I’ve found that over the years, more and more people who follow my blog and, indeed, people who know me in real life ask me what is it like to study French at Oxford University. There’s no simple answer to a question like this as everyone’s university experience is, unsurprisingly, vastly different, and, to a large extent, what you make of it. However, I’m going to try to describe my experiences of the degree as a French sole student and what one might expect if you’re thinking of applying. To do this, I’ve broken down this post down to answer three common questions: How is the course structured? What is the course content? What is the workload like?
For context, I was a French sole student meaning I only studied one language, but two is the norm. This doesn’t mean I got away with only doing half the work, it just means that I did more French literature than the average Modern Languages student. Where others had languages classes for say Spanish or Italian, I ended up studying French linguistics and Medieval French translation. Fun, fun, fun.
How is the course structured?
First of all, all Modern Language degrees at Oxford span over four years and typically the third year is spent abroad in a foreign country. The content that you study in first year introduces you to a wide variety of different authors and genres of literature. The set texts will vary year to year but you can expect to study Racine, Balzac and Beckett to name a few. If you study French sole you’ll study additional modules of French Cinema, French Philosophy and French Literary Theory alongside the literature texts. At the end of the first year, all students sit prelims, which you must pass in order to continue to second year, however, these grades do not count towards your final grade in fourth year. This year is self-contained, so to speak, so you will not be examined on these texts again and can largely forget about them.
In second year, you will choose the modules for the rest of your degree. What you learn in second year is examined in fourth year so it is vital that you treat this year as seriously as your last. However, as this is year is not examined, most people see this as the “best” year of the degree (myself included). It’s very easy to forget that you’re going to need the notes/knowledge you are working on in second year, two years later at the end of fourth year, which is something that came back to bite me in the butt later on.
Third year is the year abroad, which is your chance to really improve your language skills. There are many different options for what to do and where to go during this year and I believe that the year abroad at Oxford is more flexible than at other universities because it is basically entirely organised yourself. Popular choices include: teaching English, work experience or study.
After your year abroad, it’s time to get back to the real world and sit those dreaded finals. As I said, the content you learn in second year is examined at the end of fourth year so forward thinkers (i.e. not me) spend the lead up to fourth year going over what they learnt in second year. The first term of fourth year is usually spent learning more content, much the same as any term of your second year. For most people, the second term is the “thesis” term. Linguistics don’t write theses in the same way that History or English students do, but most people tend to use this term to prepare a piece of work of around 8000 words.
Lastly, comes finals term. The worst term of any Oxford Student’s time at university. For many Oxonians, the most stressful time of their life. (Seriously I’ve lost count of the number of Oxford grads who have told me that nothing is worse than finals so it’s only up from here). Modern Linguists usually sit exams in 5th and 6th week which gives you a decent amount of time to prepare and plenty of time for fun when finals are over.
What is the course content?
One of the most important things to know is that the Modern Language degrees at Oxford are very, very literature heavy. We don’t study any culture or history modules and I’d even say that language classes are somewhat neglected. Obviously studying only one language I had fewer language classes but on the whole I think most Mod Langs students would agree that literature is pretty much the sole focus of your degree until the year abroad. I found that although there were weekly language classes, they were not afforded anywhere near the same importance as literature tutorials and it is very much up to you to make sure that your language skills are maintained throughout your degree.
I wrote a separate post here detailing all the books I read for my fourth and final year at Oxford University, which should give a good idea of the number and the types of books you can study.
What is the work load like?
This is the question I am asked most often and the one I struggle most to answer. Everybody’s experience will be different depending on what sort of person they are and how hardworking they are, but there is no doubt that a huge amount of work is required at Oxford, no matter what subject you study. The biggest problem that linguists seem to have is finding the time to get through all the set texts before term has begun.
Oxford terms are only 8 weeks long, meaning we have very intense, short terms. This also means we get a lot of “vacation” time, but this time should be used to read the texts for next term and is not much of a holiday if you’re a hard worker. If you don’t manage to read the texts before term starts you end up having to try skim read them during the week, which is when you also need to be reading critical texts, writing your essays and doing your language work. It can all be a bit overwhelming if you haven’t managed your time correctly (speaking from experience here, wah). Read more about the number of books I read during my fourth year here.
In first year, I think around 3 literature essays every two weeks would be normal. Language work varies from college to college (more about choosing a college here) but I had about three or four hours of language classes every two weeks and would have to do grammar exercises on a weekly basis as well as vocab learning and essays in French. There are also daily lectures, which you are advised, but not obliged, to attend.
In second/fourth year, the amount of work you do each term will be determined by the order in which you study your papers, which can depend on when different tutors are available. I had a very unbalanced second year doing 12 literature essays in term one and two and 8 literature essays in term three (remember terms are only eight weeks long…). On top of this I had a French essay to do every two weeks as well as general vocab learning and language work. In fourth year, you’ll get even more speaking classes and listening comprehension prep as finals draw closer. Also, each student probably had around 4-10 hours of lectures to attend each week, but these are optional.
In short, I think it would be fair to say that most people had 1-2 literature essays a week (for which you would have to read maybe 3-4 books and several works by critics). Then you had a whole load of language work on top of that including 1000-1500 word French essays on topics such as the representation of war, whether comic books should be considered an art and more. What I struggled with in the final year was that there was lots of language work that required you to have excellent language skills, but there were no longer grammar classes that actually made sure you had those skills. It really is up to you to make sure that your language skills are constantly being honed and perfected, something that a lot of linguists forget until finals loom.
This post has been a lot longer than I expected and I don’t think I’ve really written everything I wanted to say, nor in the manner I wanted to convey it, but I do hope that this will help anyone thinking of applying to see whether the Modern Languages course at Oxford really is for them or not. Please remember that this is an account of my Oxford experience and that everyone who has lived through it will have had different ups and downs. It is a very tough university environment that certainly isn’t for everyone but if you’re passionate about your subject and not adverse to hard work then applying to Oxford is definitely something I’d recommend. You get to meet and learn from the experts in their fields and get a lot more contact time than you would at any other university. I loved studying French sole and it means that now I’ve covered pretty much every period of French literary history and think I have a broad, though by no means extensive, knowledge of French literature.
Are you thinking of applying to Oxford for Modern Languages? Let me know in the comments below and please don’t hesitate to get in touch with any questions!
Find more posts on my Oxford experience here: