Category Archives: Year Abroad

Why Study Czech?

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

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

Exploring Štramberk, Joe Kearney

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

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

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

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

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

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

View over the Beskydy mountains, Joe Kearney

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

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

Dispatches from the Year Abroad: Paris

Third-year undergraduate Beth Molyneux (Lincoln College) has been sharing updates on her Year Abroad travels. Following on from her earlier post about her time in Munich, she is now in Paris.

Even before coming to Oxford, I knew I wanted to spend some time living in Paris, having caught glimpses of the city on family holidays and on a day trip during my French exchange. It’s potentially the least original of year abroad locations, but I really do think there’s a reason for that!

A lot of people come to Paris to do an internship during their year abroad, but I’d chosen to study for this semester, and was quite excited to get back into the academic world after having taken time off from studying in Germany. That’s one of the great things about the year abroad: it gives you time and flexibility to try out a few different things, and mix and match between your studies and the big scary world that comes after university.

Oxford has an exchange programme with La Sorbonne, and I was lucky enough to get a place to study there for the second semester of this academic year. Oxford aren’t very prescriptive about exactly what you have to study if that’s what you opt for on your year abroad, so as long as I do the right amount of credits, I’m pretty much free to choose whatever modules I like. I’ve stayed in my comfort zone so far, with modules from the department of ‘Littérature française et comparée’, but I also know people who’ve branched out into history courses, philosophy, and even Greek. I think I’ve managed to get a really good mix of modules that relate directly to some of the topics and texts I’ve covered in my course at Oxford, alongside some entirely new topics, and some language classes to keep that grammar ticking over.

I say I’ve stayed in my comfort zone, but even when studying a topic area that’s familiar to me, transitioning to a French university is far from simple! Academic systems are unique to each country, and I already feel like I’m beginning to get a flavour of what French university life is like and how it’s different to England, or at least Oxford, on the academic side of things. At the moment it’s harder to get an idea of what the social side of things is normally like, because there are far fewer social events on campus than there would be in ordinary circumstances. In this respect, though, I’m quite lucky that I’ve chosen to au pair alongside my studies, because it means that I have daily contact with a family, and a homely environment, where I have purpose and a little bit of my own space in the city, which might otherwise be a bit big and anonymous.

Living and spending time with a French family really gives you a sense of the difference between speaking French and becoming French. More so than when I was in Germany, I have the sense that I’m not just learning the language, but am also getting  used to the French, or at least the Parisian, way of life: shopping at the local market, eating well, exploring the city at weekends, and, in a few weeks, heading off to the Alps for a winter break, courtesy of the family I’m staying with. Once the COVID situation starts to improve a little and things open up again, I think there will be even more opportunities to soak up the cultural aspects of Paris, its museums, restaurants and libraries, and I can’t wait to experience the city in summer.

It’s hard to capture in a blog post the excitement that comes when you set up your life in a new place for the next six months, knowing that this is the place you really want to be, and having a stretch of time to do and see everything you want to, make the most of the opportunities thrown your way, and work your way towards becoming, slowly, a little bit more French (or German, or Spanish, or Italian), as you get accustomed to a new way of life and find your place linguistically, intellectually and personally. But it’s definitely been a feeling I’ve experienced on my year abroad, and I hope you do too!

by Beth Molyneux

(Image credits Beth Molyneux)

Dispatches from the Year Abroad: Munich

This week in our occasional series on Year Abroad adventures, third-year undergraduate Beth Molyneux (Lincoln College) reports on her term in Munich.

A visit to Neuschwanstein Castle

I’ve known since I first began looking at universities during sixth form that a year abroad would be a part of my degree, wherever it was that I ended up. It was always something there in the background that I’d have to plan at some point, so it was pretty bizarre when the time came to stop romanticising about possibilities and actually decide where I was going to spend the next year of my life. Studying French and German (both post A-level), I knew I wanted to split my time roughly equally between the two countries, but so far that was my only response to the first question everyone asks after you’ve told them you do a languages degree: “Do you know where you’re going on your year abroad yet?”. I’d been faced with this question since the start of my first year and had a standard response: “I’d love to see the Christmas markets in Germany, summer in the south of France would be a dream, and I’d probably like to spend some time in Paris, but I’m not sure about Berlin.” I really hadn’t thought beyond that. In first year it was easy to dismiss the question (almost exclusively posed by non-linguists) as showing friendly interest but no idea of when you actually need to start planning these things. But once it got to midway through first term of second year, people’s curiosity felt more justified and I started to seriously get my thoughts together.

