Category Archives: Student life

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: my unexpectedly fun and rewarding discovery of Russia.

In this post, current undergraduate Joseph Rattue, who studys at Somerville College, offers a candid and entertaining reflection on his year abroad while studying Russian from scratch.

Four years ago, I sat looking through some testimonials in Oxford Modern Languages leaflets at an open day, in awe of the list of amazing places students had been on their years abroad. With law internships in Berlin, banking placements in Zürich, and events management in various châteaux in the picturesque French countryside, it was a list of great promise. A list that would convince anyone of the excitement and glamour of a degree in French, Spanish, German or Italian at Oxford. A list from which the location of the year abroad for Beginners’ Russian was markedly and suspiciously absent. After some digging around on the internet through the Russian sub-faculty’s web page, I found the city where second-year Russian Ab Initio (from scratch) students go for their year abroad, and didn’t think much of it in the face of the cosmopolitan metropoles I’d read about earlier that day. Today I have a photo plate of it on the wall above my bed.

Yaroslavl. Probably not the first word that comes to mind when you think of a place to spend your year abroad. Unknown to most people outside Russia, it sits modestly 272.3 km north-east of Moscow, and a trying 13-hour overnight train ride south-east of St. Petersburg. If I thought the scale of these distances was daunting before I arrived at the airport “in” (45.8 km south of) Moscow, it got even more extreme when I asked the minibus driver when we would reach the train station to go to Yaroslavl, only to discover that Yaroslavl was considered “next to Moscow,” as the 6-hour bus ride ensued. After the 5am start in the UK, it would be fair to say we all slept pretty well that night once we’d arrived at our home stay hosts’ flats.

Yaroslavl, photo by Joseph Rattue

For anyone wondering why I haven’t mentioned what we were actually doing there, fear not. All in good time. First, though, there are some things to do with the structure of the Russian Ab Initio Course which need some explaining. If you read the opening of this post and were a bit puzzled about why I talked about second-years going abroad, you were right to pick up on this. Nearly all Modern Languages degrees at Oxford are arranged for students to go abroad in their third year, unless the degree includes Beginners’ Arabic or Beginners’ Russian, in which case the second year is the year abroad. If you do Beginners’ Russian, you spend the whole of the first year doing almost exclusively language work, with a 1-hour poetry reading class every week in the second term designed mainly to help with the resonance of words, and to give the basic outline of some literary movements in Russia. In their second year, all the Oxford Russian Ab Initio students go to Yaroslavl and do a language development programme designed specifically for them by Yaroslavl State University, making it easier to tackle Final Honours texts in Russian in the third and fourth years. Yes, this can have its downsides; you are away when your friends are back home in Oxford, and your linguist friends are away in third year when you come back. But this does not exactly spell the end for your social life. Without sounding too cheesy, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my social experiences on my year abroad were some of the best I’ve ever had. I went to a new place, discovered a new culture, and made new friends, many of whom will be in Oxford with me this coming year and mean a lot to me.

It’s not often that you go to a monastery with a bear called Masha inside it, or a café where tens of cats live, or a museum with a whole room dedicated to different kinds of traditional irons which can also be musical instruments. Nor is it every day that you sing traditional Russian folk songs and drink mulled wine with your teachers to celebrate “Old New Year” in mid-January because Russia used the old Julian calendar until February 1918. It is these sorts of things that have made my year abroad not only so much fun, but so meaningful and fulfilling. Being in a class with the other Oxford students gave me an immediate group of close friends, and together we discovered Russia. Whether it was watching Yaroslavl Lokomotiv play ice hockey with our Russian friends, staying up to see the sun rise over the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, or belting out Russian pop songs about new year at 1am, the year could hardly have been more full of shared, new experiences that brought us closer to each other and to Russian culture. The other people who made all this possible were our hosts, or “babs” (short for “babushka,” the Russian for “grandma”), who lived with us, fed us, and shared their stories, ideas and lives with us. When I met my bab, Emma, at the start of the year, I could hardly understand a sentence she said. By the end, I was interpreting for her as she told my parents all about her family, past and present, and which English writers she liked reading. I visited Yaroslavl again this summer, 4 months after the end of my year abroad in March, and left a box of chocolates for my friend to give to Emma when she got back from her holiday. Two days ago Emma got those chocolates, and said hi.

All in all, it has been an unforgettable year, one full of discovery, new people, and both academic and personal growth. What felt like a very foreign country now feels like a second home to me. To that end, the Yaroslavl year abroad is the epitome of what a year abroad should be.

A Chilean Year Abroad: from terremotos to chilenismos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life as a Languages Assistant in Germany

This post was written by Emma Gilpin, a third-year French and German student at Oriel College.

One of the most important elements of a modern languages degree is the year abroad. It’s not something you are generally thinking about when you’re first applying to university and it’s all so far into the future but it certainly comes around quickly! I am a third-year student of French and German at Oriel and I am currently on my year abroad, working as a languages assistant in Cologne, Germany.

Lots of people choose to be languages assistants when they are planning their year abroad because, honestly, it’s such a great option! There are lots of possibilities available when you start planning how you want to spend the third year of your course, especially if you are studying two languages. I personally thought it would be great to be a languages assistant in Germany for 6 months as it would leave me plenty of time to spend in France later in the year (writing lots of CVs and job applications turned out to be a great way to keep up with my French!) I also wanted to spend a little more time in Germany as I have always found German a bit more difficult than French, but I have improved lots and am now hoping I still remember how to speak French!

The great thing about the year abroad is that you have so much freedom to choose what you want to do, whether you want to be studying or working, as well as the freedom to live where you want to, travel, meet new people and learn new skills. At times, it can be hard being away from home but there is plenty to keep me busy. Working in a school is a lot of fun and I often feel like I am learning as much from the students as they are learning from me! Not having to work on weekends is also a revelation after 2 years studying at Oxford so I have enjoyed exploring Cologne, travelling to new places and making sure never to miss out on opportunities to try new food (it’s all part of the cultural experience).

I feel really grateful to have this opportunity as part of my degree (how cool is it that chatting to my flatmates basically counts as work here?) and have not only learned lots of German but other skills too, like how to find a flat to live in for 6 months, how to navigate the tram system in a foreign country and how to teach a class of rowdy year 8s about a topic I’ve never read about- I’m hoping finals will be a breeze after that!

A tour of Salzburg’s Christkindlmarkt

This post was written by Martha MacLaren, a fourth-year German and History student at Somerville College.

Walking down Broad Street at the weekend, I was hit by the familiar smell of German sausages and mulled wine, and the hubbub of the Oxford Christmas market brought back memories from my year abroad. In Salzburg, a beautiful cathedral city on the edge of the Alps, I lived right on the central square where the Christkindlmarkt was held every year – that smell wafted through my window whenever I dared to open it to the below-freezing temperatures in frosty December!
Christkindlmarkt is the Austrian equivalent of the German Weihnachtsmarkt. The latter translates as Christmas market, but the Austrian reflects the tradition of the Christ Child who visits children with presents on 6th December. Christ means Christ, and Kindl is the diminutive of Kind (child) – so ‘little-Christ-child market’. In Austria, an “l” is often used instead of a German “chen” – “Mädel” instead of “Mädchen”, for example. You can see why it’s easier to yodel in Austrian German!


Sausages such as Bratwurst and Käsewurst (sausage with cheese inside – delicious) were sold for about half of the £6 you’d pay for them here – and not in a hot dog bun, but with a Semmel, a bread roll. They’d probably be served with Sauerkraut und Senf (pickled cabbage and mustard), which is as disgusting as it sounds! Glühwein (mulled wine) was a favourite, and you needed it to warm your hands, especially after ice skating on the outdoor rink on Mozartplatz. Kaiserschmarrn, thick and fluffy torn up pancakes, were cooked on a griddle and served with Apfelmus (apple sauce) or Zwetschkenröster (stewed plums). There’s another word – Zwetschke – that’s different from the German (Pflaume).
Beautiful decorations, organic chocolate and fancy soaps abounded, alongside the classic Mozart-themed touristy gifts. Salzburg is very proud of its most famous cultural export! The tasteful lights and Christmas tree topped off the scene, with the cathedral and fortress forming the backdrop. I can’t wait to go back, but this year I’ll content myself with Oxford’s buzzing market as term comes to an end.

Oxford Interviews: A Helper’s Perspective

Being invited to an interview at Oxford can be both exciting and daunting. While we hope that candidates will look forward to the chance to show us their intellectual potential, the last thing they should have to worry about is logistics – the when and where of the interviews themselves. Fortunately, when they arrive in Oxford they find that there are a multitude of helpers to make them feel at home. We rely heavily on our current undergraduates during the interview period to show candidates around the colleges, take them to their interviews, and generally put them at ease. This week, we hear from fourth-year German student at St Peter’s, Isobel Cavan, who gives us a helper’s perspective:

When I came to Oxford for my interviews, I can remember wishing that my four hour train journey could be just a bit longer so I could somehow re-read all the books I’d mentioned on my personal statement! I was incredibly nervous, but when I got to the college that was hosting me I was met by a really friendly second-year student, who showed me my room, where I could get food, and where all the information about interviews would be posted. He even carried my bag up four flights of stairs! He told me the best thing to do was to try and enjoy the whole process, and although it’s easier said than done, it really is true.

And the college hosting you will really try to help you enjoy it. Each college has a group of current students whose job it is to make you feel welcome, make sure you don’t get lost, and arrange a few fun things to do when you’re not doing your interviews. This might be showing films in the common room, or organising a group of people going for ice cream at G&D’s (the best place in Oxford for ice cream). It can be really helpful to be able to get out of your room and chat to people, most of them doing different subjects, and explore the town whilst you’re here.

Whilst the interviews themselves are never going to be the most relaxing half hour of your life, they’re actually pretty fun once you get into them. And if you have any worries, or just need someone to make you a cup of tea, there should be plenty of people around in the common room who’ll be happy to help. Four years after my own interviews, I’m really looking forward to helping out this year and making sure everyone knows where they’re going. Everyone helping will have been in your shoes not too long ago, and we understand how daunting it can seem. The colleges and tutors are all looking forward to meeting you, and I hope you have a great time at your interviews.

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:

Modern Languages beyond the undergraduate degree

This week, doctoral student Philippe Panizzon tells us a little about what it’s like to study modern languages at Oxford at post-graduate degree level.

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Oxford I opted to study Francophone Literatures whilst also specializing in the works of André Gide and Marguerite Duras whose literary output engages with French colonialism. In my Master of Studies at the University of Oxford I pursued my interest in Francophone Literatures further, focusing on canonical authors from North Africa such as Kateb Yacine and Assia Djebar. During my Master of Studies I also familiarised myself with relevant literary theory and criticism, such as feminist and queer theory, which also acted as preparation for my D.Phil. The good thing about the University of Oxford is that as a graduate student you can discuss your research interests with both established academics and among other graduate students. Thinking through my project with members of the French sub-faculty provided varying perspectives on the subject and stimulated further thinking on the topic. Furthermore, the French sub-faculty, with its close links to the Maison Française in Oxford, regularly welcomes scholars in French from other universities (either from UK or abroad). This provides the opportunity to get acquainted with other academic traditions beyond UK and engage with and follow the latest cultural and political trends in France and the Francophonie.

My D.Phil. project, which is fully funded by the St Anne’s College – Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages scholarship, analyses the discourse of homosexuality which takes shape during North Africa’s decolonization and independence, with particular reference to the works of North African authors Jean Sénac, Abdellah Taïa and Rachid O.. I aim to discover to what extent these authors respond to French metropolitan queer writers, whose implicit involvement with the colonialist project inflects their work with imperialism and racism.  To what extent are these authors more ambiguous or critical of French neo-colonial rule? Does Western queer theory do justice to writings by North African authors embedded within Arab/Muslim cultures? I benefit from being supervised by Professor Jane Hiddleston whose work and research specialises in Francophone Literatures, Postcolonial theory and Deconstruction. Thanks to these regular interactions with my supervisor my project has gained more precision and my thoughts are constantly pushed to the limits.

Despite having nearly 700 years of tradition, the University of Oxford has been open to my research interest in queer writers and queer theory. Oxford has an active research community studying feminist and queer studies and the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages has some great specialists in these areas.  While doing the D.Phil., we also get training for teaching undergraduates, while the countless courses offered by the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (Torch) have prepared me for the job-market. Graduate research becomes a well-rounded experience, rooted in scholarship but decidedly not walled off from the “real world”.

Unexpected skills gained on the year abroad

posted by Emma Beddall

Emma Beddall studies French and German at Somerville College. She is just returning for her final year from an exchange at a German university.

As my time spent abroad nears its end, I find myself thinking often of what I’ll bring back with me from my year abroad (and how I can possibly manage to get my possessions back to England, although that is another story…).  I am pretty sure that most students returning home will almost certainly bring back a range of physical things, from a collection of postcards with slogans in foreign languages – even the most banal of phrases sounds so much more sophisticated in another language – to photos of places they’ve visited and things they’ve done to all sorts of mementos and probably a fair few foreign-language books.

I know that next year, I’ll probably love having all these things in my university room as a reminder of my experiences that will allow me to reminisce nostalgically about my time abroad.  However, I think that perhaps most of the things I will bring back with me won’t be so easy to put on display. I’ll always treasure the memories, but the skills I picked up along the way might just be the most important and unanticipated benefit from my year abroad.  Some of the skills I’ve developed are big ones, some of them relatively irrelevant, but overall I suspect I’ll carry them with me throughout my life.

 

Language skills

It is undeniable that spending an extended period in Germany has definitely improved my German, and alongside it my confidence in using the language.  When you’re living in a foreign country, there really is no way to avoid being submersed in the language, and sooner or later you’ll probably find that you even talk to yourself in the foreign language.  After a while abroad, you will most likely possess a comprehensive vocabulary of words that really should exist in your native tongue and a tendency to confusion as to the grammar and spelling rules in your own languages.

While in a classroom setting, you always have the fall-back option of being able to swap to your native tongue when you just don’t know that word you need (or being able to look it up in a dictionary); in a real-life conversation, you generally can’t.  As a result, I have had to substantially increase my skills at playing the equivalent of Taboo mixed with Charades, in order to get across what I want to say without that vital word!

 

Packing skills

Given the tendency to accumulate all those physical souvenirs of your adventures abroad I mentioned earlier, you will also be highly likely to end up with more stuff than you started with.  As a result of this, you have two options a) decide upon a very minimalist approach and discard as many material possessions as possible at the end of the year, or b) get very good at packing.  I have gone for option B.

I am still not keen at packing, but I have become decidedly more skilled and logical at doing so.  I can now cram a ridiculous amount of things into hand luggage (most notably this once included a 24-volume lexicon that aroused the suspicion of Security) and have learnt all sorts of tricks, such as channelling my inner Hermione by carrying my heaviest hardback books as a little ‘light reading’ for the plane!

 

Life skills

Using a different currency also provides its own challenges, and constantly converting euro prices into pounds sterling is definitely a way to practise those rusty mental maths skills.  This is made more complicated by fluctuations in the exchange rate.  An alternative is to find something in your new country and base all prices on that, for example a scoop of ice cream costing a euro, but this doesn’t work so well when they then increase the price of ice cream (which now sadly costs me 1 and a half ‘ice creams’).

A year abroad is definitely a step up from university, where your family are potentially nearby and you are surrounded by staff and other students, and in addition to this, you have to communicate in a foreign language.  If you have issues while abroad (and it is pretty much inevitable that at some point you will end up in the wrong place), you are generally the one who will have to sort them out.  As a result, I’ve definitely become far more independent and more confident in my own ability to deal with situations, and this is something that has also happened to a lot of my friends who have spent time abroad.

As well as developing problem-solving skills, year abroad students seem to gain a talent for spontaneous trip organisation.  This ideally involves a really long coach journey, potentially to an unusual destination.  If you’re living in continental Europe, everywhere is basically now on your doorstep and it is a great opportunity to travel and try new things!

 

 

 

 

Oxford Types

What’s Oxford like? And, more particularly, what’s an Oxford student like?

Wonder no more. Here, in one minute five seconds, is the answer:

Someone a bit like you, perhaps? Take a look at our ‘student life’ and ‘applying to study modern languages’ categories on the left if you’d like to find out more.