Tag Archives: why study languages

Why Study Languages?

One of the most popular sessions that we run with school groups is our ‘Why Study Languages?’ workshop. This can be delivered in person in school or here in Oxford during a study day or school visit or virtually, which often has the benefit of reaching a wider audience or multiple classes at once. The session can also involve different levels of interactivity with pupils and can be adapted to different year groups, depending on what is most appropriate and convenient for the target audience.

This session is delivered by staff and students here at the University of Oxford and aims to give pupils greater insight into the importance of studying Modern Languages throughout their school days and hopefully at degree level too. This can be particularly useful for year groups which are approaching their GCSE/A-level choices, as a way of encouraging pupils to continue with their language learning and increasing take up of MFL subjects at these levels.

We address the common misconceptions about language learning, such as the idea that most people speak English around the world.

Our ‘Why Study Languages?’ session usually starts with a short presentation which:

  • addresses some of the myths surrounding the study of Modern Languages and why these may not be true;
  • delves deeper into various aspects of language learning, exploring concepts like linguistic identity and the fundamental link between language and culture;
  • highlights the many skills which Languages students develop thanks to their studies; and,
  • demonstrates how and why these skills open up a truly varied set of career options for linguists.

The presentation can be accompanied by short interactive tasks for pupils to complete based on the topics covered during the session, or can be a standalone slideshow for pupils to digest on their own.

This is all followed by a question and answer session which provides pupils with the opportunity to ask our wonderful current Modern Languages undergraduates what it’s like to study languages at university/here at Oxford, what their own language learning journey has looked like, and anything else they might be curious about!

We’ve had some lovely feedback about this session from school groups we’ve worked with recently. The comments below from our time with Year 9 French and Spanish classes at Bacon’s College, London, made it clear that the session had impacted their decisions about languages moving forward…

From this session, I learned that there are more jobs opportunities than just teaching and translation. This encouraged me to continue to study French in GCSE.

– Year 9 pupil from Bacon’s College

I loved this session I am adamant that I will do a language for GCSE and A-level. Thank you for giving us this presentation.

– Year 9 pupil from Bacon’s College

The pupils also had some wonderful comments about what they’ve learned from the session…

I learnt from this lesson that languages are not just about grammar and vocabulary, and can be used for other uses like learning about culture and etiquettes. I understand how it helps in jobs and studies when we are older. I remember that daily practice is essential to improve.

– Year 7 pupil from Bacon’s College

What I learnt from the talk with Nicola is that to learn a language can be hard at first but if you keep practising, you will be able to speak fluently and that learning a language is important for many reasons like learning cultures.

– Year 7 pupil from Bacon’s College

If you’re a teacher from a state school and you feel that this session might be beneficial in encouraging your pupils to see the advantages of learning languages, please get in touch with us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.

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.

Career Profile: Working for a Charity

Adventures on the Bookshelf always tries to engage with languages beyond the curriculum and, if you’re here, you’re probably already a keen linguist. But if you’re thinking of applying for a Modern Languages degree you might be wondering what career options are available to you afterwards. In the coming months, we will be showcasing some of our recent graduates who have written profiles about their careers since leaving Oxford with a Modern Languages degree. First up is Evie Snow, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in French and English. Evie now works as a Schools Programme Coordinator for the Charity  Wings of Hope, which works to provide free education to children in the developing world. Read Evie’s account below…

Evie (right) with her colleagues at Wings of Hope

I graduated from Oxford just two years ago this summer (2016), and went straight into a Masters in Development Studies at SOAS in London. This really cemented my thinking that I wanted to be in International Development or charity work at some level, and my interest in postcolonial and world history/politics/languages/cultures had already been sparked in several of my finals papers* and dissertation. I then came out of my Masters looking for a job in which I could feel that I was making a direct difference, and that’s how I came across my current job. I manage the day to day running of a social enterprise programme for students aged 13-18, who compete to fundraise for the education of children in Malawi and India. This began as an internship, but quickly developed into a permanent position, with the increase in responsibility (and title!) that this entailed. I have learnt an awful lot very fast, and am hoping there is more to come!

Even though I am not directly using my French in my current job, I thoroughly intend to in my next or following role. One of my ambitions is to work in West Africa, where French is essential for most countries in the region. Aside from the technical use of the language, I feel that studying French helped me to spark several strands of learning which have been integral to my professional life so far. One of these was an awareness of other places, other cultures, other ways of thinking; in studying a language you are confronted by a different way of constructing a sentence, and even more so, a different way of constructing the world. Even though you may not realise it at the time, I think that this is vital to broadening horizons in the way people think, not to mention the enormous benefits of being able to have a year abroad! Another of these strands is the ability, and indeed for me now the desire, to compare and contrast situations at each possible stage. When you study a language that is not your native tongue, you are constantly faced with comparison between those, and students who study more than one language are clearly comparing between multiple languages and cultures. Learning languages gives you a mental flexibility which I think is pretty unique amongst the disciplines. This is vital when entering any kind of job, as it allows you to weigh up pros and cons and to balance outcomes efficiently.

Many languages graduates come out of their degrees and feel a sense of failure if they don’t instantly use that language in their everyday lives. I think the skills we have learnt during our degrees are the epitome of transferable skills, so even though each of us may be passionate about our language/languages this doesn’t have to be within the workplace.

I still try to keep with French news, and read French literature. Without having studied French, I couldn’t have spent a month in Italy learning Italian from scratch and pick it up so easily – I may not be fluent, but I can have a decent conversation! Plus, I now have a French housemate, so even though I may not be using my French at the office, I can still come home to chats over du vin et du fromage!

*Finals papers are the exams that undergraduates sit at the end of their degree.