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Modern Languages at Oxford

By Poddy Wilson

Ask any current Oxford modern languages undergrad what their course is like, and their first response will always be the same: “it’s a lot of literature”. Personally, this was what drew me towards studying French here. During sixth form, my language ability had progressed to a level where I was beginning to look for French texts to read. In preparation for my interview, I read a real range – plays, novels, poetry, short stories – and it was such a necessary exercise for my degree.

My degree is known as French Sole, in contrast to say, French and Spanish, French and Linguistics, or French and History. As a result, we cover a lot more topics in French, some of them quite out there. For my prelims in first year, we spent one term on films (and some of them were a little avant-garde, to say the least), one on French Thought, and one on Literary Criticism. Along with the other French students in college, including non-sole students, I was taught a real range of texts, spanning seven centuries, to give us a taste of which modules we’d like to study. Now that I’ve chosen which exams I’ll take in my fourth year, I’m focussing largely on theatre, with two playwrights as my Special Authors, as well as several plays from different centuries on my period papers, and, as a sole student, I also have a mandatory pre-modern translation paper, so I’ve recently started learning how to read medieval French! The workload – this being Oxford and all – is of course daunting. Every week I study on average three texts, which is a lot of reading, and a big step up from school.

I also have to take several translation papers, which could not be more different from translation in sixth form. On the A-level papers, you’re scored on your accuracy, and the mark schemes are incredibly specific. At Oxford, your translations should read as if they had been written in English to begin with; it is, above all, a creative task. This creativity muscle does take a little bit of time to strengthen, but it is a challenge I’m enjoying more and more. I do find, however, that there’s more of a responsibility for the students to maintain their own grammar ability – Oxford’s not a place to be babied, and you have to be quite disciplined to keep your skills up.

As a second year, I’m currently beginning my plans for my year abroad, which, again, is a little daunting, but I’m excited to think that when I come back from France, my grasp of the language will be incomparably stronger than it is now, and I’ll be able to hold conversations without panicking and scrabbling around for vocab.

If you’re someone who loves dissecting and appreciating literature but wants to be able to do so in their second (and third!) language, I couldn’t recommend a Modern Languages degree at Oxford enough!


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