Tag Archives: year abroad

The Estonian Sauna

On the blog this week, French and Beginners’ Russian student, Catrin, tells us all about the wonders of the Estonian sauna, and her experiences of using them while on her year abroad last year.

The Estonian sauna is a weird and wonderful place.

Photo belongs to Catrin Mackie

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, our Beginners’ Russian cohort was told we would be going to Tallinn instead of Yaroslavl’, which had been the destination of choice for decades. I had no idea what to expect from Russia’s small north-eastern neighbour. Tallinn truly surprised me, and one of the things I miss the most is cold water swimming and the sauna culture that accompanies it. My favourite Russian word that I learnt on my year abroad was моржевание (morzhevanie); a specific, one word translation for “cold water swimming” or “winter swimming”, that comes from the word “morzh” meaning “walrus”.

Tallinn is a coastal capital, sitting on the shores of the Baltic Sea, which meant any ‘morzhevanie’ I would take part in would be, well, baltic. I was sceptical. However, when told that the Estonian way was to swim in the freezing cold water and then run straight back to a cosy, boiling hot sauna, I was more convinced. The ritual of the trip to the sauna became part of my life in Estonia- a friend and I went every Sunday through the winter swimming season, which lasts from the beginning of November through to the end of April. Estonians and the international community alike can buy season tickets for their favourite sauna for a discounted price, much like football fans would do in the UK.

Sauna culture in Estonia is sacred. There are approximately 100,000 saunas in Estonia for a population of 1.3 million. In the capital, it may be a somewhat trendy novelty that tech employees and Erasmus students dabble in for the period of their stay, but a more traditional kind of sauna, namely the “Võromaa” smoke sauna tradition in southern Estonia, has warranted cultural heritage status on the UNESCO list. It is part of a wider Russo-Scandinavian sauna tradition, with slight variations from Estonia to Russia to Finland to Sweden to Norway. Some of the most burning questions include: is it a wood-burning or a steam sauna? What sticks do you hang in the sauna to hit your body with to increase circulation? Should you wear a little felt hat to regulate your body temperature or not? And, for the sauna fashionistas amongst you, what colour should the little felt hat be?  

A testament to its cultural heritage and importance, saunas are now being delivered from Estonia to Ukranian soldiers on the front lines of the war by the NGO “Saunas for Ukraine”, and the movement is garnering support online to send more. It has provided battalions of the Ukranian army with a place to wash, convene, and boost morale. The modern Tallinn sauna is part conference room, part cool hangout spot, part extreme sport training centre. During my first trip to the sauna- a repurposed small shipping container in the trendy, harbourside Kalamaja district- it was full of people who were attending the same technology conference which didn’t officially start until the following day, but business discussions had clearly begun as they scurried as a pack between the sea and the steam.

In the following weeks, we became regulars and noticed that the French embassy in Tallinn ran a group trip to the sauna every week; a mixture of diplomats and NATO soldiers who challenged each other to stay in the freezing sea as long as they could (one soldier managed 8 minutes!). I heard friends conversing in Estonian, Finnish, Russian, English, Spanish, French and Portuguese (that was just on one Sunday afternoon in mid-January). The sauna was a very international space, and a great place for cultural exchange.

Photo belongs to Catrin Mackie

One of the most memorable conversations we had was with two of the chattiest Estonians my friend and I had ever met (Estonians are famously quite reserved), who, upon hearing that I was Welsh and a Welsh-speaker, immediately asked “can you tell us that really long Welsh place name?”. I obliged before even thinking how incredible it was that two Estonians knew about the name of a tiny village, which happened to be my grandfather’s birthplace, on the complete opposite end of Europe. In exchange for my consonant-heavy declaration, we were told an Estonian phrase that was made up almost entirely of vowels- “on the edge of the ice” in Estonian is “jää-äär”.

On other visits, the sauna was completely silent, and a place for meditation and reflection. Desperate not to miss our habitual “ice swimming Sundays” on a trip around Scandinavia, we found the most intense group of cold water swimmers in Kemi, Finland (a mere hour outside the Arctic circle!). The sea was completely frozen over. The sauna was boiling hot, and very quiet.

The relaxed nature of the cold-water swimming community in Estonia eventually left me wondering: what kind of place would the world be if all diplomatic and political negotiations happened in saunas?

– Catrin Mackie, French and Russian student

Montreal, the forgotten Francophone city?

In this week’s blog post, current French and Linguistics student, Josh Winfield, talks about his time in Montreal, a trip funded by his college. Over to you, Josh!

Photo by Josh Winfield

In March 2022, I was lucky enough to secure a travel grant from my college (St Hilda’s) to go to Montreal for 10 days. This blog aims to recount: what I found in Montreal, both from a touristic and student point of view; why I would recommend Montreal as a potential location for the year abroad; and to explore how Oxford colleges can help with course-related study trips.