The summer after my first year at Oxford, I decided I wanted to spend a month in each country to feel more comfortable with spoken language, and I thought it would also be a good chance to try out au pairing (this is when you live with a family and in exchange for a given number of hours of childcare a week, they give you accommodation, board, and sometimes will pay for a language course or a travel pass). It’s supposed to be a kind of mutual cultural exchange, as well as an inexpensive and authentic way to travel, or at least those are the reasons it appealed to me. None of the Erasmus options in Germany grabbed me (for France it was another story, but more on that in my next instalment!), and quite honestly the idea of searching for a family to live with appealed to me far more than seeking out an internship, going through various application processes, and then trying to organise where to stay. I had plenty of friends who were doing this, and it is more than manageable, but having tried out life as an au pair, it seemed the right option for me.

The original plan was to spend some time over summer doing shorter placements, before starting my year abroad ‘proper’ around October, at the start of the academic year, and then splitting my time into four roughly three-month chunks, alternating between France and Germany. But 2020 really wasn’t the year for original plans, and once COVID hit, my summer plans were down the drain. Which meant that I was left with a blank canvas, only one term of second year to go, and a global pandemic raging. For someone who likes to plan in advance, this is not how I thought I’d be starting my year abroad!

Marienplatz

After that everything is a bit of a blur; I started looking seriously at au pairing options and found a family in Munich who were looking for someone as early as July, and, before I knew it, term was over and I was heading to Bavaria for the first time, to stay for 5 ½ months. At the start, getting out to Germany was something of an escape, because much more was open here, which meant that getting abroad was a chance to regain some of the independence I felt I’d lost at home. Independence is definitely a key word for the year abroad – setting up life in a new country really does require you to do quite a lot of things you’ve never done entirely on your own before, although I always felt well-supported by my friends and family at home. With video calls and messages, I never felt too far away, but it takes some adjustment (especially after lockdown) to not having that close network of familiar faces around you day to day. That’s one of the reasons I chose to au pair: I think it’s less isolating than other experiences could be, because you’re living with a family. At the same time, it’s not your own family, and living in a house with people you’ve only known for a few months presents a different set of challenges. 

On the linguistic side of things, I think I’ve been lucky with German exposure. The family talk to me (and amongst themselves) exclusively in German. Having spent some time abroad last summer, the  learning curve wasn’t too steep when I first got here, and I was actually surprised by how well I coped linguistically in my first few days and weeks. I think this is because the German I’m surrounded by is household German rather than any kind of specialised vocabulary. What definitely has improved is my confidence in the language – I trust myself now (at least more than before I came) to judge whether something ‘sounds’ German, and there’s a certain amount of core vocabulary that I now use without a second thought. There are still obviously gaps in my German, but I have the tools to talk around them better after my time abroad. I think I’ve made most progress in day to day encounters in shops and restaurants: when I first arrived these were the kind of conversations I found most stressful – short, functional, often in busy or noisy places (with masks making things harder to understand!) I’d find myself fumbling for the little phrases that come so naturally in your mother tongue. But I quickly learnt that fluency isn’t some magic process which alters your brain, nor is it a snap moment, it’s a steady process of essentially learning to copy other people. As you hear the phrases native speakers use, and notice which ones come up more often,  once you’ve heard something a few times you then feel confident to use it yourself, and suddenly you sound German!

Marienplatz decorated for Christmas

Munich is a really cool city, and I’ve enjoyed exploring it, especially because location wasn’t my main deciding factor. I’ve been able to discover traditional Bavarian culture, as well as some more student-friendly, modern areas of the city, which also has a lot of green space, is walkable, and generally very aesthetically pleasing (this last one counts for the whole region). Munich has served as a great base to explore other towns in the region, and even do a few day trips for hikes and country walks, taking in the Bavarian and Alpine landscapes along the way. Spending almost six months here has given me a view of the city both in summer and in icy-cold winter, and neither has disappointed.

