la maniere de language que t’enseignera bien a droit parler et escrire doulz françois selon l’usage et la coustume de France.’[2] Assuming on the part of the reader a basic knowledge of the Anglo-Norman dialect of French, all three of these texts aim to educate an English audience that needs vocabulary specific to certain situations.

Of course, all of this may well ring bells — that essentially remains the purpose for the modern phrasebook today. Nor is it an alien concept for textbooks to be written in what is termed the ‘target language’: how many times have you read the phrase ‘corrigez les phrases suivantes’, or else ‘écoutez et répondez’? In a wonderful example of differentiation by prior knowledge, Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz and the Liber Donati even include annotations (‘glosses’) offering English translations for more complicated French terms — ‘berce’ is glossed as ‘cradel’,[3] ‘espaule’ as ‘scholderbon’,[4] and ‘autre fois’ as ‘anoth tyme’.[5]

Another similarity with present-day phrasebooks comes in the way in which new material is presented. We’re all familiar with the hackneyed, slightly stilted dialogues that fill the pages of Encore Tricolore or Élan, so it should come as no surprise that most of the new terms in the medieval texts are first seen in dialogue form. The Manière de langage and the Liber Donati both present the characters of the traveller and his servant (intriguingly called Jehan in both texts) as a focalising device through which the reader can see themself. Here again, similarities abound, as the topics of conversation — a good indication of what it was judged as important to learn — are practically identical to today. The Liber Donati provides an example of how to book into a hotel:[6]

— Hostilier, hostilier.
— Sir, sir, je su cy.
— Purrons nous bien estre loggez ciens?
— Oy, certez, mez maistrez … Combien estez vous en nombre?

While on the road, whether in 1300 or today, it’s also important to be able to ask for information from people you meet. Thankfully, the Manière de langage is here to help, providing multiple ways of how to ask for the time:[7]

Et puis le sr s’en chivalche sur son chemyn, et quant il venra ou my lieu de la ville, il demandera du primer homme qu’il encontrera, ainsi : « Mon ami », vel sic : « Biau sire », vel sic : « Biau filz, quelle heure est-il maintenant ? » Vel sic : « Qu’est ce qu’a sonnee de l’oriloge ? »

But perhaps the most striking similarity between the Collins Gem in your pocket and its medieval equivalent is to be found not in vocabulary, but in grammar. The concept of gender, always tricky to explain, is dealt with in the Tretiz just as it often is today: by looking at the body. Just as we introduce the concept of gender by focusing on the agreement in the phrases ‘j’ai les cheveux noirs’ (m.pl.) or ‘j’ai de longues jambes’ (f.pl.), the Tretiz explains the best way to teach your children the concept of gender is through the human body. Plus, it will stop your darling child from being mocked:[8]

Et quant [un enfant] encurt a tele age
Qu’i[l] prendre se poet a langage,
E[n] fraunceis lui devez dire
Cum primes deit sun cors descrivre
Pur l’ordre aver de ‘moun’ e ‘ma’,
‘Ton’ e ‘ta’, ‘soun’ e ‘ça’, ‘le’ e ‘la’
Qu’i[l] en parole seit meuz apris
E de nul autre escharnis.

There’s a huge amount more to be said about these books, whether it be what happens in the narratives that they construct, the individual manuscripts in which they survive, or the complicated relationship between French and English during this period. For now, though, I hope this short foray into the medieval world through the medium of tourism has left you with a sense that your A-Level textbook has a long history behind it. When you’re next grappling with the pluperfect tense, just remember that you’re not the first — some time around 1447, readers of the Liber Donati were faced with another element that would not look out of place today:[9]

J’avoy enseigné, tu avoiez enseigné, il avoit enseigné, nous avoions enseigné, vous avoiez enseigné, ils avoient enseigné.

I find it fascinating to think that all of the things we think of as ‘modern’ tools to learn a language — vocabulary primers, sample conversations, even verb tables — have existed for centuries, in forms we can still look at today. While the medieval learner of French may not have had WordReference on his iPhone, the influence of the tools that he did have can still be felt today. As the (nineteenth-century) French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr would say, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’

If you’re interested in reading more about medieval French literature, there are many excellent websites out there. Websites such as the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog and the Medieval Fragments project are a great place to start; I also wrote a more general introduction to medieval French over at the University of Cambridge’s Be Cambridge blog. The Manière de langage is also available online here.

 

Edward Mills is a postgraduate student in medieval French literature at Wolfson College. Thanks very much to Daron Burrows for proof-reading prior to publication.


1. ‘Triglossia’ refers to a situation wherein three languages are spoken in a given space. See also ‘diglossia’, the phenomenon of two languages being spoken in a given space, and Polyglossia, the University of Cambridge’s student-run modern languages journal (which I definitely wasn’t involved with. Nope. Never.) [↵]
2. Manière de langage, p. 382. “Here begins the Manière de langage which will teach you the proper speech and writing of sweet French as it is used in France.”[↵]
3. Tretiz, l. 7. [↵]
4. Tretiz, l. 98. [↵]
5. Liber Donati, p. 18. [↵]
6. Liber Donati, p. 20. “Innkeeper, inkeeper. / Sir, here I am. / Can you house us here? / Certainly, sirs … how many are you?” [↵]
7. Manière, pp. 394-95. “And then the sire continues on his way, and when he finds himself half an hour away from the town, he asks the man whom he meets, thusly: ‘Friend,’ or ‘Good sir’, or ‘Good man, what time is it now?’, or ‘How many times has the clock sounded?'” [↵]
8. Tretiz, ll. 21-28. “And when [a child] reaches such an age / That he may apply himself to languages, / You should first tell him in French / How to describe his body / By proper order of ‘mon’ and ‘ma’, / ‘Ton’ and ‘ta’, ‘son’ and ‘sa’, ‘le’ and ‘la’; / So that he be better educated in speech / And not be mocked by others.” [↵]
9. Liber Donati, p. 11. [↵]

Bookshelf Book Club: L’Étranger by Albert Camus

posted by Simon Kemp

L’Étranger (usually translated as The Outsider) is probably the most widely read of all twentieth-century French novels. Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past) may be more famous, but not as many people get to the end of its 3000 pages. L’Étranger is short, intriguing, and written in such simple French (not a passé simple verb in sight) that it’s often the first choice for non-native-speakers wanting to try a real work of French literature in the original language. It’s the most-mentioned text on UCAS forms from prospective candidates by some margin — a fact that put me rather in two minds about including it in the book club. It’s already read by almost as many candidates as all other French literature put together, so it hardly needs my recommendation to find any more readers.  But there is something special about its combination of accessible language and thought-provoking content that fully justifies its popularity.

The novel is set in colonial-era Algeria (it was written in the 1940s) , and the story is told by Meursault, a French-Algerian colonist. He likes warm sunshine and swimming in the sea. He doesn’t like damp towels in the bathroom. Most things he has no opinion on at all. ‘Ça m’est égal’ (‘I don’t mind either way’) is his constant refrain.  He gets on with his life, enjoying small pleasures, and staying largely detached from other people.  We meet him as he is told of his mother’s death and summoned to the old people’s home for her funeral. After that event, during which he smokes a cigarette by the coffin and sheds no tears at the graveside, we follow him on a trip to the beach with a girl,  and through the events of an ordinary day.

Everything changes when Meursault is drawn into a feud between his disreputable neighbour, Raymond, and the family of Raymond’s Arab girlfriend, who is in an abusive relationship with him. Following a brawl at the beach with the girlfriend’s brother and other men, Meursault shoots one of them, in an act for which he offers no motivation other than that he was dazzled and disoriented by the sun.

The second half of the novel deals with Meursault’s trial. To Meursault’s bemusement (and here the novel takes on a slightly surreal air), the circumstances of the shooting are largely disregarded by the investigators and lawyers dealing with the case. Rather, it is Meursault’s behaviour during and after his mother’s funeral that attracts the interest, and condemnation, of the establishment. In their eyes, Meursault’s greatest crime is failing to weep at his mother’s funeral, further compounded by enjoying life in the days that followed. Meursault, we realize, is being condemned for not playing by society’s rules, and for refusing to play-act emotions he does not feel in order to make other people feel comfortable.

Meursault’s story is simply told. He gives us the facts of what is said and done, but offers few interpretations of his own or anyone else’s behaviour. The novel offers more questions than answers, and challenges the reader to take sides in a moral debate that’s not easy to settle (its hero is, after all, a killer without remorse,  who’s also complicit in Raymond’s abuse of his girlfriend). It’s an uncomfortable read, deliberately provocative, and if you like being provoked then it’s well worth your time. It will also introduce you to the idea of the Absurd, the tragi-comic mismatch between our need to find meaning and purpose in life and the world we live in that often seems to have neither. It’s an idea that has a lot of influence on twentieth-century French literature, and is also explored, for example, in Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot and Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée. So do go ahead and give Camus’s little masterpiece a try. But do also remember that Other French Novels Are Available.

Personal Statements II: Practice

posted by Simon Kemp

OK, then, as promised, it’s time for you to take on the role of an Oxford admissions tutor. Here are three personal statements from people applying for a place on the French and Spanish undergraduate degree at Oxford. Have a look at all three first of all and decide what you think of them, and then we can compare opinions below:

 

Clara

I am very interested in studying languages at your university. I am a very accomplished student at my school, gaining seven A or A* grades in my GCSE exams, and have done very well in all of my AS-levels. I am predicted to achieve three As at A-level. I am a respected member of my school, representing my year group on the school council. This demonstrates my maturity and leadership qualities. I also have broad extra-curricular achievements: I play on the school hockey team, I have achieved Grade 6 on the oboe, and I successfully spent a year as Marketing Manager for our T-shirt producing company under the Young Enterprise scheme, for which we were given a regional award. I would like to become a lawyer in later life, and I believe the skills acquired during a language degree would be invaluable to me in the international field.

 

Rory

I have a passion for languages. All my life I have been extremely interested in learning foreign languages. One of my earliest memories is looking at a Spanish picture-book that my mother had bought on holiday, and being fascinated by the foreign words that were written in it, and determined that one day I would be able to understand what they meant. On childhood holidays in France, I would always be the one to step forward and chat to the locals. While my parents hung back, too embarrassed to ask for milk instead of lemon in their tea, I would be chatting away, making friends with the waitresses. French and Spanish culture are wonderful, and it would be the most amazing opportunity for me to spend four years studying them at your prestigious institution. I adore Spanish cinema and read lots of French books, and I would relish the opportunity to be able to do this full-time for the duration of the course. Spanish is so much more elegant than English, and French culture is so much more sophisticated than British culture.

 

Martha

I have a real interest in language learning and literary study, and I would love to have the opportunity to study French and Spanish at your institution. While I’ve had little chance to visit French- or Spanish-speaking countries as yet, I do what I can to acquaint myself with their language and culture. I’ve been watching some Spanish and Latin American films on DVD. My favourite director is Pedro Almodovar. While my A-level syllabus doesn’t include any literature, I have always been interested in the subject, and I believe I would be well-motivated to follow a course with a strong literary component. In English literature, I have recently been reading Saturday by Ian McEwan, where I was interested in the detail with which the author goes into a minute-by-minute account of an ordinary day. I have also recently read an English translation of the French novel, Madame Bovary, to give me a taste of some of the literature offered on the course. I found it both funny and sad, and it was fascinating to see how Flaubert combines these two emotions, often in a single scene. I have not previously had the opportunity to read any foreign literature in the original language, but I have just bought a copy of Antéchrista by Amélie Nothomb, which I am starting to read. I also have an interest in linguistics, after reading popular science books by Steven Pinker, and I would be keen to take a course in linguistics as part of my degree. It’s surprising to see the various ways languages develop and change over time.

Modern languages at Oxford last year accepted 35% of applicants to the course, so it’s quite likely that only one of these three will end up as an undergraduate. Which should it be?

 

image

 

In fact, the boring answer is that all three of these candidates are very much in the running for a place at Oxford, since we don’t decide our admissions on the strength of personal statements alone. Provided that their GCSE grades, language tests and predicted A-levels are of a good standard, they can all expect to be invited for an interview. (We invited 88% of modern languages applicants for an interview last year.)

But in terms of our admissions criteria, I think you can probably see that Martha, the third candidate, has gone a good deal further than the other two in showing us how she fulfils them. The statement already shows us that she has an interest in language and literature, that she has ideas about what she’s been reading, and that she’s capable of discussing them clearly and articulately. She has already engaged with an impressive range of literature, including serious English novels, Classic French literature in translation, and an accessible text in the target language, plus a mention of cinema in the other language.  (This is, incidentally, rather more than most applicants tell us about their reading in their personal statement, and certainly more than we’d be expecting.)

Clara and Rory may be equally as interested in foreign cultures and as keen to study them as Martha, but they don’t do as good a job of telling us about it. Clara tells us practically nothing that connects to our admissions criteria — in fact, she tells us almost nothing of relevance that isn’t already covered by other parts of her application. Rory is big on enthusiasm but low on substance. He claims to be interested in French and Spanish literature and film, but gives no details, and spends most of the personal statement on anecdotes without much relevance and over-the-top declarations of love for the subject.

When the three of them come for interview, we’ll make sure that Rory and Clara have the chance to fill in the gaps and let us know if they really are interested in literature and well-suited to a course that includes literary analysis. But Martha is already well on the way to demonstrating this before we even meet her, and has the further advantage that she’s made some specific suggestions for discussion topics at the interview, which she can prepare for in advance. The personal statement is only a small part of the admissions process, but if the other parts of her application match up, then Martha is off to a strong start.

 

 

Personal Statements I: Theory

posted by Simon Kemp

It’s UCAS time. Applications to study at Oxford in 2015 need to be submitted through the UCAS service by 15 October this year. Most courses at universities other than Oxford and Cambridge have a January deadline, but our deadline is earlier so we can fit in our lengthy admissions process of schoolwork assessment, language tests, and interviews, which will keep us busy until late December. All the information you need is laid out in great detail on the UCAS website, the Oxford admissions page, and the various pages devoted to our modern languages courses. There’s one for people wanting to study two languages together or one on its own, one for people wanting to study English and Modern Languages, one for History and Modern Languages, one for Classics and Modern Languages, one for Philosophy and Modern Languages, one for European and Middle Eastern Languages, and, finally, one for Modern Languages and Linguistics.

UCAS’s own advice on writing your personal statement is here, and is very helpful. I thought it would be useful to add a little more specifically for those thinking of applying to Oxford for modern languages, so this week and next, we’ll be looking at the topic. This week offers a few pointers about how you might go about writing your personal statement. Next week we’ll look at three sample statements and see what they do well and what they could do better.

We’ve talked about personal statements before on the blog, notably in this post, and the ‘Applying to study modern languages’ category gathers together all the relevant posts on Oxford admissions. I’ll begin by reiterating the key point of that earlier post, which is that our decisions about who to offer places to are based on the published admissions criteria for the subject.

 

The admissions criteria for  modern languages at Oxford are these:

1. General Admissions Criteria

Successful candidates for admission will possess the following qualities. The admissions process as a whole is designed to identify which candidates possess them in the greatest measure:

  • Motivation and commitment along with capacity for sustained study of language and literature.
  • Communication: willingness and ability to express ideas clearly and effectively both in writing and orally; ability to listen and to give considered responses.
  • Proven competence in the language(s) as established by school work written in the language(s), by the language test and (in some cases) by oral competence at interview. In the case of beginners, clear evidence of aptitude and potential for language study.
  • While there is no requirement that candidates will have read any literature in the language(s), successful candidates will demonstrate an aptitude and commitment to the study of literature by evidence of their readiness to discuss their reading in English or in the relevant language(s) or by their response to a reading-passage at interview. Assessors will look for evidence of intellectual curiosity and critical engagement.

Selection is competitive and it may well be that a candidate is able to demonstrate these qualities and nonetheless is edged out of contention by a candidate with stronger all-round claims. In applying these criteria, the main concern is to identify proven competence in the language(s) along with future promise and aptitude in literary and cultural studies. Examination results, predicted examination results, school reports, school written work, performance at interview and in the language test(s) are all taken into account in the assessment of present achievement and of future potential. In the case of candidates whose first language is not English, competence in the English language is also a criterion.

(I’ve copied the list from the modern languages faculty website here.)

We’re simply looking to see how well you fulfill these criteria in each of the areas that form part of our admissions process. These areas are:

your qualifications achieved so far

predicted grades for Year 13

teacher references

submitted schoolwork

results in our language tests

performance during the interviews

and the personal statement itself.

(Plus, we’re also taking into account the UCAS contextual data and any bearing it may have on your achievements in any of the above areas, as I’ve talked about here.) As you can see, the personal statement is one among many factors here, and by no means among the most important of them, but it’s worth taking the time to get it right.

 

As we’re well aware when we read these things, you only get to write one personal statement for all your UK university applications, and it’s unlikely that modern languages at Oxford is your only choice. Even at Oxford, if you’re applying for one of the ‘joint schools’ with English, Philosophy, Linguistics, Middle-Eastern Languages, History or Classics, you’ll need to look up their selection criteria online and tailor your personal statement to meet those as well. At the other universities you’re applying to, you may well be applying for a different combination of subjects, or for a modern languages course with very different emphasis from the Oxford one, so the Oxford tutor understands that your personal statement needs to be broad enough to encompass all of your choices. Having said that, with around three applicants for every place available in modern languages, and with our most popular joint school, English and Modern Languages, able to take only 16% of applicants last year (these statistics are on the course pages listed above), it’s important that you fulfil the ‘motivation and commitment’ criterion at the very top of the list by showing in your personal statement that the Oxford course is one you really want. A while ago I received an application for French and Spanish with a personal statement almost entirely focused on the candidate’s commitment to studying Management with Business Spanish (a course we don’t offer). It didn’t put the applicant in a strong starting position against the other candidates.

Given the proviso that it has to do other things as well, how might you draft your personal statement to engage with our selection criteria? Take a look at the four bullet-point criteria above (in green) again, and then at the seven kinds of information we have on you as part of your application (in red), and you’ll be able work out which criteria are relevant to the personal statement, and which are to do with other parts of the admissions process.

Your proven competence in the language, for instance, will be shown by actual and predicted grades, teacher reference, language test and schoolwork, not by the personal statement. Your ability to express yourself orally, and to listen and give considered responses, are for the interview to demonstrate. What’s left for the personal statement once you take out these other criteria are the following:

  • Motivation and commitment for sustained study of language and literature.
  • Communication: willingness and ability to express ideas clearly and effectively in writing.
  • An aptitude and commitment to the study of literature by evidence of their readiness to discuss their reading in English or in the relevant language(s). 

All of these will also come through in other parts of the application process, such as your teacher references for the first one, your schoolwork for the second, and the interview for the third. But you can definitely make a good first impression by writing a personal statement that has something to say about each of them:

Motivation and commitment for sustained study of language and literature. Anyone can say they’re motivated and committed. But can you show it? We’re not looking for people to lay it on thick with declarations of enthusiasm and passion. We’re looking for something that counts as real evidence. Have you been on an exchange? Do you correspond in the foreign language with someone on social media? Do you try to read foreign newspapers online? Or watch foreign films on DVD? Any of these things would be good support to an assertion that you’re committed to studying the foreign language and its culture.

Willingness and ability to express ideas clearly and effectively in writing. Clear and effective doesn’t mean wordy and pretentious. There’s no point in using unnecessarily obscure words and phrasing to try to sound more sophisticated. There is a point, though, in being accurate. You only have forty-seven lines to write, and it’s reasonable to hope you should be able to manage that without spelling or grammar mistakes. Read it through several times, and give it to other people to read to make sure. Pay particular attention to any names of people, books or films you’ve included, or any quotes in the foreign language. Every year I get at least a couple of applicants telling me how keen they are to discover the works of Jean-Paul Satre (it’s Sartre), or how interested they are in the adventures of Mersault in Albert Camus’s L’Étranger (it’s Meursault).

An aptitude and commitment to the study of literature by evidence of their readiness to discuss their reading in English or in the relevant language(s). Some A-level courses or equivalent in modern languages include a literature component, but most don’t. Some applicants are also studying English literature alongside the modern language in the sixth form, but many aren’t. So what we’re absolutely NOT expecting of a candidate is any experience of studying literature formally at school. What we are looking for, though, is that you’re the kind of person who has an interest in literature and culture, and will thrive on a university course that involves quite a lot of it.  We’ll spend a good part of the interview on this subject, but you can make a start in demonstrating it in the personal statement. Have you read any serious English literature? Have you ever read a novel or play from the modern language in English translation? Have you tried, or do you plan to try reading something in the original language? If you’re doing any of these things, are you doing them on your own initiative, above and beyond what your school is requiring you to do? If you’ve read something in translation or the original language, do you have any thoughts on it? Was anything about it particularly striking? What questions did it raise, or what was particular about the characters, the style of the writing or the way the plot was structured? Be as detailed and specific as you can within the limits of the word count. We’re always pleased to see what you’ve read and what you thought of it, and you can be sure that if you do say something along these lines, then you’ll be invited to discuss it further during the interview.

That just leaves the things that aren’t in the selection criteria. Here in Oxford, we’re entirely focused on your academic potential. While it’s nice to see other details about you on the personal statement to get to know you a little better as a person, they won’t ultimately have a bearing on whether we’re able to offer you a place on our courses. I’m always very pleased to see that you play the oboe to Grade 8 standard, or that you represent your county in ice-hockey junior championships, and you should rightly be proud of achievements like this and include them on the statement. But if you’ve never picked up a musical instrument or ventured onto a sports field without catastrophe immediately following, or if your sole out-of-school activity is curling up in an armchair with a book, then I’m very happy to see that too, and it won’t count against your chances of a place at Oxford in any way.

That’s the theory, then. Next week, we’ll take a look at some statements, and see how all this might work in practice…

 

 

 

Great French Lives: Eugène Poubelle

Poubelle portrait.jpg
M. Poubelle

posted by Simon Kemp

Eugène-René Poubelle was préfet, or regional administrator, in charge of the Seine département, essentially Paris and its suburbs, from 1883 to 1896. What he did while he was there has left a permanent mark on French life, and on the French language. Does his name sound familiar to you at all?

M. Poubelle is the man who brought dustbins to France. In respectful memory of this extraordinary achievement, the French word for bin is la poubelle. (This little fact also featured in the Chassez l’intrus quiz a few weeks ago.)

des poubelles

Paris in the late nineteenth century had a problem. Two million people lived there, and two million people create quite a lot of rubbish. It was Poubelle’s job to come up with a system to deal with it. His solution was surprisingly far-sighted: he didn’t just introduce the bin, he introduced three bins per household: one for perishable rubbish, one for paper and cloth, and one for crockery and shells. It was a precursor of modern recycling. The boxes were known as boîtes Poubelle, soon shortened to poubelles. While the three-box rubbish-sorting system may not have endured, the name has stuck.

Not only did the French honour M. Poubelle by naming their rubbish receptacles after him, the Parisians gave their préfet one of the greatest marks of respect the city can offer: they named one of their streets after him. In the swanky sixteenth arrondissement, home to Paris’s most expensive real estate, you can find the Rue Eugène Poubelle.

rue Poubelle

Last month, an apartment on this street sold for 1 440 000 euros, which is a lot of money to pay to live at an address that very nearly translates as Trashcan Alley.

 

 

 

…..And one other thing. I was contacted a few weeks ago by the BBC to ask if I’d mind verifying the definitions and pronunciation of some French words they wanted to use in their CBBC  ‘comedic panel show’, The Dog Ate My Homework. (I know, the life of a Schools Liaison Officer is just an endless round of showbiz glamour.) All of the words seemed to have been picked because they sounded funny, and inevitably, poubelle was one of them. Ever the educator, I insisted that they couldn’t say la poubelle on air without at least a nod to the memory of the great M. Poubelle. Will they mention him? Probably not. We watch a lot of CBBC in my household, owing to the presence of a number of eight- and nine-year-old boys, but I haven’t seen the show yet. If you catch it, and Eugène makes it to air, please let me know!

dog homework

 

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!