If you were to look at the last ten years’ worth of year abroad archives, you would not be blamed for thinking that France is the only option for this exciting part of your degree course. When writing this blog, there were only a few students in the archives who had gone elsewhere. Whilst France is the potential obvious choice, considering its proximity to the UK, and the focus of French language courses on metropole French, I will aim to highlight some of the many advantages of Montreal as the location for your year abroad, or at least to inspire you to travel there as a student of French!

I have been interested in the French speaking region of Canada for a long time, particularly Quebec, using the question over its sovereignty as the focus of my Independent Research Project for my A-level French exam. However, I had never had the opportunity to actually visit it. When I started my course, I was shown the extensive list of bursaries that Oxford students could be eligible for, and as one of these, the travel grant (which is not just a Hilda’s thing, many colleges offer travel grants1) This generous funding allowed me to journey to Montreal, and paid for my accommodation. There are many funds available for undergraduates, with different colleges having differing amounts available, but for course-related travel, a well thought-out application is normally quite successful.

The language of the region

The breath-taking interior of the Notre-Dame Basilica. Photo by Josh Winfield.

This is obviously one of the most important factors in the choice of the year abroad location, especially how much you are able to use it and learn.

Montreal, and the broader Quebec region are quite unique in the fact that they are both officially bilingual. And, whilst the news and nationalist politicians might make you believe that the speaking of English is minimal here, this is contrary to my experience, in fact the city operates as a melting pot for both French and English communication. 26%2 of the Montreal population acquired neither French nor English as their maternal language, and both Spanish and Chinese are commonly spoken here, making French a lingua franca amongst speakers. This phenomenon means that it is very easy to use French in day to day life, and that there is no presupposition as to which language you are going to speak. When I was there myself, at least 80% of the time I was greeted in French and spoken to in French as if I was a native speaker. This makes it very accessible for learners, and gives you the confidence to use the language more often.

Furthermore, the dialect in Quebec is very interesting (particularly for me as a Linguistics student too!). The accent is not only different to the standard metropole French in terms of pronunciation and slight lexical differences, but it is also not unusual to hear (even native French speakers) switch from French to English in a sentence for certain words, and even phrases. Despite the difference, after a few days there (and some YouTube videos) I got used to this, and didn’t have any trouble understanding people.

Worth considering too, is that the written language is almost exactly the same, making signs and menus easy to read for French students. What I have just discussed about the language may be off putting to some people , particularly the presence of English, but as a student with a disability myself, I am comforted by the fact that in a worst case scenario, doctors, hospital staff, and the majority of the public speak and can understand English. (Plus all the visa applications can be in English which is a huge bonus!)

The atmosphere of the city

One of the many green (or white!) spaces in the city. Photo by Josh Winfield.

Despite the fact that the city was just resurfacing from years of strict COVID regulations when I visited, the city life was still vibrant. There is a plethora of restaurants, night-time activities, sights to see and museums. At every turn there is something historically fascinating to see, an amazing piece of architecture, or just natural beauty. With a thriving Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal and International Quarter, Montreal defends its position as one of the most diverse cities in Canada.

The city is passionate about inclusion and diversity3, and feels very safe, with the Economist naming it the 4th safest city in North America4. There is also a large Gay Village, which hosts many aspects of LGBTQ+ life, including Drag Shows and Montreal Pride. As well as the city life, or is worth mentioning that Montreal has some beautiful natural areas. In the centre of the downtown, Mont Royal (the city’s namesake) occupies a near 700 acre park, boasting beautiful views of the entire city. All around the city there are green areas, allowing you a break from the city feel of Montreal.

Travel and pricing

City view from Mont Royal. Photo by Josh Winfield.

Inner city travel in Montreal is cheap, easy and fast. Operating on three lines, the majority of the city is only 15 minutes away from a metro stop. For a one way journey it was (when I visited) $1.60, $3 for a return. The metros are clean, open and easy to use. I used it the whole time I was there, and found it easier than the tube in London. In more general terms about cost of living, the city is of equivalent cost to Oxford and London pricing. However, when you take into consideration the exchange rate, the cost of living is not necessarily something to put you off (I also did live like a tourist for my time here – residential areas will no doubt be cheaper). With a student visa, most people are allowed to work up to 20 hours whilst studying which can help with the cost of your time there.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, with three excellent universities5, a welcoming accessible environment to speak and learn French, and an exciting and different city life, why not consider Montreal for at least part of your year abroad (or perhaps a shorter trip with a travel grant!).


Footnotes:

1) https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/fees-funding/international/scholarships-exchanges

2) http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2006/as-sa/97-555/table/A7-fra.cfm

3) https://montreal.ca/diversite

4) https://www.jechoisismontreal.com/fr/vivre-a-montreal/vit-on-en-securite-dans-le-grand-montreal/

5) https://etudes-au-canada.net/liste-des-universites-a-montreal/

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Yaroslavl, photo by Joseph Rattue

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

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

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