Enjoying my first Bavarian beer!

So I’ve made linguistic progress, I’ve discovered a new city and surrounding region, and I’ve gained practical life skills, but I think the best thing about the year abroad is the pause that it gives you between second and final year. Not only does the pace slow down, giving you time to expand on reading you’ve enjoyed and engage with language in a less academic setting, but it also gives you a chance to do something other than studying for a year. I know that I’ll appreciate my final year at Oxford so much more when I come back after time away, but that I’ll also return having had new experiences which will make my final year at Oxford slightly different to those years when I’d come straight from school. The year abroad gives you the chance to dip into the real world outside of university for a little bit, to get an idea of what you do and don’t enjoy doing, and where you might or might not want to live. It’s definitely more than just a linguistic experience, and for me has managed to balance both personal and academic development.

by Beth Molyneux

Editor’s note: You can follow more of Beth’s adventures abroad over on her personal blog.

Image credits all Beth Molyneux

Dispatches from the Year Abroad: Vienna

In the first in a new series of posts written by undergraduates on their year abroad, third-year Modern Languages student Alice Hopkinson-Woolley (Exeter College) reflects on spending a term in Vienna.

A weekend trip to Graz before lockdown

“Not an ideal year to be abroad, eh?” A question I’ve been met with countless times when people ask what I’m doing here in Vienna in the midst of a global pandemic and one to which I always reply: “Or perhaps it is!”

This year, my third studying French and German, was always going to be memorable – full of novelties, challenges and successes – but given the coronavirus situation, I’m hyper-aware of its transience and this incredible opportunity I have to not only travel but live abroad. Granted, lockdown isn’t ideal when you’re trying to explore a new place, maintain fresh friendships and ultimately, practise German. But after 6 months at home, I came out here so raring to go that I’m pretty sure I did more in the first few, blissfully-free weeks than I would have done in the whole 9 months of my stay in any other, normal year.

My dream to live in Vienna pretty much coincided with my decision to study German at University – I came out here on a school trip a few years ago in December and left with all but a finished personal statement. (Whether the Christmas markets, snow and numerous glugs of Glühwein had a role to play, I’ll never know…!)

Arriving here in early September this year was just as exciting, for I experienced and delighted in the city during summer, then watched as autumn arrived and am now writing by an icy window – winter has properly set in. I was lucky to meet lots of new friends in the first few weeks, through a mix of Erasmus events at the Uni, other language assistants and friends of friends (some of whom are from French-speaking Switzerland, here to learn German, and thus provide me ample opportunity to eavesdrop on their French conversations and learn the odd nugget of Swiss slang).

Coffee and Strudel at Cafe Hawelka

Working as a British Council teaching assistant was the best decision I could have made and although I know it varies from country to country, region to region and certainly school to school, I can relay nothing but positives. Apart, that is, from the horrifically early commute. But then lockdown happened and learning moved online, so really – only positives! Some say it’s futile to be teaching English when I myself am meant to be learning German but the truth is, much more time is spent in the staffroom than the classroom and speaking with the other teachers provides great exposure. What’s more, the job is only 13 hours a week, so really does only take up a small part of my life out here.

So, on to language learning.… Before leaving for Austria I was jovially warned by various tutors and multiple fellow German students: “You know you’ll have to relearn Hochdeutsch for exams after speaking Austrian-German for a year?” Truth be told, I didn’t consider this factor at all when applying and assumed they were just exaggerating, jealous not be spending a year in the land of Kaffee und Kuchen themselves. Although lots of people here do in fact speak Hochdeutsch, initial struggles to understand the dialect left me without train tickets for the first few weeks, unable as I was to make out the ticket seller’s words through both his thick accent and obligatory blue face mask. A couple of months later, and learning new pieces of dialect is a highlight of my daily life here – much to the amusement of the Austrian students I’m living with. Never again will I say “cool” as many Germans do but rather, “leiwand” or even better – “urleiwand” for emphasis! My true favourite however is sadly not that useful in everyday interactions; “Fichtenmoped” (literally, fir-tree-moped) is an upper Austrian word for “chainsaw”. At least it provoked hysterics and won me some cred when I announced my newly acquired word to my students!

