All posts by simonrkemp

The first Choix Goncourt Britannique: When we talk about writing

Julia Moore is a third-year student at Christ Church reading French and English. Here are her personal reflections on being part of the first Choix Goncourt Britannique.

Writing a book is hard—you know, you get a publisher, or fail to, and you spend years grovelling at the feet of your work and perhaps a man behind a well-known desk. At least, that’s how the authors write it. In Anna Gavalda’s Je Voudrais Que Quelqu’un m’Attende Quelque part, she includes a postscript in the form of another short story. By using her form to embrace the technical realities of the (physical!) copy the reader holds, she shines a humorous light on the whole affair—the inspiration, rejection, ridiculous meticulous search for the right colour of paper binding. A light, certainly, but a spotlight as well: this is how it happens, she says, this is it.  Publication becomes a story: this sort of fictional concern with the more tedious aspects of writing can reinforce what we think about inspiration, construction, or even the political undertones of writing, especially to sell.

In Little Women, Jo’s plight of publication is just as mundane—and yet, it arrives as a crucial moment in the history of what it means to be a female commercial writer. By becoming a story, it demonstrates itself. Writing about writing makes us more aware of all the things that are happening in and around the book.  Jane Eyre was originally published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, after all. What is it that we feel about the first-person women, and their direct or indirect free speech? All four of the books we were to discuss were in the first person. We tended to take this for granted;  Dame Marina Warner, one of the senior judges and member of the Royal Society, made our group of student judges feel rather silly when she pointed out that none of us had  even mentioned, let alone questioned, the first person in the narratives we were presented with.

Judging fiction is a strange mix—sometimes, it can seem just as mundane and unromantic as publishing it. Unpicking and debating- all that de-storifying can seem slightly unfair at times—to the book, to the author—the French Goncourt jury has often been accused of publishing bribes and stakes in great shares. Judging a book isn’t just about that though, not really, especially if the people doing it sit behind food and wine, or on a bed or in a bus. People like you and me—and there were a few of us in Oxford, and a few in 6 other universities[1] who did just that.

The French Goncourt Prize is more or less equivalent to the Man Booker prize in the UK. It is a big cultural institution in France, and is judged rather unconventionally by 10 novelists (sometimes referred to as “Les Dix”) who are members of the “Académie Goncourt”, in the Restaurant Drouant, Paris. The prize is a symbolic cheque for ten euros, and the well-recognised accolade: Prix Goncourt. Proust won it in 1919, exactly 100 years from the Choix Goncourt Britannique last year. A Choix Goncourt is a choice made from the same shortlist by a different group of people: there is a Prix Goncourt des Lycéens for a secondary school jury in France, for example. December 2019 was the first Choix Goncourt Britannique, but other countries like Belgium or Lebanon have student juries like ours pick their winner.

We had four books[2] to read, and we had to come up with a winner. Not alone—about 10 of us in Oxford, and similar numbers in Queen’s Belfast, Cardiff, Aberdeen, Cambridge, Warwick, and St Andrew’s. Two of each group met in London to discuss and award the first (perhaps not-yet-coveted) Choix Goncourt Britannique. The word choice is what sets student juries apart from the French group of restaurant-going novelists that award the Prix Goncourt. The focus of choice is not just who gets chosen picked, but also who is choosing. We were very aware of ourselves and our very obviously personal choices. What do we know about picking and choosing the novel we think is best? Well, what should we know? And does anyone? We pinpointed things: style, narrative, underlying images, characterisation,… the list goes on. And it can—the thing was that we were never completely finished.

In Oxford, and, later, in London, we decided on Tous les Hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon by Jean-Paul Dubois. It was salient to so many of the individuals in our group that it quickly became the centrepiece of comparative discussions. It is about a man, his cell-mate, and the people that make up his past. We talked about way that the narrative works, crossed between the past, the present, and the succession of dog smiles and technical failures that exist in both. We liked reading it—we enjoyed looking everyday words up and wondering about whether or not the book was “About Capitalism”. There’s something very joyful about being able to read and think and think and read, completely essay-less, yet with a real discussion with real people who also have thoughts and readings about fiction. The fact that all the books are contemporary adds to the immediacy of looking forward to the translation of our book-elect, and to Jean-Paul Dubois’ tour of  UK universities; the gleeful possibilities of being alone with a book are sustained, rather than dampened, by the idea of an author to talk to.

