Spotlight on Spanish: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695)

This week’s blog post is written by one of our wonderful student ambassadors, a finalist in French and Spanish. Enjoy!

Before coming to Oxford, if you asked me about feminism, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you a lot other than about the suffragette movement and movements in the 1970s and 80s. However, one of the most rewarding and unexpected things that I have discovered since studying at Oxford is that feminism goes a lot further back than I had ever thought.

As part of my degree in Spanish, I had the opportunity to choose an ‘author paper’ that I would study over my second and final year. This is where you pick two authors and get to know a variety of their works in depth. Having enjoyed studying El médico de su honra by Calderón (a celebrated Spanish playwright) in my first year, I decided to pick a paper which focuses on the golden age (siglo de oro). I continued my studies on Calderón however, I was delighted to find that there was a female author on the syllabus (which is largely male-dominated as a result of contemporary attitudes of the time): Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Although her works are known to provide some challenges with sentence structure and philosophy, I can firmly say that I am glad I took these challenges on.

Sor Juana was born in Mexico and had a desire to learn from a young age. As a result of the misogynistic attitudes of the time, she was unable to attend school. Despite this, she begged her mother to attend but disguised as a male student yet it wasn’t enough. Sor Juana was educated at home and during that time, she learnt how to read and write in Latin by the age of three and in Nahuatl (an Aztec language), she became well-versed in philosophy and wrote an array of poems.

Sor Juana later entered the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns which allowed her to pursue her studies with few limitations. During that time, she amassed a huge collection of books and was supported by the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain. The Vicereine Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzága, Countess of Paredes was a recurring subject of her love poetry.

One of Sor Juana’s most famous poems ‘Hombres Necios’ (You foolish men) was written in the 1680s. This poem is one of my firm favourites! Published in a society that was extremely patriarchal, this poem criticises the double standards that men imposed on women and advocates the need for women to have more agency in their day-to-day lives. These double standards affected her reputation, her (sexual) freedom as well as her prospects as she would be left in situations that she could not control.

To illustrate her case, Sor Juana makes a strong argument for how double standards imposed on women aren’t just a problem of her time. Through comparing Thaïs (an independent, educated and sexually free woman who often accompanied Alexander the Great) to Lucretia (a woman who was so committed to fidelity to her husband that she killed herself after being abused by another man), Sor Juana demonstrates how there is a double expectation placed on women: they are expected to be sexually free like Thaïs before and then should completely change and be like Lucretia after entering a relationship with a man.

Whilst I have only mentioned one of Sor Juana’s poems, there are so many others that I could have delved into! For anyone who wants to further their interest in women’s writing or feminist works, I would definitely recommend Sor Juana (even if you are not studying Spanish!). There are many accessible English translations of her poetry and works available which also explore other themes such as education, love and philosophy. If you want to learn more about a subject area in general, there are so many beautiful opportunities to do so through literature. Whether it is medieval literature, seventeenth century plays or modern day poetry, there is bound to be a topic or genre that will fascinate you. Whatever the language, there is something for everyone!

Careers with Modern Languages

One of the questions we get asked most often is:

what can you do with a Modern Languages degree?

The simple and honest answer is PRETTY MUCH ANYTHING!

Like many Humanities degrees, studying Modern Languages equips you with the kinds of skills and aptitudes that employers from a range of different sectors want to see job applicants exhibit, such as:

  • Communication
  • Critical analysis
  • Ability to work independently and in a team
  • Creativity
  • Synthesising information

BUT the great thing about Modern Languages graduates is that they are often equipped with an extra set of skills which can also be applied to various different jobs and careers, such as:

  • Problem solving;
  • Valuing different viewpoints;
  • Cultural awareness and understanding;
  • Perseverance and self-reflection;
  • Thinking on your feet;
  • on top of the ability to speak one or two additional languages!

This is mostly thanks to the opportunities experienced by students on their years abroad as well as the challenges of studying a subject which encompasses so many elements – from tackling intricate translations to analysing medieval literature to debating a current affairs topic in the target language.