My favourite spot in Vienna, at the top of Kahlenberg

It would be remiss of me not to mention the brutal terror attack of November 2nd, the night before our second lockdown. Along with the rest of the population, my friends and I decided to have one final knees up on Monday evening, opting for a pub just south of the city centre. The choice was quick, lazy and barely thought out – we’d been there before, it’s a short walk from the 1st district but far enough that it would likely have free tables. As our final two friends arrived, reporting police on the streets, it was a matter of minutes before the notifications starting coming in. ‘Stay inside and avoid the Innere Stadt’ was the consistent advice.

That Vienna was the target of a terrorist attack is hard to comprehend. As the saying goes, “When the world comes to an end, move to Vienna because everything happens there twenty years later.” Tuesday’s events have clearly shocked the city but (in a clichéd way) certainly united it. The outpouring of solidarity both within the capital and from abroad goes to show how special this place is and that is something which can never be shaken or destroyed. Tributes now stand to the victims in streets I’d walked almost every day and outside pubs I’d sat in just nights before. The newly born motto which has come to express the city’s reaction, summing up the unique dry wit of the Viennese and their fierce loyalty to the city is the phrase screamed in thick Austrian dialect from a man on a balcony to the attacker below: “Schleich di du Oaschloch!” (I’ll leave you to look up the translation for yourselves…) The days following the attack were naturally strange but the city’s response confirmed my admiration and love for this place. Just one day later the 33m Christmas tree was raised outside the town hall and is, to quote Vienna’s mayor, Michael Ludwig “Ein Zeichen des Friedens” (a symbol of peace).


First snow of the year in Stuhleck, 90 minutes by train from Vienna

Austria’s latest lockdown is ending soon and I can’t wait to get back out and explore the city. There are still hundreds of galleries, museums, parks and cafés left on my bucket list, not to mention trips further afield to Salzburg, Hallstatt and Innsbruck to name just a few. A 2020 year abroad was never going to be plain sailing but so far it been pretty urleiwand!

by Alice Hopkinson-Woolley

Editor’s note: You can also follow Alice on her travels by reading her personal blog here.

Image credits all Alice Hopkinson-Woolley.

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.

A year abroad in Jordan

One of the joint degrees we offer at Oxford is in European and Middle Eastern Languages (EMEL). Unlike most of our students, who take their year abroad in the third year of their course, EMEL students go abroad in the second year (the same is true of those studying Russian from scratch). In today’s post Sarah, who studies Spanish and Arabic, tells us about the Arabic part of her year abroad in Jordan.

Only a few months ago, my friends and I went out for our very last meal together in Jordan. We had been there for around nine months, give or take a few weeks, and I think we were all genuinely upset and a little bit tearful to be leaving. It was sad to go, but it also felt a bit strange, given how much time we had spent there, and the many wonderful experiences we had had together in that beautiful country.

Our year in Jordan began in early September, when the weather was still warm and our Arabic still a little bit flimsy. We still spoke to the taxi drivers in formal, fuṣḥā Arabic, the kind of Arabic you hear in news broadcasts and official speeches, but not in the street. But as the heat ebbed away, and the weather turned so cold we started wearing blankets and coats even indoors, we learnt more dialect – both in classes, and through going out in Amman, Jordan’s capital.

At the suggestion of our teachers, we tried mansaf, Jordan’s national lamb and yoghurt dish, at traditional restaurants. We often ate baklava, and the cheesy dessert kanafeh, as a treat on Thursdays (the last day of the working week in Jordan, as it begins again on Sunday). We visited the towering malls of al-Abdali, haggled in the downtown markets and souqs of Wasit al-Balad, felt sophisticated eating cake in classy Jabal al-Weibdeh.

We travelled further afield, to the cities of Irbid and Madaba, to the Red Sea city of Aqaba, to the Roman ruins of Jerash, and of course to Petra and the Wadi Rum. Some of us had the opportunity to visit other parts of the region, and saw the wonders of Lebanon, Egypt and Oman. We met so many kind people, of whom perhaps the kindest were our teachers. They were so generous and shared so much of their lives and culture with us, and we are so grateful. We had so much fun.

