Category Archives: Why study French?

Testimonial: from Open Day attendee to current student!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Year Abroad on the Côte d’Azur

This post was written by Charlotte, who studies French at Worcester College. Here, Charlotte tells us about her year abroad in France.

2018 was an exciting time to be in France for a year abroad. Over the summer temperatures rose in France with the thrill of the World Cup. Bars were brimming with enthused fans, roars matched every goal and with each win the streets became crowded with waving flags, trumpets and cheers of “Allez les bleus!”. In Montpellier, French football fans climbed on historic monuments and beeped car horns throughout the night. When I was caught watching a football match on my computer at work my boss sat down and joined!

In Montpellier there was a heatwave, or canicule, that summer so I spent my time between the beach and a natural lake, both of which were easy to get to by the tram system running through the city. It was warm enough to swim in the ocean up until the end of September! Every Friday in August there was a wine festival Les Estivales with live music and a range of food stands, every Wednesday there was a firework display at the beach, and every evening in the park Peyrou students relaxed in the cool evening, sometimes playing sport or dancing to music.

Autumn was an important time for me as I was working in a yacht brokerage, and autumn is the season of boat shows so I got to work on the marketing of several yachts across various regions in the South of France. September is also the season of Les Voiles de St-Tropez, a sailboat race in St.Tropez which attracts yachting teams from across the world to compete in.

Winter in Montpellier is very special. The Christmas markets opened at the beginning of December, and their opening was celebrated by a huge light show which saw historic buildings lit up with dazzling light projections.

Winter season also coincided with the beginning of the gilets jaunes movement in France, an important event which saw the President, Emmanuel Macron, cave to the demands of the protestors. A year later they are still to be seen on the streets of Paris. At a practical level, it meant that there was less food in the supermarket and it was more difficult to drive to places. Some students I met there got involved with the protests, it was a chance to engage in French social and political issues beyond reading about them in Le Monde.

Years abroad are not a holiday – I was working a full-time job! – but they are an opportunity to make the most of local events and culture which is not always possible in Oxford with the workload and tight deadlines. Towns and regions have different personalities throughout the year, and living abroad allows you to see and experience them all, getting to engage with language and culture beyond the textbook.

Virtual Book Club returns to French

The Virtual Book Club is back, and this episode features a discussion of a text in French. Here, Junior Research Fellow, Macs, talks to undergraduates Isobel and Hector about a short extract from Rachid Boudjedra’s Topographie idéale pour une agression caractérisée (Paris: Denoël, 1975, pp. 173-4).

They consider questions such as:

  • What is the style of this passage? Is it difficult to read and understand and if so, why?
  • Is there a relationship between the style and what’s happening in the excerpt?
  • What kinds of translation take place in this passage?
  • How does the protagonist respond to the image of the lotus? Is it right to say that he’s reading the advertisement even though he’s supposedly illiterate? Is he misreading it? What would a “correct” reading of this advertisement look like?
  • What language skills are required to read a map or an advertisement?

If you would like to be sent a copy of the text so you can follow the discussion, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

The next episode will be on German, and will be a special tie-in with this year’s German Classic Prize. Stay tuned…

Career Profile: Being an actor

This week on the blog we bring you another career profile from one of our recent graduates. Ellie, who studied French at St Anne’s College, now works as an actor in London. Acting is, perhaps, not a career many of us would automatically associate with Modern Languages. However, did you know that many famous actors are multilingual? As well as speaking English, Jodie Foster, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bradley Cooper, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all speak French. Colin Firth speaks fluent Italian, Gwyneth Paltrow speaks Spanish, and Sandra Bullock speaks German. Meanwhile, some actors speak a whole range of languages: Natalie Portman (Hebrew, German, Spanish, Japanese); Viggo Mortensen (Danish, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, Catalan, Norwegian, Swedish); Penélope Cruz (Italian, Spanish). And these are to name just a few!

Ellie tells us how languages are giving her a boost when it comes to a career in acting…

Name: Ellie Shaw
Profession: Actor and Singer
Studied: French sole, 2012-2016

After graduating with a degree in French in 2016, I trained as an actor and singer at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama where I earned an MA. I’m now building my career as an actor in London, and I also currently work at the Tate Modern and the Barbican Centre. When I initially undertook my actor training I never thought languages would be immediately useful, but countless directors and my agent have all really emphasised the utility of having foreign languages at hand. As an actress in London it makes me stand out. In fact, I just wrapped a short film where I was speaking French and I’m about to do a self-tape for my agent for an audition for a feature set in France; fluent French is a must for this role. Indirectly, learning a foreign language and going on a year abroad equips you with the kind of confidence to get any job you want – for me, it’s standing on stage or in front of a panel making a fool of yourself fearlessly. You learn to process written information more quickly and understand nuances in communication more effectively. It’s also – most importantly – part of my long-running campaign to marry Timothee Chalamet.

Ellie is currently starring as Daisy Buchanan in the immersive theatre show The Great Gatsby.

Bonus… Here’s a video of Viggo Mortensen speaking seven languages!

Career Profile: Being an Academic

This week in our series on career profiles, we’re speaking to Gemma Tidman, who studied French at Worcester College and graduated in 2011. Having attended a big comprehensive school in a small village in Somerset, Gemma now researches and teaches French literature at St John’s College, Oxford. She tells us a bit about her route into an academic job…

During my degree, I figured out that I wanted a number of things from a career: the ability to use my language skills on a regular basis, to travel, to meet interesting people and to continue learning new things. I also knew that I loved my degree, that I enjoyed academic writing, and during my year abroad I learned that I really liked teaching (I was an English-language teaching assistant in a lycée in South-West France). I wasn’t sure what all this meant in terms of a career, but it sounded like these were things I could keep doing during a Master’s, so that’s where I started. I did the Oxford Master’s course in the European Enlightenment (2011-12), and had some brilliant tutors who inspired in me a love of eighteenth-century French literature and cultural history.

After the Master’s, I still wasn’t sure what to do next. I applied for a PhD, but in the end decided that I needed to try something beyond university. So, I took a job at the Wallace Collection, in London – a national museum that specialises in eighteenth-century French visual and decorative arts, among other things. I worked with a great team of people, on projects involving marketing, public engagement, and fundraising. I loved the job! I got to use my French skills now and then, and to pursue my interest in eighteenth-century France. But, after six months or so, I realised that I missed teaching and research. So, in 2013 I decided to go back to university… and I began a PhD in French, back in Oxford.

‘Large Drawing Room: The Wallace Collection, London’ (M.chohan. Wikimedia creative commons)

My PhD looked at the history of how literature was taught in France, during the second half of the eighteenth century (If you’re interested, you can read more about it here). But a PhD is more than just the 80,000 words you produce at the end of four years: it’s also four years of great experiences. During the PhD I spent a year living in Paris, where I taught at a French university. I spent afternoons conducting research on 250-year-old handwritten papers, held in archives in a castle. I had a month as a visiting student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, working with wonderful academics and students. And I got the chance to do more teaching, which I loved. I also had the time to pursue other projects I cared about: I became involved in university widening participation and outreach work, and I took up triathlon!

After my PhD, I managed to land a one-year research and teaching post at Worcester College: back where I started as an undergraduate. If you had told me, when I began my BA in 2007, that I would be working there as an academic a decade later, I never would have believed you. After that, I moved to my current post at St John’s College. In spite of (or perhaps because of?) some long, hard days of reading, thinking, writing…and sometimes deleting it all and starting again… I love what I do. I’m lucky to work with great colleagues and students, on a subject that I’m passionate about, and to get to contribute to the way we think about, and teach, French literature and cultural history.

Chateau de Vincennes (Image from Wikipedia)

I’d say to anyone wondering whether they have ‘the right’ profile for academia that there is no ‘right profile’. I’m from a first-generation, comprehensive school background; I didn’t always know I wanted to be an academic; I didn’t go straight through from undergraduate to PhD: and I’ve made it this far. Most people know that getting into academia isn’t plain sailing – there are many hurdles to face, from securing postgraduate funding to dealing with tough peer reviews, from long, long hours to finding a permanent post in a competitive field. In all of this, there can be a lot of luck involved, and you’ll need to be prepared to put in some years of groundwork (in terms of further study, fixed contract posts, etc) before you – hopefully – begin to see it pay off. But in terms of the skills you need, if you’re resilient, up for some hard work, and above all if you love reading and writing about your subject, they’re probably the major things you need. To all budding academics: go for it!

À la Dérive: Paris in 3 Months & 5 Quarters – Part 2

Last week, we heard from Hector, one of our undergraduates in French and Spanish. Hector spent his year abroad last year in Chile and Paris. You can read about his Chilean adventures here and here. When we left off last week, Hector was telling us about his stay in Paris, where he lived in five very different areas of the city. Today, we bring you the final instalment in his year abroad adventure.

My stay in Paris was nothing if not diverse: next stop, the 10th arrondissement* A.K.A. l’Entrepôt (‘The Warehouse’). Famous for containing the tranquil Canal Saint-Martin and two of the busiest train stations in Europe, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, I could feel the vibrations of the trains through the floor of the ground-floor studio apartment I was renting from an out-of-town colleague. There is a significant Hindu diaspora in the 10th, which celebrated the birth of Ganesha in magnificent style with the Ganesh Caturthi festival and street procession in August.

For the month of September, I rented an attic room in a coloc (‘flat-share’) on rue d’Aboukir, named after Napoleon’s victory over the Turks during the Egyptian Campaign. The 2nd arrondissement is one of the most typical of Haussmann’s 19th-century renovation of Paris, featuring wide boulevards, small parks, and neoclassical façades. My French-Portuguese housemate, an investment banker by profession, was sports mad and introduced me to the delights of the Top 14 French rugby union league, on the condition that I support his team which, being from the Gironde, was Bordeaux-Bègles.

There’s a reason Paris is the most popular tourist destination in the world, but it’s not the picture-postcard clichés of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, or Louvre. Rather, it is joie de vivre. Far from the stereotype of being blasé, Parisians know what matters: they eat well, drink well, and invest their time in worthwhile pleasures – be they higher or lower. Although I did experience a good number of quartiers, they were all rive droite (on the right bank of the river). Hopefully it won’t be long before the rive gauche (the left bank) is on the itinerary.

À la Dérive: Paris in 3 Months & 5 Quarters – Part 1

Last year on Adventures on the Bookshelf, we heard from one of our students, Hector, who was on his year abroad in Chile. Because he studies both French and Spanish, Hector split his year abroad between French- and Spanish-speaking countries. Over the next two weeks, Hector tells us more about the French part of his year abroad, spent in Paris…

It was not by design that I ended up living in five different Paris quartiers* over the summer of my third year abroad. But it gave me an insight into the City of Light which I wouldn’t otherwise have had, even with my excursions by day as a runner-people-watcher, and by night as a keen flâneur**. After a year teaching English in Chile for the Spanish half of my degree, the French half was immediately indispensable as I navigated my way from Charles de Gaulle airport to my first digs.

These were a single room on the fourth floor of a hostel on Boulevard Barbès, in the 18th of the 20 Parisian arrondissements***. My colleagues at the production company at which I was interning, HENRY TV on Place de la République, were somewhat shocked when I told them where I was living, since the area can be ‘chaud’**** come nightfall. Sure, I saw (and heard) a certain amount of that from my window on Friday evenings, but variety is the spice of life in the 18th: the African markets of the Goutte d’Or are cheek by jowl with such iconic sights as Montmartre, the Sacré Cœur, and the Moulin Rouge.

The African theme continued at my next residence: flat-sitting for friends in the Grandes-Carrières quarter, also in the northern 18th arrondissement, where there is a significant population of Senegalese origin. It was in a Senegalese restaurant when my parents were visiting that we enjoyed our best ever dining experience. Instead of just talking amongst ourselves, as is the norm when going out for an average meal in the UK, we were engaged in conversation and banter over delicious fare by other diners keen to share their culture with us, an unusual addition to the clientele.

As well as flat-sitting, my third pied à terre involved cat-sitting and plant-sitting for friends on holiday in Italy. The Parisian-born cats, Attila and Maurice, though initially somewhat sceptical of me on arrival – as were their human counterparts – warmed to me, and Attila even became quite affectionate despite his war-like name. The flat’s central location in Le Marais (‘The Marsh’) of the 3rd arrondissement, offers far more than its name might suggest. One of the most historic and traditionally aristocratic parts of Paris, the Marais now boasts vibrant LGBTQ+, Jewish, and East Asian communities, as well as plenty of trendy bars and some of the only remaining medieval architecture in the city.

Check back next week to hear about the rest of Hector’s Parisian adventures….

Explanation of vocabulary
* quartier: Each arrondissement (see below) is split into quarters, or ‘quartiers’. There are also historical ‘quartiers’, which often do not map onto the administrative ‘quartiers’ – it all adds to the fun of navigating the city!

** flâneur: a stroller or walker. This comes from the verb ‘flâner’, meaning to stroll or saunter. The ‘flâneur’ became a famous figure in the nineteenth century, associated with people watching and urban exploration.

*** arrondissement: Paris is split into twenty administrative districts, called ‘arrondissements’

**** chaud: this can have several meanings in French, but in this context it means that the area can be a bit risky

Career Profile: Working in Advertising

This week on Adventures on the Bookshelf we are showcasing another career path you can take if you have a background in Modern Languages. Sarah Greaney, from Wrexham in North Wales, studied French at St Anne’s College and graduated in 2011. She now works as a media manager in marketing and advertising. Here, Sarah tells us how the skills she acquired during her degree are put to use in her job.

Communication skills are a must in advertising (Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash)

I decided to study French at university because of the versatility of the degree. The language course I chose offered much more than just grammar and language tuition, covering French literature, philosophy and art from medieval to modern times.

It’s easy to see why employers value a language degree: studying grammar develops close attention to detail and structured thinking, while learning about another culture through the development of its art, history and thinking down the ages nurtures a wider and deeper appreciation of the values that shape societies other than your own. Not to mention the year abroad, which throws you into the very uncomfortable situation of having to set up an existence from scratch in an unfamiliar place!

Although I don’t directly use French in my career, the transferable skills developed in my degree have stood me in good stead in the advertising and communications industry where developing strong, lasting relationships and communicating ideas in a succinct and compelling way are both fundamental parts of my job.

Languages help you to build lasting relationships (Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash)

Career Profile: Working at the UN

This week on Adventures on the Bookshelf we are showcasing another career path one of our graduates has followed. Emily Duggan, from Taunton in Somerset, now works as a Translator and précis-writer at the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), Switzerland. Emily graduated with a degree in French in 2010. Here, she tells us about how she went from Oxford to the UN.

I studied French at the Queen’s College from 2006 to 2010. During my year abroad in Paris, I worked first as a language assistant in two primary schools, then as an intern in the dictionary department of Éditions Larousse. After graduating, I decided to take a break from studying and moved to London, where I worked as a teaching assistant in a primary school. My language skills were put to good use: I ran an after-school French club with the French language assistant and helped to organize a school trip to Paris.

In 2011, I moved to Paris to pursue a two-year Master’s course in economic, technical and editorial translation at the École Supérieure d’Interprètes et de Traducteurs (ESIT), with financial support from the Leverhulme Trust. As part of the course, I completed a three-month internship at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). I was inspired by that experience – the nature of the work, the focus on quality, the multicultural environment – to aim for a career in an international organization.

When I graduated from ESIT, I was offered an internship, then a full-time job, at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The work was fast-paced and varied; I translated a wide range of documents, including speeches, reports, press releases and blog posts. In 2015, I passed the United Nations language competitive examination and was recruited by the United Nations Office at Geneva shortly afterwards. Although the work is intense and challenging, with short deadlines and strict editorial rules, it is also very rewarding. I am proud to work for an organization that is devoted to maintaining international peace and security and to protecting human rights worldwide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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