Just as a Modern Languages degree is varied, so are the career opportunities available. While some move into careers in education or translation, our graduates in recent years have also gone on to work in the following sectors (to name just a handful):

  • Law
  • Advertising
  • Publishing
  • Gallery curation
  • App development
  • Management consultancy

Don’t believe us? Check out the videos below to listen to alumni talking about their experiences of graduating from a Modern Languages degree and moving into the world of work!

With a Modern Languages degree, the world is your oyster!

Stephen Spender Prize 2024

Calling MFL, EAL and English teachers! Bring creative translation into the classroom this summer with the Stephen Spender Prize 2024

The Stephen Spender Prize is an annual competition for poetry in translation, with strands for pupils, teachers and individual young people, as well as a special rotating Spotlight highlighting a language widely spoken in the UK. The competition is open for entries from 1 May to 31 July and is free to enter for all schools and teachers in the UK and Ireland.

Whether you’re an MLF, EAL or English teacher, and whatever the languages taught and spoken in your school community, the prize is a perfect way to engage students of all ages this summer term.

Teachers are invited to register here to receive classroom inspiration and activity ideas throughout the prize window, and you can follow all the latest news on our website and social media channels. (X: @StephenSpender| Facebook: @StephenSpenderTrust | Instagram: @stephenspendertrust)

Here’s a list of the categories for 2024:

Ready to start planning and working on your entries? Head to our Guide for Teachers for all the key information about the prize at a glance, explore our Bank of Suggested Poems for poem inspiration, and find poetry workshops, worksheets, lesson plans and more in our Prize Resources hub.

To help you spread the word ahead of the launch, you can also download a free Stephen Spender Prize 2024 poster to display around your school, sixth form or university buildings.

If you have any questions, please feel free to email us at prize@stephen-spender.org. We hope that many of you and your students will get involved!

Testimonial: from Open Day attendee to current student!

On the blog this week, first-year student ambassador, Laurence, describes his experience of attending our Modern Languages Open Day in 2022, and how it led him to where he is today.

I feel so grateful to be where I am today, a student of Philosophy and French at St John’s College. My journey into university language study began at the Faculty Open Day in May of 2022, when I was in Year 12. A couple of months prior, I had woken up one day and decided that I could not graduate with a law degree at 21, start training for the world of work, and never broaden my horizons beyond that. French was my favourite subject at school, and I had a passion for literature and culture as well as a budding desire to travel. I switched my application preparation towards languages, and the Open Day was my first port of call.

As an Oxford Bursary recipient from a state comprehensive in Coventry, I remember feeling awe when I arrived with my mum at the Exam Schools, where we listened to a range of different talks. It was refreshing to talk to other young people who had a passion for languages: MFL learning in my school had suffered from a chronic lack of interest. I particularly enjoyed the variety of sessions at the Open Day, from talks on French specifically, linguistics, and Italian, another language I was considering. Talks from tutors were highly informative regarding the literature/language balance as well as studying a language with philosophy, with personal touches about their own research interests that could not be so easily gleaned from the university website. I loved the excitement in the atmosphere around the Open Day, even the sun was out on the High Street!

The Examination Schools in the sunshine at the 2022 Open Day
Photo by John Cairns

I decided that a languages degree was for me, and after further discussions with ambassadors (French and Philosophy is a great combination, they said), we headed home. I remember on the train we even met a woman whose daughter had just graduated in French, it seemed like a sign! I would certainly say that the Open Day stoked my interest in languages further and convinced me, through the emphasis on literature and culture as well as the sheer range of degree options available, that it was a better option than Cambridge or any other university.

Laurence with two other prospective students at the 2022 Modern Languages Open Day
Photo by John Cairns

I have now finished two terms as a student here, and the experience has been everything that the Open Day promised, and more. I believe that the tutorial system is especially well adapted for subjects like English and languages because both tutor and student can pore over the text together. I think the Faculty does well at advertising this as what sets Oxford apart from other universities. 