I think we also grew more confident, as we were forced to leave the bubble of Oxford. We were living in a different country, with a different culture and a different language that we were trying our best to learn, and it could get hard at times. We had to rely more on each other, and I was so fortunate to share a flat for almost a year with three amazing women, each unique, but all so intelligent and kind. Being abroad built stronger friendships between us. There were ups and downs, highs and lows, but I think we could all enjoy the year so much because we had each other. Soppy, I know, but true.

It was for all those reasons that we felt so sad to leave at the very beginning of June. I was, and continue to be, so grateful for the opportunity we had to live in Jordan for nine months. It is why I am so jealous of the students going abroad this year. I wish you all luck; a little part of me wishes, too, that I was going with you.

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

BERLIN AND THE BRITISH COUNCIL: Notes on a Year Abroad and Teaching English with the British Council

Alannah Burns, a fourth-year Philosophy & German student at Lady Margaret Hall, loved teaching English at a secondary school in Berlin on her Year Abroad. Here she tells us why.

‘Too many choices of what to do on a Year Abroad?! But one obviously stands out…’

Berlin’s ‘Karneval der Kulturen’ (Carnival of Cultures), May 2018]

Nine months. One city. One school. One job. One language.

  • Today, it’s the game ‘werewolves’ in English for Grade 8 at 12pm.
  • Tomorrow, it’s one-to-one English speaking exam practice with Grade 10 at 2pm – this will be the first time they are learning what the exam is really like.
  • This morning it was going through the answers to the English class test from last week with Grade 8 step-by-step.
  • Tonight I’ll have to look up the lyrics to a Disney song and create a gap-fill exercise from it to help Grade 7 students practise listening to and understanding American accents.

For nine months I was paid to assist Grade 7, 8 and 10 English lessons at a ‘community school’ [Gemeinschaftsschule] in Berlin. I worked at the school for just over 12 hours a week (that’s right! Only 12 hours a week minimum and 20 hours a week maximum are required of you!). I did this as part of the British Council’s English Language Assistant programme. This is a very popular choice for those doing a Year Abroad, and I’m here to show you why.

I had never been to Berlin before I started my Year Abroad. I lived in nine different flats in eight (very different) areas of Berlin, for periods ranging from only five days, to four months straight (try doing the maths on that one!). I saw so much of the city this way, and experienced so many different kinds of city environments. I was paid 850 Euros a month for the teaching and (amazingly) never paid a cent more than 500 Euros for an entire flat to myself in Berlin with all bills included… Student life certainly does not get better than that! Teachers I worked with let me stay with them at the start of my time in Berlin, and helped me open a bank account, register my addresses, and find new places to live. The English Language Assistant placement with the British Council is also part of the Erasmus+ Scheme (which most universities are signed up to), meaning that you have access to extra funding and can continue to receive your maintenance loan from Student Finance as usual! I even still received funding, as I do every year, from Oxford University’s Moritz-Heyman Scholarship which is for students from backgrounds with a low household income. Put all these things together and see just how quickly my financial worries about a year of moving to a new country by myself were extinguished!

‘Living abroad for a year?! But how will I finance this?! How will I make friends?!’

outside the ‘Berliner Dom’ (Berlin Cathedral)

Another scary part of spending a year in a new place and new country is how to get to know new people. The British Council run training sessions before your placement which are usually (but not always) in the country you will be spending your Year Abroad. This training lasts for a few days (for which they usually provide you with accommodation etc.) and during it you work closely with the other people from different universities who are also going to be teaching English at schools in the same city/region as you. This means that you know a circle of interesting people straight away who will be doing the same job, and build good friendships with them early-on while learning how to prepare lessons, work with teachers, teach different age groups etc.

Now to the job itself. The idea behind the British Council’s English Language Assistants programme is to foster an environment of joyful learning and incredible cultural exchange abroad, with a native English speaker supporting and encouraging people abroad to enjoy learning English and about English-speaking countries.

My experience was pretty unique: I never prepared my own off-curriculum lessons on British culture (or indeed anything), and never spoke German to the students… Here’s why: Most students at the school were from migrant or economically-disadvantaged backgrounds, with many students having diagnosed behavioural problems or learning difficulties. Some students had weak levels of German, let alone English. Not knowing I can speak German thus encouraged them to practice English with me – great for the students, but not for my spoken German… We followed the curriculum strictly as the students’ English levels generally were too weak to diverge from the textbook with exams/class tests always looming. 