To read more about the Choix Goncourt Britannique, see a piece by another Oxford member of the panel, James Hughes, in The Oxford Polyglot https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/oxford-polyglot/2019-20/2/united-kingdoms-choix-goncourt-more-book-club and read Professor Dame Marina Warner’s speech at the award https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/oxford-polyglot/2019-20/2/awarding-frances-most-prestigious-literary-prize


[1] Oxford, Cambridge, and Warwick from England, Cardiff from Wales, Aberdeen and St Andrew’s from Scotland, and Queen’s Belfast from Northern Ireland

[2] Soif, by Amélie Nothomb, Tous les Hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon, by Jean-Paul Dubois, Extérieur Monde by Olivier Rolin, and La Part du Fils, by Jean-Luc Coatelem.

Skills and employability in the arts and humanities

The British Academy has commissioned a major piece of research into the employment prospects for graduates with degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences. One of the things they wanted to look into was what seems to be a pervasive idea, sometimes repeated to students seeking advice on A-level choices and university courses, that studying STEM subjects will give you significantly better career prospects than studying a humanities subject like English, history or modern languages.

So is that true? Are you really better off studying engineering rather than German? Maths rather than geography?

Well, short answer: no you aren’t. Humanities subjects were found to be level-pegging with STEM subjects in terms of their general employment prospects, and to have distinct advantages over STEM in certain aspects of your career.

I’d encourage you to have a look at the report itself, which you can find here. (You can also see it discussed by the UK press here.)

Some of the most important findings of the research are these:

  1. Graduates from arts, humanities and social science subjects appear to have more flexibility and choice in their career than STEM graduates. They’re more likely than STEM graduates to voluntarily move to different sectors of employment, or to change role in their job, and to do so without wage penalty.
  2. In the most recent statistics, 88% of UK humanities graduates were in employment, and 89% of STEM graduates. This suggests there isn’t a significant difference in employment prospects between the two fields.
  3. Of the ten fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, eight of them employ more graduates from the arts, humanities and social sciences than from other disciplines.
  4. There’s a strong link between the skills developed in university by humanities students and the top skills needed to thrive in 21st century work. The top five skills developed by humanities students are: becoming an independent learner, thinking critically and analytically, being innovative and creative, working effectively with others, and writing clearly and effectively. These match up closely to the seven skills found to be most important for 21st century work, which are: initiative and entrepreneuralism (independent learner), accessing and analysing information, and critical thinking and problem solving (thinking critically and analytically), agility and adaptability, and curiosity and imagination (being innovative and creative), collaboration and leadership (working effectively with others), and effective oral and written communication (writing clearly and effectively).

The British Academy sum up the findings of their report as follows:

Graduates who study arts, humanities and social science disciplines are highly employable across a range of sectors and roles. They have skills employers value – communication, collaboration, research and analysis, independence, creativity and adaptability – and are able to build flexible careers which may move across a number of areas of employment while remaining resilient to economic downturns. They are employed in sectors which underpin the UK economy and are among the fastest growing – financial, legal and professional services, information and communication, and the creative industries – as well as in socially valuable roles in public administration and education.

Young people chose to enter higher education for many reasons of which salary is only one, but it is a legitimate question to consider what the economic return is on the substantial investment which is a degree course, both in time and money. Overall, salary levels for arts, humanities and social science graduates are a little lower on average than for graduates in science, engineering, technology and medicine, but this top-level picture conceals complexity underneath. Consistently high salaries in medicine and dentistry drive much of the difference, while the other discipline areas which make up the two broad groups show far more variance in earnings within subjects. As individuals progress through the first ten years of their career, arts, humanities and social science graduates are able make strong progress up the career ladder into roles attracting higher salaries.

Whatever the future holds for the UK, it is our people, their skills, knowledge and attributes, that will ensure prosperity and wellbeing. We need to build an evidence-led, broad and balanced education and skills system to create the society we want to live in. The challenges the world is facing – climate change, global pandemics, the growth of populism – need the insights of the arts, humanities and social sciences as much as those from science, technology and engineering. The importance of a highly qualified and versatile labour force for productivity and economic growth cannot be underestimated. Our evidence shows that arts, humanities and social science graduates are central to this ongoing and long-term requirement. They are well equipped to profit from, and more importantly shape, the new opportunities of the future.

Responding to Literature through the Arts II

Oxford first-year Spanish students have taken the opportunity to respond creatively through the visual arts and creative writing to some of the literary works they had studied earlier in the year, or works they plan to study next year. We saw one project last week. Here are samples from three more.

 Josh Aruliah (Spanish and Linguistics, Keble College)

“This drawing depicts my interpretation of Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’, which is a hypothetical library that consists of an indefinite number of identical hexagonal galleries and contains every possible book that could be written (up to a certain length). I featured illusions, drawing inspiration from the work of Dutch artist M. C. Escher, to convey the impossible and bewildering nature of the library; the staircase and the railings are inconsistent and demonstrate the lack of a fixed direction of gravity. It is not a literal depiction of the library as I aimed instead to portray the perplexing experience of trying to visualise Borges’s fascinating creation. The short story reveals that almost all of the books contain complete gibberish and, therefore, the librarians seem to be condemned to an eternal and vain search for meaning. There is little distinction between the books and galleries in the drawing, with the upper gallery perhaps giving the impression of a reflection, which demonstrates this idea of endless futility.”

Darcie Dorkins (History and Spanish, Exeter College)

“I chose to paint Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, one of the most important figures of Spanish colonial literature, whose works were widely acclaimed during her lifetime and continue to be celebrated today. I was inspired to visually explore the conflicting notions of restriction and freedom in Sor Juana’s life which stemmed from her overlapping roles as a nun, woman, and outstanding writer, with a particular focus on one of her most widely read poems, ‘Hombres necios’. Thought to have been written in around 1680, I felt that the poem was a valuable representation of the precarious space she occupied between contemporary religious, intellectual and literary spheres in both her native Mexico and in Spain, where her works were also popular. To this end, I aimed to incorporate various symbolic elements within the piece: Sor Juana herself, as the subject of many striking portraits; the visual prominence of religion, a defining feature of her life with considerable implications for her literary career; and a book, to represent her extensive learning. I also included a mirror, as in ‘Hombres necios’ Sor Juana symbolically confronts men with the realities of their irrational and impossible standards for women, along with birds and an open cage to reflect the issues of restriction and liberation in her life.”

Darcie also translated the closing lines of Sor Juana’s Primero sueño (First Dream), a notoriously complex and linguistically rich poem:

Llegó, en efecto, el sol cerrando el giro                                    

que esculpió de oro sobre azul zafiro.

De mil multiplicados                                                            

mil veces puntos, flujos mil dorados,

líneas, digo, de luz clara, salían

de su circunferencia luminosa,

pautando al cielo la cerúlea plana;

y a la que antes funesta fue tirana                                       

de su imperio, atropadas embestían:

que sin concierto huyendo presurosa,

en sus mismos horrores tropezando

su sombra iba pisando,

y llegar al ocaso pretendía                                                  

con el sin orden ya, desbaratado

ejército de sombras, acosado

de la luz que el alcance le seguía.

Consiguió, al fin, la vista del ocaso

el fugitivo paso,                                                                   

y en su mismo despeño recobrada,

esforzando el aliento en la ruïna,

en la mitad del globo que ha dejado

el sol desamparada,

segunda vez rebelde, determina                                         

mirarse coronada,

mientras nuestro hemisferio la dorada

ilustraba del sol madeja hermosa,

que con luz judiciosa

de orden distributivo, repartiendo                                        

a las cosas visibles sus colores

iba, y restituyendo

entera a los sentidos exteriores

su operación, quedando a luz más cierta

el mundo iluminado, y yo despierta.                                 

And sure enough, the Sun arrived, sealing the orbit

it etched in gold upon the sapphire blue sky.

Born of a thousand

times thousand points, a thousand golden streams,

and lines, I say, of pure light, which radiated

from its luminous circumference,

marking the sky-blue page;

and, converging, they charged towards

that former sepulchral tyrant of their empire,

who, stumbling over her own horrors,

treading on her own shadow,

erratically with haste, trying to reach the West

with her now confused, disorderly

army of shadows, pursued

by the light following closely behind.

At last, that fugitive retreat

gained sight of the West,

and, recovering from her downfall,

steeling her crushed spirit,

rebellious for a second time,

she resolves to see herself crowned

in that half of the globe that

the Sun has left unprotected;

meanwhile, the golden tresses of the Sun

beautified our hemisphere,

and with judicious light

and ordered generosity reimbursed

all visible things with their colours,

and restored the external senses their full

operation, leaving the world illuminated

by a more certain light, and I awake.

Responding to Literature Through the Arts

With the cancellation of first-year exams in Oxford earlier this summer, several students took the opportunity to respond creatively through the visual arts and creative writing to some of the literary works they had studied earlier in the year, or works they plan to study next year. Their projects included a Lorca play turned into a short story, a García Márquez short story turned into a play, and an election campaign poster for Coronel Aureliano Buendía.

Here, and in next week’s post, are samples from four projects, all under the direction of Dr Imogen Choi:

 Imogen Lewis (French and Spanish, Exeter College)

“For my final creative piece of the first year I decided to focus on Golden Age poetry (specifically sonnets), and its presentation of the much-idealised Petrarchan Woman. I studied the works of three of the best-known Spanish poets: Góngora, Quevedo, and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. While the ‘conceptismo’ aspect of these poems is easily captured in a painting (i.e. one can easily picture and reproduce a woman’s ‘pearly white teeth’ or ‘alabaster’ neck), it is the notorious ‘culteranismo’ aspect (the essence of marked opposition and play-on-words) that is much harder to depict.  While Góngora captures the quintessential “cabellos de oro” of the Petrarchan woman, Quevedo ponders the “figura de la hermosura pasada”, and Sor Juana even begins to question identity and the representation of idealised beauty through the figures of painting and “retratos”. On the left two thirds of the piece stands the idealised, beguiling Petrarchan woman, but as the eye naturally moves from left to right we see what is really hidden behind the appearance of these poems – latent decay and and cynicism about age and beauty.”

Costanza Levy (Exeter College)

Eyes of a Blue Dog is a short play in English. It is an adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez’s short story, Ojos de perro azul, which narrates the relationship between a man and a woman who only meet in their dreams. The ambiguous narrative explores death, desire and the passing of time through the lens of a dreamworld. This theatrical adaptation uses dialogue, a stark set design, blue lighting and the music Charvela Vargas to evoke the central themes of Márquez’s modernist work.

Eyes of a Blue Dog

‘La llorona’ by Charvela Vargas fades in.

A deep blue light fills the stage.

‘He’ is standing to the left of the bed. ‘She’ is sitting on the edge of the bed. She looks at him, perplexed.  He stares back at her for some time.

‘La Llorona’ fades out at 1 minute 24 seconds. 

1

He They’re so bright.

She What?

He  Your eyes. They’re so bright. And blue. Grey-blue. Ash-blue.

She I’ve been told that before.

He  Like a blue dog. The eyes of a blue dog.

The light flickers, then it is dark, except for the candle. ‘He’ lights a cigarette. A harsh white light shines on ‘She’. She is still. There is the sound of fire burning.

[…]

He You’re like a statue. Like some copper statue I’d find in a museum.

He walks around her.

But I recognise you. I’ve seen you before. Who are you?

[…]

She I wish I could remember where I’ve gone looking for you.

He Me too. In some part of the world, ‘eyes of a blue dog’ is scrawled over all the walls, over all the floors, posted through all the letterboxes.

Every night, I tell myself, tomorrow. Tomorrow you’ll remember this, and you’ll know how to find her. Then every morning, I wake up, and it’s all gone.

‘He’ lights a cigarette.

I wish there was something. Something that gave us some sort of idea.

The light flickers. 

A white light shines on ‘She’. She shivers. The shiver becomes a shudder.  There is the sound of fire burning. She crumples to the floor.

It is dark, except for the candle and the cigarette.

Three More Reasons to Come and Study Modern Languages with us at Oxford

It’s the time of year when the annual rankings of universities and higher education courses are published. Here at the Oxford Modern Languages Faculty we are a modest and unassuming bunch, reluctant to blow our own trumpet. We do, though, work extremely hard to make sure that our undergraduate courses are inspiring and exciting, a world-class education in language and culture, and a qualification that will be one of the most valuable passports you can have to success the career of your choice.

So we’re pleased to see that our hard work has been noticed. The Times Higher Education world university rankings for 2021 place Oxford University at Number One, ranked against over a thousand higher education institutions worldwide.

QS World University Rankings place Oxford University as the highest ranked of all UK universities, although it ranks four US institutions above us in the global list. Their most recent ranking of world universities by subject area, from last year, ranks Oxford University as Number One in the world for arts and humanities subjects, including modern languages.

Lastly, the Guardian has released its 2021 rankings of UK universities by subject, and their Number One university to study modern languages this coming year is… Oxford University. They also rank Oxford University as the top UK university overall, up two places from last year. The newspaper accompanies its listings and university guide with an article explaining why Oxford made the top spot, and in particular what it has to do with the employment prospects of our graduates.

That’s enough bragging from me. There’s only one way to really find out if our course and our university are really as good as they say. And that’s to come and try us out for yourself.

Calling UK Modern Language Teachers

The Sir Robert Taylor Society is a network of teachers of Modern Foreign Languages in secondary schools, academics in the Medieval and Modern Languages Faculty at the University of Oxford, and others who have an interest in Modern Languages. It is named after the founder of the Modern Languages Library at Oxford (the ‘Taylor Institution’), Sir Robert Taylor.

Our annual conference takes place in September at the University of Oxford, and provides a unique forum for interaction and exchange between the University and teachers.

Sadly, we have had to cancel this year’s meeting in Oxford. Instead, we invite you to join us remotely for a series of live events which we are planning for Friday 25 September, from 4.30 until 7pm. We’ll be hosting the event on the Sir Robert Taylor Society website, which is here. It will consist of talks and Q&As between modern language teachers, Oxford tutors, and current undergraduates, with the British diplomat Sir Simon McDonald as our special guest .

If you teach modern languages in a UK school and you’d like to attend this online meeting by emailing us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk. At the same time, please do mention any questions you would like to submit in advance. These may be about the study of individual languages and literatures at Oxford (whether post-A or from scratch), the year abroad, career destinations, or any aspect of the application process. Live questions will also be welcome on the day!

We’d like to draw the attention of modern languages teachers to two resources in the meantime:

1) Oxford University’s Virtual Open Day on 18 September, which you and your students are very welcome to ‘attend’. For further details please see:

https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/virtual-open-day

2) The Oxford University Medieval and Modern Languages webpages, where you can find a collated list of resources to support your teaching, and also to guide you and your students through applying to Oxford and the experiences of studying here, with plenty of input from current students! These resources can be found here:

https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/schools

SPANISH LITERATURE PODCAST

Now available online is a series of podcast episodes featuring members of the Spanish sub-Faculty talking about some of the works that we teach at Oxford, produced and presented by one of our own Modern Languages graduates, Christy Callaway-Gale.

The series is aimed at people thinking about applying for Modern Languages at university, their teachers, and also the wider public. We hope to share our fascination with literature in Spanish, to explain why we love teaching it, and why we think you might love it too.