I have enjoyed much of the early modern content, including Montaigne and Racine, which may be the focus of my Authors Paper next year – although with the input of the philosophy side, Diderot and Pascal also sound tempting. I’m also excited to look into potential linguistics or cinema papers later in my degree. The language side of the degree has also been engaging: the expertise of my native speaker teachers has shown me a new way to reach fluency beyond learning cast iron grammar rules, namely a sensitivity to context, culture, and idiom.

I feel like I have personally travelled a long way since the Open Day, now a languages ambassador myself. Grateful for the opportunity to help others to discover languages too, getting to give back through this outreach work is the greatest privilege.

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You can still sign up to attend our Open Day on Saturday 11 May! The programme and booking link can be found here. The deadline to register your place is 8 May – don’t miss out!

Reminder: Modern Languages Open Day!

It’s not too late to register your place at our Modern Languages Open Day at the beautiful Examination Schools (75 – 81 High St, Oxford) on Saturday 11th May!

Modern Languages Open Day 2022
photo (c) John Cairns

This annual event is a fantastic opportunity for students who are interested in learning more about our language courses, or who are still considering their options, as the Open Day will cover ALL of our languages: French, German*, Spanish, Italian*, Russian*, Portuguese*, Modern Greek*, Czech*, and Polish*. Most of our Joint School degree subjects – English, History, Philosophy etc. – will also be represented at the event.

*All of these languages can be studied here at Oxford from beginners’ level. 

Our Modern Languages Open Day is aimed primarily at Year 12 students and their parents/guardians/teachers, but Year 11 students who are starting to think about university study are equally welcome to attend.

Modern Languages Open Day 2022
photo (c) John Cairns

The Open Day will offer an overview of our Modern Languages courses and a general Q&A for prospective students in the morning*, with individual language sessions and a parents’/guardians’/teachers’ Q&A session occurring in the afternoon. Tutors and current students from the Faculty will be available throughout the day to answer questions from prospective applicants and their companions.

*Please note that, due to restricted places, only one parent/guardian/teacher may accompany each student for the morning session.

You can view the full event programme here.

Modern Languages Open Day 2022
photo (c) John Cairns

Booking your place at this event is compulsory – you can register your attendance here. Bookings will close at midnight on 8th May 2024.

We look forward to welcoming you to Oxford in May!

We’re in Baltic business, people! The *new* beginners’ Russian year abroad

In this week’s blog post, third-year French and Beginners’ Russian student, Catrin, tell us all about her year abroad spent in Tallinn, Estonia!

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the beginners’ Russian cohort spends the year abroad in Tallinn, Estonia, engaging in an intensive language programme for eight months. At first, it disappointed me that I would not experience the legend that is the traditional Russian ab initio year abroad to Yaroslavl’ (seriously, it’s described like folklore in the department), spending a long winter only 270km outside of Moscow with a firm and matronly ’babushka’. However, this disappointment was of course dwarfed by the gravity of the situation in Ukraine and my sympathies for those living through the atrocities.

When I left the UK for my first semester, with two large suitcases and no expectations, I was yet to know the magic of Russia’s tiny neighbour; I was yet to learn the intricacies and nuances of life in a post-Soviet country, and I was yet to feel that I had truly built a life and home for myself abroad. All these things had become true as my time in Estonia came to an end in May of 2023.

The language course provided by the organisation ‘LanguageLink’ in Tallinn is the same as the one previously given in Yaroslavl’. There are daily lessons in literature, translation, grammar, essay writing and speaking. The lessons take up half a day, in a morning or afternoon slot, and in them we covered a wide range of themes. The courses are all provided by native Russian speakers, but what made the lessons all the more interesting and unique was the politicised lens through which Russian as a language is considered in Estonia. In 2011, nearly 50% of Tallinn’s inhabitants spoke Russian as their first language and the vast majority of Estonians are fluent in, or can at least understand, Russian. Relations with the language were already strained after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-adoption of Estonian as the country’s official language and were then made even more precarious following the invasion of Ukraine.

Our teachers had very personal stories and interesting views on their relationship with Estonia and the Estonian language: some had lived and worked in Estonia their whole lives, and others had moved to Tallinn more recently following the start of the war. A particularly memorable lesson included a discussion about the implications of displaying a destroyed Russian tank in the capital’s ‘Freedom Square’, with plaques in Estonian, Russian and English explaining the choice to put it on show. We pondered the task of translating and conveying the message in three different languages in such a tense political climate.

I loved the afternoons and weekends we spent in Tallinn, and given that our classes only took place in the morning, we had lots of free time to fill with many cultural activities… and cinnamon buns. Tallinn itself is very architecturally interesting, like a cultural canvas onto which various eras of history have been painted and blended together. You can spend hours wandering around the picturesque medieval Old Town and traditional wooden houses in the neighbouring creative district, or get swept up in the remains of the Soviet era the traces it left (including the derelict Linnahall, which for you Christopher Nolan fans, is used in the film ‘Tenet’).

Alternatively, you could lean into a more modern, slightly Scandinavian way of life. All of this together is what makes it Estonian. Some of my favourite habits included a weekly trip to a coffee shop with a friend after our Friday morning class, taking turns to pick a new café and explore new districts by the very efficient Tallinn public transport system, as well as a Sunday afternoon trip to the sauna to go ice-swimming in the capital’s seaplane harbour.

Many of us lived in the east of Tallinn in Lasnamäe, often called ‘the Russian ghetto’ given the high number of Russian speakers living in the area. Many lived with babushkas, but a friend and I lived with a man who trained Ukranian soldiers and ran a metal-for-furniture business on the side (whatever floats your boat?). We enjoyed conversations about his work and his family, which was spread between Estonia and Ukraine. His mother came to stay with us for a month from Kyiv, and we really enjoyed learning about her life and interests in a mishmash of Russian and Estonian, which she was learning at the time.

However much I loved Tallinn, one of the best things about it was how easy it was to leave. As in, it has excellent (and cheap) transport links to many parts of Estonia and other capital cities. The ferry trip to Helsinki is around £25 and takes two hours, other Baltic capitals are easily reachable by bus- although the overnight trip home from Vilnius to Tallinn is not the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. One reading week at the end of March was enough time for a whistle-stop tour of Scandinavia by train: a friend and I interrailed from Helsinki to Kemi in the north of Finland, across the north of Sweden, before seeing Trondheim and Oslo in Norway, finally making our way down to Copenhagen. Many of our classmates travelled further afield to Georgia, Uzbekistan and Hungary during these reading weeks.

Although not what I expected when I originally applied to study Russian at Oxford, my time in Tallinn was formative, fulfilling and most importantly, fun. The beginners’ Russian year abroad seems highly structured, with little space to make it your own, but all our cohort came home with different experiences, stories and memories. Looking back, I realise that Tallinn to me was originally a ‘plan B’, an alternative, and a place I never would have considered home. How wrong I was!

Catrin, French and Beginners’ Russian

You can read more about Catrin’s year abroad experiences in Estonia here on the blog.

Lincoln College Study Days

Lincoln College is delighted to announce another year of in-person Study Days for Year 12 students from UK state schools . These Study Days are designed to support students from non-traditional Oxbridge backgrounds who are on track to achieve high grades and potentially make an application to a selective university.

Lincoln’s Study Day programme is designed and delivered by academics and staff at the College in Oxford, with great opportunities to engage with tutors and current students. It will give prospective students a real flavour of life at Lincoln and what to expect from studying at Oxford University. It will also help them to develop relevant academic skills such as essay planning and critical thinking, and the admissions workshop and mock interview will help participants to make a competitive application to Oxford when the time comes.

Lincoln’s Modern Languages Study Days will take place on August 8th to 10th.

Accommodation will be provided free of charge, onsite, in Lincoln College rooms, alongside breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Dining Hall. The College can also offer support with travel via a reimbursement scheme.

To apply and see an outline of the programme, follow this link. The application deadline is Friday 24 May at 12 noon.

Modern Languages Summer School

Applications are now open for Wadham College‘s annual five-day Modern Languages Summer School. The residential will take place at the college, based in the centre of Oxford, from 19th to 23rd August 2024.

Summer schools are designed to give UK pupils studying in Year 12 a taste of what it’s like to be an undergraduate studying at the University of Oxford.  Pupils will take part in an academic programme, live in College, meet student ambassadors studying at Oxford, and receive information, advice and guidance on applying to university. Wadham’s Summer Schools are free and the college will provide financial support to pupils to cover their travel costs.

We’re delighted to be able to run these events in-person allowing participants the best experience of life at the university.  The feedback from last year’s Summer Schools was hugely positive with over a third of participants subsequently securing offers to study at the university.

“After the summer school I am much more confident that I would fit in at Oxford and feel like I am more ready to move away from home”

Summer School participant, 2022

For Modern Languages more specifically, pupils will engage in a seminar series led by Wadham’s language tutors, including language classes in their selected language of study (French, German or Spanish) with opportunities to try other languages as beginners (including German, Portuguese and Russian). Students will complete an assignment on a main topic with feedback from tutors. Pupils will also be able to receive support from current undergraduates and from the College on making successful applications to top universities.   

For more information and to apply, click here: Wadham College Summer Schools. Pupils should be studying French, German or Spanish at A-level or equivalent to apply. Applications close at 5pm on 3rd May.

If you have any queries, please contact access@wadham.ox.ac.uk

Study Day at New College

On Saturday 8th June 2024, New College will host a study day for Year 12 state school students who are interested in pursuing a degree at a Russell Group University in either:

  • Modern Languages
  • English Literature
  • A combination of the two
New College Front Quad

This cross-curricular study day will explore the following essay question:

“In reading the literary works of the past, to what extent should we judge them according to our own moral and literary standards?”

The study day will include academic sessions, an essay writing session, lunch in the dining hall, and a tour of the college.

Up to £100 in travel expenses will be paid for by New College.

Following the event, attendees will be encouraged to enter an essay competition which has a £500 cash prize.  In addition, £250 worth of books will be donated to the winner’s school library. 

In order to apply, you must be a Year 12 student in a UK state school or sixth form college.  You should also be considering a degree in either Modern Languages, English Literature or a combination of the two at a Russell Group University.  

You can find out more here and submit your application via this online form.

Applications close at midday on Wednesday 1st May 2024.

Flash Fiction Competitions reminder!

With just two weeks to go until the deadline, there’s still a chance to enter our Flash Fiction Competitions in French and/or Spanish – don’t miss out on your chance to win £100! A reminder of the competition details and how you can enter can be found below…

Credit: Aaron Burden via Unsplash

What is Flash Fiction?

We’re looking for a complete story, written in French or Spanish, using no more than 100 words.

Did you know that the shortest story in Spanish is only seven words long?

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.
(When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.)

– Augusto Monterroso Bonilla (1921-2003)

What are the judges looking for?

Our judging panel of academics will be looking for imagination and narrative flair, as well as linguistic ability and accuracy. Your use of French or Spanish will be considered in the context of your age and year group: in other words, we will not expect younger pupils to compete against older pupils linguistically. For inspiration, you can read last year’s winning entries for French here, and for Spanish here.

What do I win?

The judges will award a top prize of £100, as well as prizes of £25 to a maximum of two runners up, in each age category. Certificates will also be awarded to pupils who have been highly commended by our judges. Results as well as the winning, runner up, and highly commended stories will be published on this blog, if entrants give us permission to do so.

How do I enter?

You can submit your story via our online forms at the links below.

FrenchSpanish
Years 7-9Years 7-9
Years 10-11Years 10-11
Years 12-13Years 12-13

Click on the links to be taken to the correct submission form for your age/year group.

You may only submit one story per language but you are welcome to submit one story in French AND one story in Spanish if you learn or study both languages. Your submission should be uploaded as a Word document or PDF.

The deadline for submissions is 12 noon on Wednesday 27th March 2024.

Due to GDPR, teachers cannot enter on their students’ behalf: students must submit their entries themselves.

Please note that the competition has changed slightly this year. We are now only accepting entries from UK secondary school pupils.

If you have any questions, please check our FAQs here. If these still don’t answer your question(s), please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.

Bonne chance à tous! ¡Buena suerte a todos!

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!