Ever wonder what life would be like studying Languages at Oxford university?
In this series, we asked current and past students what a day in their student life is like. This particular article is all about life as an Oxford Languages student, courtesy of Clare!
My name is Clare, I was a Languages student at St John’s College, Oxford.
I have recently completed my French and Portuguese degree. Although this fourth and final year finished in my bedroom and celebrations were had in my back garden with my parents and sisters, I had two terms in Oxford this academic year just gone, as well as six prior to my year abroad, so I have lots of tips and information to pass on!
What's a language course at oxford like?
I studied French at A Level and I started Portuguese from scratch as a second language to do with the French that I already knew (fairly well) and I have absolutely no regrets! In Oxford, we call a language from scratch an ab initio language – ‘from the start’ in Latin.
The course is a mixture of oral, grammar, translation and essay in the language to develop vocabulary and the linguistic side of things, and literature, philosophy and cinema based on the pre-determined first-year choice and your subsequent option choices. The common view of a language degree at Oxford is that it is literature and essay-heavy – and this is totally the case. It is not at all wise to apply if you don’t enjoy reading books – and there are plenty more linguistics or language-dominant degrees at other universities anyway!
The resultant combination of lectures, seminars and language classes, not to mention three, two or one-to-one tutorials on essays written on the literature, etc. gives you around 15 hours a week blocked in on your timetable. The rest is yours to spend working on submissions in the library (the Taylorian Institute faculty library is spectacular!) or wherever else suits you. There is plenty of extra support available when you start a language from scratch, such as a pre-sessional course the week before Freshers’ Week during which you have a whistle-stop tour of the new language and its grammar with your new course mates.
Extra activities in the Languages course at Oxford
The year abroad is probably a discussion for another time, but there are plenty of options for work and study in your target language (Oxford helps you sort all this out!) and I definitely finished the Portuguese part of my year abroad with a grasp of the language near-equal to that which I had of French.
While in Oxford, there are plenty of ways to get involved with the cultures associated with your languages, such as through the French Society whose popular termly cheese and wine nights attract French natives, language students and everyone in between. Many colleges, such as St. John’s, also have their own language society which is a great way to socialise with other linguists within your college.
I was the president of my college’s in my second year and I had the pleasure of organising a slap-up four-course dinner for the tutors and students complete with multi-lingual guest speaker. It was wonderful to see my passion for all things linguistic play a role in my extra-curricular activities too!
A Typical Day: Life as an Oxford Languages Student
A typical day for a final-year linguist would begin with a morning lecture on literature, film or another essay exam option. These last an hour and some people may have two in one morning but lectures don’t make up nearly as much of a humanities student’s day as they do a scientist’s at Oxford. St John’s is very well placed for accessing the language faculty buildings at Wellington Square and the Taylorian Institute – lectures can be at both of these locations – so I tended to roll out of bed 15 minutes before the lecture started because I am not a morning person!
Depending on what I had on the rest of the day, I would either pack a bag with books to read for my next essay and go straight to either the brand new John’s college library or stay in the Taylorian to work. I found it best to avoid my room during the day so as to duly avoid an accidental nap (!) but also to set mental boundaries between study and relaxation – I wanted to enjoy coming back to my room at the end of a long day.
I would usually have a language class or two in the afternoons, particularly in the earlier part of the week, so sometimes I would take a working lunch at one of Oxford’s many independent cafés close to where my classes were being held. These were either centrally based in the faculty or, in the case of French which is taught in all colleges, in college. Portuguese, being a more niche language, only has a few tutors dotted around the university and there aren’t any based at John’s – but this was never an issue from a logistical or pastoral point of view.
With one tutorial essay a week on average (language students tend to get off fairly lightly in this respect), I would try to spend until 6pm reading or writing in between classes and then take a break for a walk or the gym before dinner. Depending on workload, I would see friends on my staircase to cook in our shared kitchen (John’s is great in that it offers on-site accommodation to all undergraduates throughout their degree) and then return to the college library for the evening before bed, or meet friends from another college at the pub.
A common misconception of Oxbridge is that all-nighters are necessary in order to complete work on time, but I made it the whole way through my degree without ever having to do this! In my experience, it is all about working efficiently and taking productive breaks – and this includes a long enough break to eat, unwind and sleep in the evening!
Final advice: Life as an Oxford Law Student
So, to conclude, a few final words of advice: plan your day well and the work will get done, with sufficient time to get stuck into societies and sport and to sustain a social life on the side. The year abroad will be taken care of during your second year, so look forward to it without stressing.
Lastly, and most importantly pick a second language to start from scratch if you have only one language A Level (or equivalent) but are looking to study languages at Oxford. The course works best when you have a balance of two languages from a timetable point of view and the variety of literatures from two different world language communities, along with the challenges and satisfaction that come with starting a new language from the very beginning comes tried, tested and wholeheartedly recommended.
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