Each episode features a different member of the Spanish sub-Faculty talking about a work of literature from their area of expertise. The format is quite informal, more a relaxed interview than a lecture. As studying Spanish at Oxford involves looking at literary texts in a lot of detail, each podcast episode also includes a segment where tutors perform a close reading of the text (or extract of the text) they’ve been speaking about. We hope this will de-mystify the literature we teach on the course and, if you’re interested in applying for Modern Languages at university, that it will give you a sense of what it might be like to study Spanish at Oxford.

In the first four episodes, we travel from the medieval period to the twentieth-century. Geraldine Hazbun talks about the beautiful and moving poem, Coplas por la muerte de su padre by Jorge Manrique. Oliver Noble Wood introduces listeners to a classic of early-modern picaresque fiction, Lazarillo de Tormes. Moving to Latin America, María del Pilar Blanco gives an insight into the writing of the Mexican Revolution, with Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho. Finally, Dominic Moran talks about Julio Cortázar’s expertly crafted, highly deceptive short story “Continuidad de los parques.” 

Future episodes, we hope, will feature Spanish-Peninsular literature, as well as more texts from the medieval and early modern (Golden Age) periods.

And you can listen to the trailer here…

Ben Bollig.

Professor of Spanish American Literature,

University of Oxford

The Tutorial

posted by Simon Kemp

One thing we’re very proud of at Oxford is the tutorial teaching system. In most weeks of the undergraduate course you’ll write an essay on a topic to do with literature, linguistics, film or some other part of your course. You’ll hand it in for your tutor to read, and then you’ll have an hour, in a pair or trio, or occasionally just you, to talk through the topic with the tutor, exploring it from all angles, clearing up any questions or misunderstandings arising from the essay, and testing out your views. It’s a great way to really get to grips with a subject, and a chance to share ideas with a world expert in the topic. Here’s an example of a modern languages tutorial in action:

No et moi: Who lives in the Invisible City?

posted by Simon Kemp

‘La ville invisible’ (the invisible city) is the metaphor that introduces the final section of Lou’s presentation to her class in Delphine de Vigan’s No et moi. The novel reproduces the section in full (in fact, it’s the only part of Lou’s speech that the book does include). Here’s what she says:

Il y a cette ville invisible, au cœur même de la ville. Cette femme qui dort chaque nuit au même endroit, avec son duvet et des sacs. À même le trottoir. Ces hommes sous les ponts, dans les gares, ces gens allongés sur des cartons ou recroquevillés sur un banc. Un jour, on commence à les voir. Dans la rue, dans le métro. Pas seulement ceux qui font la manche. Ceux qui se cachent. On repère leur démarche, leur veste déformée, leur pull troué. Un jour on s’attache à une silhouette, à une personne, on pose des questions, on essaie de trouver des raisons, des explications, et puis on compte. Les autres, des milliers. Comme le symptôme de notre monde malade. Les choses sont ce qu’elles sont. Mais moi je crois qu’il faut garder les yeux grands ouverts. Pour commencer. (p. 70)

 à même le trottoir : (right) on the pavement

recroquevillé : huddled up

faire la manche : to beg

se cacher: to hide

repérer: to spot, notice

la démarche : the way [they] walk

déformé: stretched out of shape

troué: with holes in it

 

So the ville invisible is the same city in which everyone else lives (Paris, in Lou’s case), but it is the city made up of homeless people. Her first examples are those we might expect: people sleeping on the streets surrounded by their belongings, under bridges, in stations, lying on cardboard or huddled on benches. Begging for small change. They’re invisible because people choose not to see them: embarrassed, afraid or indifferent, we walk past without acknowledging the presence of the homeless, acting as if there was nobody there.

