All posts by Schools Liaison

Seasonal greetings from the Queen of France

Rather than racing to get their cards in the post in time for Christmas, the French more often send Cartes de vœux, literally ‘cards of wishes’. These can be written until January 31 and will typically express the writer’s hope that the recipient might enjoy health, prosperity and happiness in the year which has just started. This tradition goes back a long way as a note from tragic queen Marie Antoinette, who was guillotined in 1793 in Paris at the age of 38, demonstrates.

The brief letter is held in the library at Bergamo (Biblioteca Angelo Mai) and addressed to Giovanni Andrea Archetti (1731-1805), an Italian priest who was made a cardinal in 1784. [1]

Here is a transcription of the letter. Despite the calligraphic flourishes, it is relatively legible as the close-up shows.

Mon Cousin. Je suis si persuadée de votre attachement à ma personne, que je ne doute pas de la sincerité des vœux que vous formés pour ma satisfaction au Commencement de cette Année, les expressions dont vous les accompagnés sont pour moi un motif de plus de vous rassurer de toute l’Estime que je fais de vous. Sur ce je prie Dieu qu’il vous ait mon cousin en sa S[ain]te et digne garde.
écrit à Versailles. Le 31. Janvier 1787.
Marie Antoinette


There are few differences with the way we would write things. An accent is missing on ‘sincérité’, there is a capital on the name of the month (which is now considered incorrect in French) and, more importantly, the polite ‘vous’ forms of first group verbs, ‘former’ and ‘accompagner’ are here spelled with an ‘-és’ ending rather than the ‘ez’ we would expect. You may also have noticed the full stop after ‘31’ which was a way of transforming the cardinal number into an ordinal number (the equivalent of 31st). Whilst the practice has disappeared from modern French usage, you will find it in German. The signature makes it look as though the final ‘e’ of ‘Antoinette’ has been swallowed into the ‘tt’.

If you compare the transcription with the photograph of the whole page, you will observe different things even before you look at the meaning of the message: it is written on a very large sheet of paper of which the text only occupies about one third; there are slits down the side of the sheet; a strange seal hangs off an appended strip of paper; you can spot the handwriting of three different people. What explains these surprising aspects?

Paper was a luxury commodity in 18th-century Europe and there was a lot of re-using of scraps. Here, the choice of a sheet much larger than would be necessary for the length of the text is a clear sign of wealth. Unlike most of the inhabitants of France, the queen did not have to worry about waste or expense. In addition, a large sheet rather than a smaller one honoured the recipient: it meant he was being treated with the respect owed to an eminent person. The strange folds and the slits down the side (by the blue-gloved fingers on the first picture and along the opposite edge), as well as the paper-encrusted seal, show that this missive would have been sent with a removable lock. The sealing wax pressed between two sides of paper to ensure it would not get broken is on the strip which served as a lock. This was part of a ceremonial practice again intended to make the document seem important but without including a proper seal. Because of the lack of confidential information on the one hand, but also the important diplomatic value of a letter from the queen of France, a particular closing process was adopted. It allowed for the missive to be opened without breaking the seal—rather like when we tuck the flap in to an envelope rather than sticking it down. The French refer to a seal which does not have to be broken for the letter to be opened as a ‘cachet volant’ or ‘flying seal’. You can discover how it would have been prepared in an excellent video about a similar letter from Marie Antoinette to a different cardinal:

As you will notice if you watch the video, once the single sheet had been folded and sealed, it would have looked a bit like a modern envelope with the addressee’s name on it. No street or town address was included because it would have been entrusted to a courier and delivered by hand.

The letter was written by a secretary, almost certainly a man, who had clear bold and ornate handwriting. You can see a change of ink when you get to the signature. Marie Antoinette is the French version of the names Maria Antonia which the future queen of France had been given at her christening in Vienna in 1755. The third person to have intervened also simply signed. This was Jacques Mathieu Augeard, the ‘secrétaire des commandements de la reine’ who was an important court official and would have ensured the letters were duly sent off to the right people. Clearly, this is not a personal letter addressed by Marie Antoinette to cardinal Archetti, but a formal stock message prepared in her name. She may well not even have read the text before it was signed.

