Category Archives: Why study French?

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. If you enjoy reading and writing about your subject, and if you’re up for some hard work, they are probably the key skills 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.

Joint Schools: What are they?

At the University of Oxford you can study Modern Languages in combination with a number of other subjects: Classics, English, History, Linguistics, Middle Eastern Languages, and Philosophy. In this post, Georgina Ramsay, who studies French and English at The Queen’s College, tells us about what motivated her to do a Joint Schools degree. More information about Joint Schools Degrees can be found through the course listings on the University admissions pages. Over to Georgina…

It wasn’t until I was applying to university that I came across the term ‘joint-honours’ but I was definitely glad when I did. I had always assumed that I would apply to study English at university but following GCSEs, the first year of A-Levels and then attending the UNIQ Summer School I started to really consider the possibility of studying French. As excited as I was by the prospect of continuing to improve my French skills I was still conflicted between my two favourite subjects.

Taylor Institution (Modern Languages Library), Oxford

It was whilst researching degree courses that I realised that it was possible for me to continue with both English and French as there were some universities, including Oxford, that offered joint-honours degrees. I narrowed down my options, taking into account the split between the two subjects (some institutions place more emphasis on one subject) and what I liked about the Oxford course was that there was a 50:50 split.

English Faculty Library, Oxford

As an avid reader and bibliophile I had wanted to study English Literature because I liked the window it gave me into the world, history and different cultures. However, these reasons also applied to why I wanted to study French. A-Level French had been my first introduction into reading literature in another language and I had really enjoyed it. I realised that in studying French I would have access to a whole new world of Francophone literature.

After now having completed a full academic year I am certain that deciding to apply for both English and French was the right decision. I am now in my second year and I am still realising more and more the connections that can be made between the two sides of my course. For example, last year on the English side of my course I was really interested in postcolonial literature and looked at works by Frantz Fanon, a Martinican writer. I also studied Aimé Césaire in my French classes where I also learnt more about France’s colonial history. As a result I was able to see Fanon’s influence on Césaire and ultimately each side of the course was enriched by the other – which was what I had hoped for when I decided to apply.

Next week Georgina will tell us some things to consider when applying for a Joint Schools degree.

PS. We maintain that Modern Languages has a prettier library. 😉

Emma’s Modern Languages FAQs

posted by Emma Beddall, final-year undergraduate student at Somerville College reading French and German

Why French?

French is a fantastic language with a rich associated culture and history and has a strong literary tradition.  Not only is it a language spoken by our closest neighbouring country and a number of others, it is also widely spoken around the world by many as a second language.

Why Oxford?

If the course appeals to you, why not Oxford?  The French course is different to many other Modern Languages degrees  and provides a truly unique academic experience which allows you to gain an insight into another language and its literature.

How is the course structured?

The first year of the course essentially counts as an introduction to a wide-ranging selection of French literature through the set texts, as well as developing language skills such as translation.  Second year onwards, you then have the chance to make choices based upon your interests.   Third year is generally spent abroad (although there are certain courses, such as French and Arabic in which the year abroad occurs in the second), before returning to Oxford for the fourth and final year of the course.

What makes the Oxford course different?

The French course offered at Oxford is very different to the courses offered in Modern Languages elsewhere.  The main difference is that the study of French at Oxford is very literature-focused, whereas other courses tend to have more modules in topics such as politics, film, cultural studies and linguistics.  Furthermore, there is the opportunity to study a broad range of literature, including medieval and early modern texts which are infrequently offered for study at undergraduate level at other universities.  Although the course is more traditional in nature, there are a wide range of options available and these include modules on European cinema, linguistics and translation, among others.

What if I’ve done no literature?

It is not a problem if you haven’t already studied French literature before coming to Oxford, the most important thing is a willingness to study and engage with literature.  Everyone arrives having done different things at school, especially given that the range of A-level courses (or their equivalents) tend to focus upon different aspects, some include literature while others, for example, involve studying French films.  Furthermore, you may well have previously studied literature in English classes or written essays in various subjects and many of the skills will carry across.  I’d also advise trying reading some books in French, and you really don’t have to start off with the imposing classics of French literature, unless you really want to!

Is the course just literature?

No, and we don’t spend all our time just writing essays on literature.  Although the course does allow you to study literature in depth and this is an important component of the degree, the course is not solely focused upon literary studies and there is also language component, with oral exams, translation both into and out of French and French cultural studies.  Having heard a lot about the literature side of the course before attending Oxford, I was actually surprised by the extent of the language content within the degree.

What if I’m not sure I want to do a year abroad?

The most important thing I can state is that there is time and you do not have to immediately embark on a year abroad.  At present, going to university is a big step, especially if you are coming straight out of school, and the very idea of living abroad for a year may seem intimidating.  However, after two years of studying, you will likely see things differently and probably feel very different as an individual. The year abroad is an obligatory part of the course, except under specific circumstances, and most people end up loving it and the many experiences it offers.  After all, very few other courses give you the chance to spend a year partway through your degree going and doing something completely different of your choosing.

What options are there if I don’t want to do just French?

You can study French as part of a Joint Honours with a number of other subjects.  Furthermore, it is also possible to combine French with another language, both European languages and others such as Russian and Arabic.  For full details on available course combinations with French, see the prospectus.

Is it okay if I haven’t done any other languages before?

Yes.  You can do just French or study French with another subject.  However, there is also the chance to start another language from scratch (known as ‘ab initio’) and study it alongside French, if you would like the chance to learn a new language.

Can I study at Oxford with a disability?

Yes, there are many students studying at Oxford with disabilities or long-term health condition.   It may be particularly useful to speak to people at the Colleges or the department on an open day if you have any queries.   There is also a range of support available, including the Disability Advisory Service for the university, welfare structures within the individual colleges, and the student-organised Oxford Student’s Disability Community (OSDC).

Is the interview scary?  How do I prepare?

Think about what you’ve put in your personal statement, especially the books you’ve read and any statements you’ve made about why you want to study French, as these are likely to be the start point of discussion.  I actually spent quite a lot of my German interview talking about the Harry Potter series and the challenges it poses for translation.  You will likely be nervous beforehand and the interview sounds like a daunting prospect, but try to see it as a chance to discuss things that interest you with another likeminded person; you will likely be surprised by how quickly the time passes!

Does my personal statement have to be full of classic French literature?  Should I make my personal statement sound like I’ve read loads of things?

First things first, honesty is always the best policy and if you claim you’ve read things you haven’t, you will potentially get caught out at the interview and this will inevitably be awkward.  If you happen to have read some French literature, go ahead and write about it.  However, you can also think outside the box, the idea is to show your enthusiasm for the French language, so don’t hesitate to write about your favourite French book, even if it isn’t the most literary of texts, or a French language film or play you’ve seen or how you’ve read the English translation of a classic French work.