But these are not the only people Lou is talking about, and this is not the only kind of invisibility in the invisible city. The homeless are not just the people we avoid looking at, but the people we see without realizing they are in distress. The second part of Lou’s paragraph focuses on the people who hide their homelessness, but whose status can be betrayed by small clues in their appearance:

On repère leur démarche: You can spot them by the way they walk (because of drugs or alcohol? untreated injuries? or simply the fact of having nowhere to go?)…

On repère […] leur veste déformée: You can spot them by a stretched-out jacket (bulked out by extra layers of clothing beneath it for warmth?)…

On repère […] leur pull troué: You can spot them by the holes in a worn-out jumper.

Lou has found herself starting to ‘tune in’ to the presence of these people, people like No, and she’s here encouraging her classmates to try to do the same thing. The first step is to see the invisible people, to start to realize just how many of them there are. Then you can try to do something to help them.

The idea of the invisible city crops up several more times in the course of the novel, for instance on p. 76 and 119. As Lou thinks more about it, it develops into an image of a parallel world, occupying the same space as ours but treated as if in a different dimension: ‘ce monde parallèle qui est pourtant la nôtre’ (p. 119). Lou refuses to accept that her world must remain separate from No’s. The story is her quest to find ‘un endroit où les mondes communiquent entre eux’ (p. 76).

How subtitled films can help you learn a language

This post originally appeared on the Oxford University Creative Multilingualism site.

I have an indistinct memory of five-year-old me bashfully articulating my first English words. I was so fascinated by the mystery lying behind what I thought was a secret code that I would listen to my father’s music collection and try to translate the lyrics. Our English lessons at school involved doing boring and repetitive exercises and my friends rapidly lost their enthusiasm for languages, but mine was kept alive by music and some animated cartoons my mother used to buy me.

At the age of fourteen, I applied for a linguistic high school where I studied French, English and Spanish. By eighteen, I was fluent in four languages, including my mother tongue (Italian). I had the chance to spend some time abroad as a teenager and that was crucial in my language development since I learnt things that books could not teach. At university, my studies were mainly concerned with literature and critical reading methods. I learnt how to pull apart the narrative structure of a novel in order to have a full understanding of it, but still, I felt ill-prepared to engage in conversation and unable to act naturally whilst speaking in a foreign language. It was during my master’s that I had the chance to join the staff of a local film festival, which gave me the opportunity to view films from a different perspective and understand how they can be an effective language learning tool. The pages of books turned into minutes on screen, descriptions into long shots, and words into gestures. My job was to translate the subtitles from English to Italian, requiring patience and attention to detail, because every word has to be weighed on a scale where weights and measures are ever changing.

Film is an extremely powerful communication medium and aims for the noblest purpose: knowledge. One can see and hear language used at the same time and, as a result, language stops being just about grammar and syntax, and comes to life. The auditory component is essential to the learning process and, with the help of subtitles, watching films can be an effective way to learn or hone language skills. In Italy, subtitles are quite unpopular and people have favoured dubbing over subtitles ever since Benito Mussolini imposed a protectionist policy in order to safeguard the Italian language from foreign influences. I believe this is now anachronistic and also a possible cause of diversity denial. The use of original-language films with subtitles would encourage people to experience other languages and lead them to a new awareness and to a more open-minded attitude.

Teaching English to children as a private tutor helped me to experiment with different learning methods and to be creative, as kids need constant entertainment and stimulation. The use of animated cartoons with English audio and subtitles helped the children to develop their language skills as their school lessons seldom involved listening exercises. It requires a significant effort at the beginning, but the results are remarkable in the long run. First, one has to get used to the sound of the language; then, subtitles help retain what one has heard and re-read unclear dialogue bits. Last but not least, contextualisation is crucial and the use of certain expressions or idioms is clearer when boosted by visual information.

Now I’m working at the Oxford Language Centre Library thanks to the Erasmus post-graduation project. We have books written in about 200 languages and a wide collection of films in their original language with subtitles that students often use, confirming that they are an essential learning tool.

Marta Triberio is currently doing an ERASMUS in the Oxford Language Centre Library. She has a Master’s degree in Comparative and Postcolonial Literatures at University of Bologna (Italy) and previously worked as an Audiovisual Translator at Lucca Film Festival.