What do the contents of the letter tell us? The first thing to note is that the queen calls the cardinal ‘Mon Cousin’. They were not related. This was a conventional courtesy used between people of a certain rank. The missive is clearly an answer to a letter received from Archetti who had sent his own best wishes—it refers to ‘la sincérité des vœux que vous formez’ and ‘les expressions dont vous les accompagnez’ (modernised spelling). It ends with a pious formula hoping that God will watch over the cardinal. The date of 31 January, the last one on which such wishes could be sent, was usual for the royal family. It bears witness to the eminence of the signatory who has not initiated the correspondence but is providing a response.

We are documenting Marie Antoinette’s letters as part of a project with the Château de Versailles’ CRCV research centre. Oxford student Tess Eastgate is one of the participants thanks to her AHRC-funded Oxford-Open-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership. Tess is working on weighty political exchanges from the revolutionary period which are quite unlike the message presented here.

To the casual reader, it might seem disappointing to come across a letter like the one to Archetti, with so little personal content, it is in fact very useful for us to have it. It documents the formal relations between the French monarchs and the Catholic hierarchy. It suggests that there may be other similar missives addressed to different dignitaries across the world (examples of ones to cardinals Boncompagni Ludovisi and Borgia have been located) [2] so, if you are anywhere near archive holdings, take a look at what they have. Who knows, you may even come across seasonal greetings to a cardinal from the Queen of France!

Written by Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature
All Souls College, Oxford


[1] Library reference: Autografi MMB 938-945 Faldone A 2) REGINA MARIA ANTONIETTA DI FRANCIA Lettera con firma autografa da Versailles in data 31 gennaio 1787 portante il sigillo reale diretta al Cardinale Archetti (in francese). My thanks to Dottoressa Maria Elisabetta Manca and the staff at the Bibliotheca Angelo Mai.

[2] See https://villaludovisi.org/2022/11/03/new-from-1775-1787-a-revealing-exchange-of-new-years-greetings-by-louis-xvi-marie-antoinette-with-cardinal-ignazio-boncompagni-ludovisi/ (with a 1787 letter which contains many similar terms to the one published here) and https://auktionsverket.com/arkiv/fine-art/rare-books/2016-12-20/150-letter-from-marie-antoinette-to-cardinal-borgia/ [Links accessed on 11 December 2022].

Learn more about languages at Oxford!

Here at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, we organise and run a range of open days for prospective applicants and their parents/guardians and teachers each year. Open days are one of the best ways for students to get a real feel for a University, helping them to make informed decisions about their futures.

The Taylor Institution Library, Oxford University’s centre for the study of Modern European languages and literatures.

Over the course of February and March, we will be holding our language-specific open days, designed to provide greater insight into our undergraduate degree programmes. In comparison to our wider open day later in the year, language-specific open days are smaller and more focused in their scope, allowing more time to explore a subject in depth.

For example, the German Open Day offers an introduction to German film, German linguistics, and different types of German literature. On the Spanish and Portuguese Open Day, our wonderful academics will provide an introduction to Transatlantic Iberian Culture and attendees will get the chance to learn Portuguese in 15 minutes.

So, if you’re thinking about applying to study languages at Oxford, or want to find out more about a particular course, these open days offer a wonderful opportunity to meet some of our tutors and current students, come along to academic taster sessions which will give you a flavour of what it’s like to study languages, and ask lots of questions.

Below are the details of our 2023 language-specific open days. You will need to book a place at these events, which you can do via our open day website, where you will also find the event programmes.

Language-specific open days 2023

*Our German Open Day has been designed to be accessible for students considering beginners’ German. From this year’s admissions cycle, applicants can mix Joint Schools subjects with beginners’ German, so if you’re considering a degree in English, History, Philosophy etc., why not come along and try out some German!

You may have noticed that there is no specific open day for French: students interested in French should attend the Faculty’s main open day later in the year or one of the University open days in June or September. Keep your eyes peeled for more information about those events in future blog posts.

We look forward to having you along to our language-specific open days – don’t forget to book your place!

While you’re here: a reminder that applications to our 2023 UNIQ programme are still open! You can read more about this fantastic opportunity for UK state school students in last week’s blog post, or head to the website for further information.

Apply by 23 January!

UNIQ 2023 – Apply now!

We’re delighted to announce that applications for UNIQ 2023 are now open until Monday 23 January!

What is UNIQ?

UNIQ is Oxford University’s flagship outreach programme for Year 12 students at UK state schools/colleges. It is completely free and prioritises places for students with good grades from backgrounds that are under-represented at Oxford and other universities. 