‘You don’t have to be crazy to work here. But it helps tremendously!’

found in the school’s staff room

As an enthusiastic native English speaker, I was told I had become a very valuable asset to this school. I led whole lessons, supported students in one-to-one speaking sessions, ran lunchtime English clubs, explained grammar, produced my own worksheets, and marked tests and homework. This experience was perfect for me as I hope to become an English teacher abroad in future. but my experience was certainly not typical! I know some people who worked at schools in Spain which asked them to teach science or other subjects in English, and others in different countries who were always preparing their own English lessons about British culture or their own background. The teaching experience is what you make of it and what you want it to be. There is always so much scope to talk with your school about what they want to get out of having a lively native English speaker in their classrooms, and what you want to learn from the experience and gain skills in. Every key skill you could ever need to show-off on your CV (such as leadership, teamwork, confidence, independence, reliability, punctuality, commitment, etc.) is what you can gain from this Year Abroad placement with the British Council. I cannot recommend it enough!

After leaving Berlin I gained a TEFL qualification through doing around 250 hours of volunteer English teaching to Polish children/teenagers in Warsaw and London, and German business professionals in Frankfurt. The English Language Assistant programme with the British Council certainly prepared me well for this.

You can find out more about the British Council programme here.

Galician: another way to understand Spain

This post was written by Guo-Sheng Liu, a third-year student of Spanish and Portuguese at Lincoln College. Guosh is currently on their year abroad.

I had assumed a knowledge of Spanish would suffice when I embarked on a three-month long journey backpacking around Spain. I was wrong; I soon realised the importance of regional identities, languages and histories, all indispensable for understanding Spain’s complexities.

Though a minority language, Galician has been worth learning to me. For example, reading medieval Spanish and Portuguese was easier since modern Galician preserves some words now in disuse in its modern siblings. I also feel a connection to the language whenever I read lyric poetry beautifully composed in Galician-Portuguese (also known as Old Portuguese or Old Galician). On the contemporary end, the diversity of Galician dialects and the richness of vocabulary unique to Galician continue to surprise and sustain my interest.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo by Miguel Saavedra on freeimages

While helping develop my thoughts on multilingualism in other places, the sociolinguistic situation in Galicia is, on its own, extremely fascinating. This includes the long, difficult struggle to preserve Galician as well as the great debates on orthography and normalisation (e.g. whether to embrace the hegemonic influence of Spanish) and on the nature of the language (is it the same language as Portuguese?). Galician is at a crucial junction as regards its survival; now is the perfect time to learn it.

Above all, perhaps, Galician is useful for understanding regional identity and history. Although Francoism (and its attendant repression of regional languages) ended decades ago, Spaniards today still grapple with comprehending the full extent of its socio-political legacy. A knowledge of Galician opens new ways to approach themes of collective memory and identity, struggles for freedoms, and current controversies over regional constitutions and politics.

Independence movements and some leftist groups exclusively use Galician for political reasons. And in my time spent in Santiago de Compostela, I have found locals most open to talking about their society when spoken to in Galician. Locals do not expect outsiders to speak their tongue; the pleasant surprise of your ability to do so translates into greater friendliness on their part and a deeper understanding of their society on yours. Galician culture and mindsets are certainly quite different from those of, say, Andalucia or Catalonia.

Compared to Catalan (let alone Basque!), Galician is even easier to learn if you already speak Spanish. This means you can start using the language sooner. The Xunta (regional government) also offers generous grants for its summer courses; I attended them twice for free, even receiving a stipend that covered accommodation.

Lastly, if themes of migration, feminism, independence, cultural identity / history, multiculturalism / multilingualism or ruralism sound appealing, Galician literature and film will be worth the effort of picking up the language.

Oxford has rich intellectual traditions, and Galician is no exception. Our university was the first one outside of Spain to offer Galician studies; language studies are open to all members of the university, while papers in its literature and linguistics are available to MML students.

More information on Galician at Oxford can be obtained at this webpage  or by contacting the the current lectora, Alba Cid at alba.cid@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk