A Chilean Year Abroad: from terremotos to chilenismos

This post was written by Hector Stinton, a third-year Spanish & French student at Keble College.

As an undergraduate reading French and Spanish, I have chosen to spend my year abroad working in Santiago de Chile (August 2017 – June 2018) and Paris (July – September 2018) as a British Council English teacher and Assistant Film Producer, respectively. In the summer before starting the Spanish half of my year, I set myself three main objectives: to enhance my understanding of Hispanic culture, to improve my Spanish, and to challenge myself professionally.

Being embedded in life and work in Chile has given me great insight into Latin culture. For example, in England, flying or wearing our flag is uncommon and has nationalistic associations, even on St George’s Day; whereas in Chile, La Estrella solitaria is seen far more frequently, especially on Independence Day in September. Dig a little deeper, however, and you find that it is still a legal obligation, though rarely enforced, to fly a flag from every house or tower block – a hangover in the constitution written by Pinochet, demonstrating his pervasive legacy. At the other end of the spectrum, and typifying the wry sense of humour, the beverage of choice – a litre of sweet fermented wine with pineapple ice-cream – is called a terremoto (‘earthquake’), despite the fact that tremors regularly raze towns and villages, and have left the capital without any pre-modern architecture.

It is said that if you can speak Castilian in Chile, you can speak it anywhere in the world, since Chilean Spanish has a fearsome reputation for its thick accent, fast delivery, and plethora of peculiar idioms and neologisms, known as chilenismos. Separated from Peru and Bolivia by the Atacama Desert to the north, from Argentina by the Andes to the east, and surrounded by ocean to the south and west, Chile’s geography has seen its language develop hermetically. Even when Chile became more accessible, wars with her neighbours, and continuing mutual suspicion, have made the distinct speech a point of national pride. For this reason, Chilean vocabulary has been particularly enriched by its immigrant and native communities: ya (‘yeah’) from the German ja, ¿cachai? (‘you know?’) from the English ‘to catch one’s drift’, cancha (‘field’) from the Quechua kancha. The grammar, too, prefers the Italian ai or ei ending to the Iberian as or es when using the informal tu form in the present tense, and rejects completely the peninsular vosotros ‘you plural’. Acquiring all these subtleties, and many more besides, has made me a more complete linguist.

Professionally, working at the biggest language school in Santiago, the Instituto Chileno-Británico de Cultura, has presented its own set of challenges. On Friday evenings, I teach an advanced one-on-one student who happens to be the philosophy chair at the top university, and is preparing to deliver a series of lectures at Yale. A few hours later, on Saturday mornings, I go from feeling more like a tutorial student with the aforementioned academic, to helping a class of six-year-old girls colour and annotate big A3 sheets with titles like ‘My Zoo’ and ‘My Favourite Food’. ‘Variety’ is certainly the watchword at the ICBC, because every day I engage with and adapt to a huge range of different ages, backgrounds and abilities.

Thus far, I would go as far as to say I’m meeting or exceeding the objectives I set myself at the beginning of the year, thanks to an opportunity in Chile made possible by the British Council and Instituto Británico. Now I might even have time for some of my secondary objectives: learning to dance, learning to cook, and learning Portuguese…

Why I chose German ab initio

Last week, we heard an overview of German at Oxford from Prof. Henrike Lähnemann. This week, Hannah Hodges, a current second-year undergraduate of French and German at St Peter’s College, tells us what motivated her to study German from scratch or ‘ab initio’.

The popular YouTube videos “German compared to other languages” didn’t really help me when justifying my decision to choose German as my ab initio language. Who would rather commit to four years studying the language whose word for butterfly is Schmetterling and not papillon or farfalla ?

Now in my second year of the ab initio German course, I stand by my decision to take up German as part of my degree. Why? Well, despite its reputation for being complicated, German is actually quite a logical language (at least compared to the endless list of French grammar exceptions anyway!). I may still stressfully pause before I say anything in order to figure out which translation of the I am going to use, but I can (kind of) see the logic behind the dreaded cases. Moreover, after spending seven years trying to decide when to use the passé composé, imparfait, passé simple or passé antérieur (what even is this?) in French, you can imagine my relief that in German there are only two commonly used past tenses and it’s not (too) important which you use in speech. And future? No need to worry about verb stems: with German you can use the present tense and just add a word like morgen (tomorrow) or nächstes Jahr (next year) which makes it pretty obvious you’re talking about a point in the future – logical, right?

Joking aside, the thought of reading Thomas Mann’s paragraph-long sentences does at times make me question my own choice, but the usefulness of German in understanding the development of modern European thought and being able to read seminal texts in their original language such as Immanuel Kant’s Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? (Answering the Question: what is Enlightenment) is rather rewarding. But perhaps the best thing is that German has the reputation of being a difficult language. Therefore, when you casually drop into conversation that you only started learning it a year and a half ago and someone asks you what the longest German word you know is,  you can confidently roll off the compound noun  Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung. Moreover, you can explain why the word is logically constructed. Trust me, people will think you’re amazing. So, don’t be put off just because the word for daisy is Gänseblümchen.

German at Oxford

In February we ran an open day for prospective students of German at Oxford. In the recording below, Prof. Henrike Lähnemann gives an overview of German at Oxford.

We offer German at a variety of entry levels, from post-A Level to beginner. The first-year course is designed to provide a structured introduction to the areas of the subject which will then be explored in depth later on. It is closely tailored to the entry level in order to equip all students with the necessary knowledge and skills. Whatever the starting-point, students study the same course for the second, third and fourth years.

In the first year, you will consolidate and improve your language skills while exploring issues of twentieth-century German society and developing an appreciation of German language and literary culture. A key element for post-A-level students is a course entitled Deutsche Gesellschaft und Kultur seit 1890. This is taught in German, in lectures and small classes, and is the basis for an integrated study of modern German language and literature. In tutorials and classes students on all of the first-year pathways will explore a range of literary texts and develop their oral and
written presentation skills in both English and German. The emphasis is on literature from 1890 to 1933 – a period of huge social change and industrial advance, and of the redefinition of the modern German nation through politics and war.

But students are also introduced to texts from other periods of German cultural history, from the medieval to the contemporary. The second and final years permit you to choose from a wide array of subjects, including the study of literary texts and cultural history from 800AD to the present day, modern linguistics and linguistic history, and a constantly evolving range of special authors and special subjects, including: Old Norse Sagas, Yiddish, women’s writing, medieval Minnesang, Nietzsche, cinema studies, the literature of the GDR, contemporary writing, advanced translation.

One of the great attractions of the Modern Languages course is the year abroad. Many students go as language assistants to schools in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. This offers an excellent opportunity for becoming integrated in a German-speaking community, and it is well-paid work which leaves time for you to continue your studies, travel and pursue other interests. Students of
German have also worked for international companies, in art galleries and museums, and at dance or theatre school. Others have studied at one of the many German universities with which Oxford has ties. Immersion in the language and society is an enormous benefit to our students. The key is to enjoy and to learn.

Most students at Oxford study German with another language, but it is also possible for post-A-level students to take “German sole” – in which case the first year course includes film, and medieval
and philosophical texts. Alternatively post-A-level students can combine German with Classics, English, History, Linguistics, a Middle Eastern Language, or with Philosophy.

Why language skills are a priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

This post, written by George Hodgson, originally appeared on the Creative Multilingualism blog on 11 January 2018. George Hodgson has been British Ambassador to Senegal and non-resident Ambassador to Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau since July 2015.

The first foreign language I really engaged with was Bengali. Most of the kids at my primary school in Tower Hamlets in East London were of Bangladeshi heritage. In the classroom, we sang Bengali songs. In the playground, we delighted in Bengali swear words. I’d be too embarrassed to own up to recalling the lyrics of a song about a frog, let alone the insults, but I will admit to still remembering how to count from one to ten.

At secondary school, I studied French, German and Latin up to GCSE. There was neither singing nor swearing. But we had great teachers, with a passion for languages and for sharing them – even with under-appreciative teenagers. I became more appreciative when, some years later, my rusty French was enough to strike up a conversation with an attractive French girl, now my wife.

As British Ambassador in Dakar, I speak more French on any given day than I do English. Without it, I just wouldn’t be as effective in my job. That, quite simply, is why language skills are a priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This blog, by my colleague Danny Pruce in Manila, offers a nice insight into studying Tagalog full-time at the FCO’s in-house language centre.

Here in Senegal, I’ve been impressed by the language skills of the young British volunteers that I’ve met, working with great organisations like the International Citizenship Service or Project Trust in local communities, and living with host families. Many of them learn Wolof: it’s far more widely spoken than French, and Senegal’s real lingua franca.

Equally impressive are the language skills of ordinary Senegalese people. For a majority in Senegal, multilingualism is a way of life. The same is not quite true in the United Kingdom.

That said, there are of course millions of people in the UK who are multilingual speakers of recognised minority languages like Welsh or Gaelic, or of languages that have come to the UK more recently, like Polish or Punjabi … or indeed Bengali. There are over a million bilingual pupils at school in Britain.

The British Council’s recent Languages for the future paper is well worth a read. It argues that ‘in a new era of cooperation with Europe and with the rest of the world, investment in upgrading the UK’s ability to understand and engage with people internationally is critical’. I couldn’t agree more.

Part of that investment is, of course, about supporting language learning in schools, universities and beyond. But it’s also about encouraging and enabling people to make the most of the linguistic talents that we already enjoy as a country. And looking at how schemes which aren’t ostensibly about languages – like the International Citizenship Service – can contribute.

Virtual Book Club: Italian takes a turn

The Virtual Book Club is back once again, this time with an episode on Italian. The Italian episode features a discussion about a poem by Patrizia Cavalli, which was published in 1992. Here, doctoral student Nicolò Crisafi guides two undergraduates, Kirsty and Hannah, through the poem, looking at topics like gender, voice, and form.

If you would like to receive a copy of the poem to follow as you watch the discussion, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Literature Masterclass: Time & Tense

Approaching a text in a foreign language for the first time can be both exciting and daunting at once. How do we begin to analyse the way the text works? What should we pay attention to in terms of linguistic features and the structure of the text?

One of the simplest but also most important aspects of a text we can analyse is the tense in which it is written. Tenses are something we are aware of from day one when we are learning a foreign language: indeed, as non-native speakers we are perhaps more aware of different tenses in a foreign language than we are in our mother tongues. But sometimes, when we are focussing intently on an unfamiliar grammatical system, it can be easy to lose sight of how that grammar can be used for literary effect.

In the presentation below, Dr Simon Kemp, Tutor in French at Somerville College, gives an introduction to Time and Tense in French literature. Focussing on a few extracts from texts on the A Level syllabus, he takes us through some of the various effects the use of different tenses can produce.

A Two Minute Introduction to Goethe

This post was written by Isabel Parkinson, who studies German & Philosophy at Worcester College.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born, rather poetically, on a summer’s day in Frankfurt in 1749 just as the church bells were striking noon. In true sensitive-artist style he studied law as a young man and detested it, preferring to attend poetry lectures instead and write Baroque-style verse for his lover. Goethe became a literary celebrity at just twenty-five when he wrote Die Leiden des jungen Werthers – a quite beautiful story that’s not only unchallenging enough to be read for pleasure, but has been so excellently translated that no knowledge of German is required. It’s achingly melancholy and endearingly optimistic in equal measure with a core of reverent, self-sacrificial, and occasionally obsessive love; the young hero Werther is so desperately infatuated with Lotte that he sends his servant to her house when he himself cannot visit, just to have someone in his home who has seen her.

Werther made Goethe an overnight success, and by the 1790s he was collaborating and communicating with the other major player in the German literature scene, Friedrich Schiller. In 1809 Goethe published his third novel, Elective Affinities. It is written in prose, rather than in the epistolary style of Werther and is a similarly excellent story, with not so much a love triangle as a love square or maybe even a pentagon.

Goethe turned his hand to many things – politics, science, prose – and his epic reworking of the classic legend Faust is an example of his dabbling in the closet drama genre. Part One is closely connected to the original famous legend, while Part Two – published in 1832, the year of Goethe’s death – pushes the story and the soul wager to its conclusion. The rich detail and sheer length of Goethe’s Faust may unfairly paint it as an impenetrable work; these misconceptions hide a vividly imagined and often quite humorous tale. It is true that one can make much of the religious, moral, and philosophical questions, but they are balanced with lighter touches such as a shape-shifting poodle and Mephistopheles accompanying Faust on a double date through a garden – and what Oxford student can fail to identify with the dissatisfied academic who trades his soul for knowledge and pleasure?

The Humboldt forum: negotiating Germany’s past and future

This post was written by Dr Richard McClelland, a stipendiary lecturer in German and St Hugh’s and New Colleges. Dr McClelland gives an overview of this year’s Taylor lecture, by Neil MacGregor. You can watch the lecture here.

On Tuesday 13th February 2018 we were thrilled to welcome Neil MacGregor for the annual Taylor lecture. An alumnus of the university, MacGregor is the former head of the British Museum and the instigator of the popular exhibition, radio series and book ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’. His lecture, ‘The Humboldt Forum: Two Brothers, a Palast and a Schloß’ outlined the background to his current position as Founding Director of the Humbodlt Forum in Berlin. When completed, the Forum will occupy a cluster of buildings and will contain museums, teaching rooms for the nearby Humboldt University and public spaces open to all. The Forum will be located at the eastern end of Berlin’s Unter den Linden, the long imperial boulevard that stretches across Berlin to the Brandenburg Gate. And, as MacGregor states, it has caused quite a stir…

This isn’t, after all, just any building site, but one that is redeveloping what MacGregor describes as ‘the most contested of all of Berlin’s “sites of memory”’: the former site of the Hohenzollern Stadtschloss. Completed in the middle of the 17th century and exuding Baroque opulence, the Schloss was located on the famous Museuminsel. A deliberate choice, this site represented the bringing together of influential strands of public life as a physical embodiment of the Prussian and subsequently Imperial German crown: power in the palace, knowledge in the museums and, thanks to the nearby Berlin Dom, religion.

The Berliner Stadtschloss under construction. Photo by Ziko van Dijk.

Following heavy damage in the Second World War, the authorities of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) decided to tear the palace down. This decision was met with public outcry because it could have been saved; indeed, the similarly damaged museums were spared demolition. But the imperial grandeur did not project the correct image for the newly-founded workers’ state. In its place the authorities constructed the Palast der Republik, a people’s palace that housed the Volkskammer, the parliament of the GDR, and recreational facilities including a bowling alley. In 1990 it even became the home of the first democratically elected parliament in East Germany. Following Unification, however, it was left empty, the decaying shell an uneasy reminder of the communist past right in the heart of Germany’s new capital. In a decision that echoes the one taken some fifty years earlier, authorities demolished the building in 2008 because it contained asbestos. Or so runs the official line; again, the building didn’t project the right image for the new Republic.

Neil MacGregor gives the Taylor lecture, February 2018. Photo by Henrike Laehnemann.

In developing the Forum, then, MacGregor and the other directors must negotiate the legacy of imperial Germany, and the legacy and memory of the GDR – and address the questions, debates and often visceral reactions that each legacy provokes. The Forum, then, is an engagement with multiple strands of Germany’s history. Furthermore, it also embodies a very public debate on the legacy and impact of the nation’s past. It raises questions of how Germany remembers its past, and what this mean for the future image of Germany being projected globally. And, as MacGregor said, it also represents a very different narrative of the past than typically addressed in Britain.

Virtual Book Club goes French

Last month saw the launch of our virtual book club with an episode in Russian.

This month, we’ve moved on to discuss an extract of a text written in French. This episode focuses on a passage from Suzanne Dracius’s La Virago. Dracius is an author and playwright who was born in the Caribbean island of Martinique, which is a French overseas territory. Dracisu grew up on the outskirts of Paris, and her writing draws on her dual heritage as both Caribbean and French.

Watch as Dr Vanessa Lee guides some undergraduates through a discussion of gender assumptions, narrative suspense, and reader expectations in this text, touching on details like the use of tenses and imagery. To receive a copy of the text, as well as future book club updates, email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk with your name and school.

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!