What does the programme entail?

Find out more here!

UNIQ 2023 offers an online support programme starting in April, academic courses and an in-person residential in Oxford over the summer, followed by university admissions support in August to December.

During the summer residential, students have the opportunity to experience life as an Oxford undergraduate by staying in an Oxford college and exploring the city for themselves. They will also get to know some of our Oxford undergraduates and work with our academics in face to face lectures and tutorials.

What does this look like for Modern Languages?

For Modern Languages, there will be courses available for SpanishFrench, and German. All three courses enable students to explore the language, literature, theatre, film, and linguistics of each discipline, while also providing the opportunity to have a taster of other European languages at a beginners’ level.

Our aim is to give students a taste of what it is really like to study Modern Languages at Oxford, and to provide a sense of the breadth of our courses – including several of the languages you can study here as a beginner.

What are the benefits?

Throughout the UNIQ programme, students will explore subjects they love and gain a real insight into Oxford life, helping them to prepare for university, and decide what is right for them. UNIQ also enables students with similar interests in local regions and across the UK to connect with each other through social and academic activities.

Most UNIQ students go on to apply to the University of Oxford and they also get help to prepare for our admissions tests and interviews. Consequently, UNIQ participants are more likely to make successful applications to Oxford.

Comments from previous UNIQ participants

How do I apply?

We welcome applications from:

  • Year 12 students from England and Wales, in the first year of A level studies or equivalent
  • Year 13 students from Northern Ireland, in the first year of A level studies or equivalent
  • S5 students from Scotland, studying Highers or equivalent

The online application process is quick and easy – it only takes 10 minutes! – and can be completed via the UNIQ website. Applications close on Monday 23 January at 11pm.

As UNIQ is an access programme, admission to UNIQ 2023 will be based on a range of criteria that relate to students’ academic potential and socio-economic background. You can read more about this here.

Good luck to all applicants!

FRENCH AND SPANISH FLASH FICTION COMPETITIONS OPEN!

Happy New Year everyone! We hope you had a wonderful and restful break over the festive period.

We’re delighted to announce the return of our ever-popular French and Spanish Flash Fiction competitions for secondary school pupils. If you are learning French and/or Spanish in Years 7-13, you are invited to send us a *very* short story to be in with a chance of winning up to £100. Read on to find out more…

Photo by Florian Klauer on 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 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. This year, in response to the amazing number of entries we received last year, we have expanded the competition to include a third age category!

FrenchSpanish
Years 7-9 (ages 11-14) Years 7-9 (ages 11-14)
Years 10-11 (ages 14-16) Years 10-11 (ages 14-16)
Years 12-13 (ages 16-18) Years 12-13 (ages 16-18)
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 would like to. Your submission should be uploaded as a Word document or PDF.

The deadline for submissions is noon on Thursday 31st March 2023.

Please note that, because of GDPR, teachers cannot enter on their students’ behalf: students must submit their entries themselves.

If you have any questions, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.

Bonne chance à tous! ¡Buena suerte a todos!

Celebrating Oxmas!

Continuing our festive theme from last week, in this week’s blog post, Emma (first-year undergraduate at St Hilda’s College studying German and Linguistics) tells us all about Oxmas!

Due to the shorter 8-week terms at the University of Oxford, students head home for their winter vacation on the first weekend of December. Although this might be reason to believe that the festive period doesn’t overlap with term time, ‘Oxmas’ is Oxford University’s popular take on the festive season. Oxmas allows staff and students to come together and celebrate over the final week or two of Michaelmas (Autumn) term. The events act as a guiding light to help everyone over the finish line of what has, no doubt, been a tiring couple of months.

St Hilda’s Christmas tree

On a surprisingly mild November evening, as 6th week was drawing to a close, staff, students and locals gathered along the High Street in Oxford to watch the Christmas lights get switched on. Twinkling stars, snowflakes and sheets of golden light now illuminated Oxford as darkness began to fall earlier each day. It was at this point in term that wonderfully decorated and beautifully coordinated Christmas trees were starting to pop up, as if by magic, by some of the University’s many departments and in all of Oxford’s 39 colleges.

Christ Church main dining hall

For me, Oxmas truly started on Monday 21st November, when I was lucky enough to go to Oxford University German Society’s Christmas Dinner. As a German and Linguistics student, I have been attending German Society events all term, including the college bar crawl, Kaffee und Kuchen and Oxtoberfest – Just to name a few! German society at Oxford is a lively hub of community spirit and cultural celebration, brought to life by native Germans and German enthusiasts alike. The events offer an opportunity for people learning the language to fully immerse themselves in fast-paced German conversation and are a time for native speakers to chat to others about shared experiences of coming to study in the UK. The Christmas Dinner was held in the McKenna Room of Christ Church College and included a festive drinks reception and a delicious three course meal, followed by coffee and chocolate. Weihnachtslieder were interspersed between each course: Everyone joined in with renditions of the classic German carols ‘O du fröhliche’, ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’ and ‘Alle Jahre wieder’. After the meal, we moved across to Christ Church’s main dining hall (used as inspiration for The Great Hall in Harry Potter) and ended the evening with some Christmas Poetry, read aloud in German.

St Hilda’s Anniversary Tower

On Friday of that same week, the Linguistics students at my college were invited to a ‘Chrismukkah’ get-together. This was a chance to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas whilst catching up with fellow Linguistics students and tutors about the joys and challenges that Michaelmas term had brought so far. An inviting spread of doughnuts, stollen, nibbles and drinks awaited us in St Hilda’s Anniversary Tower, which was lit up by a colourful light display.

The final week of term soon raced around and was jam-packed full of Oxmas spirit. Carols rang out across the city: Choirs performed in the University Church and in each of the colleges. St Hilda’s hosted their very own ‘Carols on the Stairs’, where members of the college came together on a crisp winter’s evening to enjoy festive treats while the talented choir put on a brilliant performance. Each college also celebrated by holding an Oxmas-themed formal dinner; students and staff dressed up in formalwear, pulled Christmas crackers and were served tasty food. Tickets for these formals sold out within seconds, which led to festivities being extended to a further Christmas lunch on the final day of term in many of the colleges, such as at St Hilda’s. What better way to mark the last day before saying goodbye to your friends for the winter vacation!

Perhaps the strangest aspect of ‘Oxmas’ is that students arrive home on the first weekend of December brimming with Christmas cheer… Only to find that everyone else has just begun their advent calendars!

*****

We wish all our readers a wonderful break with friends and family over the festive period – see you back here in the new year!

Gifts from Santa Lucia

Present-giving around the turn of the year involves traditions which vary from country to country. In different parts of the world, gifts are brought by Father Christmas, Saint Nicolas (more about this here) or the Three Wise Men (the Spanish ‘Reyes’ or Kings).

In Bergamo and some other parts of Northern Italy, Santa Lucia, a 4th-century martyr from Syracuse in Sicily, is the one who distributes treats to children. With a name based on the Latin root for light (Lux), Santa Lucia is celebrated close to the shortest days of the year with candles (like in parts of Scandinavia) and gifts which bring good cheer in times of darkness. An (incorrect) Italian saying holds that ‘Il giorno di Santa Lucia è il più corto che ci sia’, Santa Lucia’s day is the shortest one there is—the longest night actually falls on the winter solstice. Santa Lucia (or St Lucy) is the patron saint of the blind and of opticians, and she is often represented holding a plate or a staff on which sit a pair of eyes as an allusion to an episode in her life. The Italians value the figurative meaning of light and view Santa Lucia as a figure representing a form of wisdom and clear-sightedness.

The reason for Santa Lucia’s importance in Bergamo is to be found in the presence of her relics in Venice—the large church of Santa Lucia, not far from the train station which bears her name, was built to house them. Bergamo, which is in Lombardy, was (until the end of the eighteenth century) a part of the territories of the republic of Venice and the lion of St Mark is visible on town gates, fountains and other constructions throughout the town.

Whilst Santa Claus has his reindeer, Santa Lucia is said to be accompanied by a donkey, her asino or asinello. He is sometimes described as alato or winged to help him fly from house to house on his mission to deliver presents—at the top of the page you can see a picture of the saint and the donkey on the blackboard showing a festive poem which was in the window of a confectioner’s in Bergamo. Since the early 20th century, children in the city have taken to writing letters to Santa Lucia to give her an idea of what they would like and, sometimes, to assure her that they have spent the year being good. The letters, known as letterine (for little letters or lettere) are taken to a small church and set in colourful piles in front of the saint’s statue.

When I visited the church, I was struck by the variety of the letterine and the canny approach some of the authors had taken. To guarantee that the presents will go to the right place, the children make sure their names are on their messages.

Stefano wrote his in large capitals. A parent had possibly added on a red envelope that another letter was from la piccola Amelia—little Amelia. One child hedged her bets and addressed her requests to both Santa Lucia and Babbo Natale—Father Christmas!


A girl called Gaia wrote Cara Santa Lucia mi piacerebbe ricevere questi regali or Dear Santa Lucia, it would please me to receive these gifts and then stuck five pictures out of a catalogue showing what she hoped she would get. Next to the photograph of pink headphones she added Senza filo, literally without thread or wire, i.e. cordless, to make sure the right pair was delivered.

Until December 12, children drop in to the church, clutching their letters and dropping them on the top of the growing piles of missives. That evening, at home, they will prepare snacks for the saint and her donkey—she gets biscotti and milk, he gets carrots, water and sometimes hay. They then go to bed and are instructed to sleep: Santa Lucia is said to throw ashes into the eyes of naughty girls and boys. The next morning, on waking up, if they have been good, they will find lots of sweet treats including monete di cioccolato—chocolate coins—and, possibly, some of the gifts for which they had asked.

Written by Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature
All Souls College, Oxford

Studying Languages at Oxford: Expectations vs Reality

In this week’s blog post, first year French and Modern Greek student at St Peter’s College, Reuben, shares his experiences of starting his course at Oxford and how closely they matched his expectations. Over to you, Reuben!

After a year out of education to decide what I really wanted to study, I could not wait to begin my dream degree course at the University of Oxford. How has the degree lived up to my expectations however? What is the first term studying languages really like? Read on to find out.

View of St Peter’s College from a snow-covered New Inn Hall Street. Copyright © University of Oxford Images / John Cairns Photography — All rights reserved.

Hello readers. My name is Reuben Constantine, I’m a student ambassador for the Faculty of Modern Languages and a first year student of French and Modern Greek at St Peter’s College. I am now at the end of my first term in Oxford and in this article, I intend to compare my expectations of study here with the realities I have experienced. 

I will provide first of all some context so you can better understand my situation in relation to my experience at the university. For my A-Levels, I studied Biology, Chemistry and French. An ‘eclectic mix’ I have been told, and a mix of subjects which left me unsure of what to pursue post-18. For various reasons I decided to take a ‘gap year’ in which I would decide what I was going to do. University was a possibility, but I was unsure of which subject to study. I had enjoyed biology and chemistry, and many people told me I should pursue a career in the medical sector.

I had, however, another passion which seemed to be pulling me – languages. During my studies of French, I fell in love with not only the French language but the process of language learning itself. I had plenty of free time during lockdown and so decided to begin teaching myself a second and  eventually a third foreign language. By the end of my gap year I could confidently converse in French, Modern Greek, Spanish, Italian and even German. I was totally addicted to language learning and so (with the encouragement of some friends who had noticed my apparent enthusiasm) I decided to follow this newfound passion and study languages at university. Which university would I choose? My dream was Oxford: a university with a great reputation and the only university that offered a degree in my favourite language, Modern Greek.

I must admit however that it seemed a long shot. I had not studied any essay subjects for A-Level and I had heard that Oxford degrees were very literature-focused. Would I be the sort of student they were looking for? Nonetheless I was convinced that this is what I wanted to do, and couldn’t believe my luck when I found out I had been offered a place!

How has my first month been then? Frankly, it has been fantastic. However I must admit, it hasn’t been how I necessarily expected.

Copyright © University of Oxford Images

What elements have I enjoyed most about study here in Oxford? First of all, the professors are experts in their subject areas and it is a real privilege to be taught by them – especially in the ‘tutorial system’ which allows for very small class sizes. I have been immensely satisfied with the number of contact hours I receive weekly. On an average week I will spend 12-15 hours in lectures, language classes and tutorials. This means that the timetable is nicely structured and I feel like the professors really care about me and my progress. This contrasts with the experience of some of my friends who study languages in other institutions who receive very few contact hours and are often left to their own devices. At the same time, for a language lover like myself this number of hours does not feel overwhelming and I am comfortably able to support the workload (typically with 1 or 2 essays and 1 translation to do outside of lessons per week).

I must admit, however, I have been surprised by the approach to literature. As mentioned, I was aware that literature constituted a large part of the degree but I was still not quite prepared for this. The texts we examine in are often very thought provoking, but I was quite shocked to find out that the essays we write about these texts are in English and I have sometimes been left feeling as if I were studying a degree in ‘English Literature’. The focus seems to be more what certain writers thought about certain issues rather than the language in which it is written. I can’t say that this isn’t interesting and I know that many of my fellow students love this aspect of the degree. However, for me personally the essays written in English (about French theatre for example) have at times seemed quite distant from my love for languages themselves.

I acknowledge, however, that culture and language are inseparable; a good understanding of societal issues in the lands where the language is spoken is vital to truly master a language. Moreover, in subsequent terms and years, students have greater control over their modules and papers and are thus able to focus their study onto the aspects which are more interesting to them. For me this may well include the linguistics and evolution of the language with lesser focus on literature but time will tell.

Is an Oxford Modern Languages degree for you? If your only goal is to become fluent in a foreign language, then I would think again. This can be achieved without needing to invest in a university degree. Oxford language degrees feature much more than language acquisition itself.

However: If you really love the culture and literature of the languages you wish to study, then Oxford may indeed be for you. The resources available in the libraries and support from tutors make it one of the best places in the world to study. If you want a timetable packed with classes and lectures from tutors who’re often experts in their field, then once again, this may be the degree for you. Be prepared however for doors to be opened to various avenues that you may be surprised to see feature in a ‘modern languages’ degree (such as theatre or poetry).

Copyright © University of Oxford Images

To conclude, I must add that my experience of student life has been fantastic: it is easy to get involved in a range of extracurricular activities from sports to societies, and I have already formed many treasured friendships. I enjoy every day living here and I am learning a great number of things, even if not all of them are directly related to ‘languages’ as I had imagined. I am extremely grateful to the university for the opportunity to study here and cannot wait for the coming months and years.

A huge thank you to Reuben for those invaluable insights into starting a Modern Languages degree course here at Oxford, and the ways in which his initial experiences have differed from his expectations.

What would you tell your 17 year-old self?

Every year, we recruit a group of current undergraduates studying Modern Languages to support us with our work with schools.

These students, also known as Student Ambassadors, are integral to our outreach work since they can share first-hand experiences to support the advice and guidance we offer young linguists and prospective applicants. They also act as role models, helping to motivate, encourage and inspire young people through their current and future studies. The presence of Student Ambassadors at events and during our activities is vital to ensuring that the pupils we work with can make informed choices about their futures.

This year, we’ve taken on 15 wonderful new Student Ambassadors from across the different languages we offer at degree level. As part of their core training, we asked them the following question, just to get them thinking about the kind of wisdom they can pass on to pupils over the next academic year:

What would you tell your 17 year-old self before applying to university?

The image below showcases a selection of their responses. We found them useful and inspiring and thought you might too – happy reading!

Advice from our current undergraduates to their 17 year-old selves. Original graphic image by rawpixel.com on Freepik.

Tip: It might be easier to read the image if you open it in a new tab!

Why Study Languages?

One of the most popular sessions that we run with school groups is our ‘Why Study Languages?’ workshop. This can be delivered in person in school or here in Oxford during a study day or school visit or virtually, which often has the benefit of reaching a wider audience or multiple classes at once. The session can also involve different levels of interactivity with pupils and can be adapted to different year groups, depending on what is most appropriate and convenient for the target audience.

This session is delivered by staff and students here at the University of Oxford and aims to give pupils greater insight into the importance of studying Modern Languages throughout their school days and hopefully at degree level too. This can be particularly useful for year groups which are approaching their GCSE/A-level choices, as a way of encouraging pupils to continue with their language learning and increasing take up of MFL subjects at these levels.

We address the common misconceptions about language learning, such as the idea that most people speak English around the world.

Our ‘Why Study Languages?’ session usually starts with a short presentation which:

  • addresses some of the myths surrounding the study of Modern Languages and why these may not be true;
  • delves deeper into various aspects of language learning, exploring concepts like linguistic identity and the fundamental link between language and culture;
  • highlights the many skills which Languages students develop thanks to their studies; and,
  • demonstrates how and why these skills open up a truly varied set of career options for linguists.

The presentation can be accompanied by short interactive tasks for pupils to complete based on the topics covered during the session, or can be a standalone slideshow for pupils to digest on their own.

This is all followed by a question and answer session which provides pupils with the opportunity to ask our wonderful current Modern Languages undergraduates what it’s like to study languages at university/here at Oxford, what their own language learning journey has looked like, and anything else they might be curious about!

We’ve had some lovely feedback about this session from school groups we’ve worked with recently. The comments below from our time with Year 9 French and Spanish classes at Bacon’s College, London, made it clear that the session had impacted their decisions about languages moving forward…

From this session, I learned that there are more jobs opportunities than just teaching and translation. This encouraged me to continue to study French in GCSE.

– Year 9 pupil from Bacon’s College

I loved this session I am adamant that I will do a language for GCSE and A-level. Thank you for giving us this presentation.

– Year 9 pupil from Bacon’s College

The pupils also had some wonderful comments about what they’ve learned from the session…

I learnt from this lesson that languages are not just about grammar and vocabulary, and can be used for other uses like learning about culture and etiquettes. I understand how it helps in jobs and studies when we are older. I remember that daily practice is essential to improve.

– Year 7 pupil from Bacon’s College

What I learnt from the talk with Nicola is that to learn a language can be hard at first but if you keep practising, you will be able to speak fluently and that learning a language is important for many reasons like learning cultures.

– Year 7 pupil from Bacon’s College

If you’re a teacher from a state school and you feel that this session might be beneficial in encouraging your pupils to see the advantages of learning languages, please get in touch with us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.

Why Study Czech?

In this week’s blog post, recent graduate in Spanish & Czech from St Peter’s College, Joe Kearney, reflects on his decision to study Czech at Oxford and where the journey has taken him…

I chose to study Czech at Oxford because I wanted to try something completely different. At school I had studied French and Spanish, and I wanted to learn a language from a totally new language family.

Exploring Štramberk, Joe Kearney

The first year of Czech was certainly the challenge I’d been looking for. I sat in my first language class of the year, in front of the Czech lady (Vanda, she is lovely) who had been tasked with teaching me and my three classmates Czech from scratch, and wondering how I was ever going to learn what any of this stuff meant. The learning curve was steep, but incredibly rewarding. We started with the absolute basics: how the alphabet works, how to introduce yourself, how to order food in a restaurant. By the end of my first year I’d read my first short stories in Czech and I’d been to Prague and worked for a couple of months as a waiter in a pizza parlour! Learning a language from scratch is fantastic for anyone who fancies a bit of adventure.

We spent second year developing our speaking, listening, writing and translating skills, as well as reading more and more literature in Czech. Because Czech is a small course, with just a handful of undergraduate students every year, the course is really flexible. 20th century Czech history and literature fascinated me, and I was able to shape all of the rest of my degree around it. I learned about the interwar period in the First Czechoslovak Republic, the Czech experience under communism, and the Czech journey out of communism in the 90s and 2000s. Writers like Jiří Weil, Ludvík Vaculík and Bianca Bellová captured my imagination, and I was able to take my newfound interests with me on my year abroad, where I studied New Wave Czech film, a history of Czech photography, and modern Czech politics at the University of Ostrava.

View over the aptly named Smrk mountain, Joe Kearney
Skiing in the Slovak High Tatras, Joe Kearney

In Ostrava I got a job as a waiter in a tearoom (the best language training anyone could get!), I went climbing in the hills with my Ostravák friends, and I travelled with a great group of Erasmus students. One of the best things about the Czech Republic, we quickly found, is that it is a fantastic basecamp from which to travel all around Europe. I visited France, Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Poland, and even Sweden that year, as well as making use of the ridiculously cheap trains to get all around the Czech Republic. Some highlights were České Švýcarsko (Czech Switzerland), Skiing in the Slovakian High Tatras, and visiting Kraków, in Poland, and Stockholm, in Sweden. 

My love for Czech grew immensely on my year abroad, and final year went by in a blast. More learning, and more opportunities to take the voyage of discovery further and further.

I would highly recommend learning a new language from scratch at Oxford. My Czech degree was a fantastic awakening to a new world of culture, travel, and wonderful people. I have never looked back!

View over the Beskydy mountains, Joe Kearney

A huge thanks to Joe for sharing his wonderful experiences of studying beginners’ Czech as well as the stunning photos taken on his year abroad in Ostrava last year (2021-22).

If you’re interested in following a similar path, you can find out more about Czech at Oxford here.