Should I: Study Modern Languages at Oxford?

Hi everyone, and welcome to the second article in the “Should I?” series. The university admissions season has settled into that quiet period between the arrival of the offer letters and the final exams that determine your grades, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is completely at peace. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of soul-searching among holders of MML places (Modern and Mediaeval Languages) at Oxford, and so I thought I’d give a comprehensive overview of the course structure and the features that set it apart from similar courses at other universities.

Everyone is different and wants different things from their university degree, which is why it’s important to be aware of what you’re getting into before you rock up in Freshers’ Week. It’s also important to bear in mind that at a place like Oxford, tiny class sizes and huge variations between colleges make for a totally unique experience for each student, meaning that just because a certain writer for The Tab absolutely loathes her course, doesn’t mean you will too. Of course, that means that a lot of what I’m about to say will vary for everyone else in my year at Oxford, so I’ve tried to remain as general as possible. (This might get quite long, so grab a snack and let’s get going!)

Key Features

  • heavy focus on literature
  • tiny class sizes
  • lots of choice in second and final year
  • very little to no coursework/continuous assessment
  • lots of work!

The Basics

When you study languages at Oxford, you have a mixture of lectures, classes, tutorials and seminars.

  • Tutorials: 1 to 4 people
  • Classes: 4 to 16 people
  • Lectures: depending on your course, paper, and who feels like turning up, anywhere from 1 to 70+.

I haven’t had any seminars yet, so I can’t comment on them.

Tutorials are usually held in a college while classes can be at a college or at a central faculty building.

For each tutorial, you will be assigned a piece of work (usually an essay) which you either have to complete and submit in advance, or bring along to the tutorial, depending on the tutor. You then spend the hour discussing your work, the ideas presented in your work, how you could improve it, other approaches to take – it varies. Of course, it sometimes goes off on a total tangent for the whole hour, too. None of these essays count towards your degree mark. Lots of people hate this as they feel like they’re putting in work for nothing, and it means that exams are far more intense as they can count for 100% of your entire degree mark – and the exams aren’t spaced out over the year, either! They’re in a short period of time in the summer. There is the option of doing a thesis and/or a special paper that requires coursework to ease the pressure slightly, and lots of people jump at the chance to spread out the work a little bit. I personally like the system as it means I can be far more adventurous and wacky in my essays, as if my ideas crash and burn it literally doesn’t matter, but if I knew my tutorial essay counted towards my degree, I’d probably be less eccentric and tone it down to what I knew worked. This would be a shame, as some of my best work has come from some of my weirdest ideas! That said, if you struggle with exam pressure and prefer continuous assessment, this is probably not the environment for you.

At the beginning of every term (not your first one obviously!) you have something called Collections, which are basically really annoying mock exams that cover everything you learnt in the previous term. You might have language, you might have literature: basically whatever your tutor feels like. I dislike Collections as I hate revising, hate spending six hours in a room in silence (although once I was allowed to wear my headphones, which was nice), and hate having my hand fall off at the end of it,  but I suppose they are useful in encouraging you to retain the information you had to learn at great speed the previous term. When you have such long holidays (6 weeks, 6 weeks, 3-4 months!) it’s easy to forget everything. That said, you don’t normally have Collections at the start of second year, because you’ve finished with first year exams, but if your tutor is evil (like mine), you’ll still sit a language Collection to make sure you haven’t magically forgotten how to translate over the summer! I was treated with great astonishment and pity when I turned up as the lone second year to sit a Collection after the summer holidays…

The nice thing about having lots of tutors is that you’re monitored quite closely. My tutors always ask at the end of my tutes if everything is alright, I’m encouraged to speak to them when I have problems, and we generally have a much closer relationship than my friends do with their lecturers or supervisors at other universities. We also get funny little reports every term and have a meeting with either the Head of Languages or the President of the College at the end of term to sum up how we’re doing. If you have a tutor who is notoriously hard to please, it can be quite a pleasant surprise to hear them praise you in that meeting!

Also – before we proceed – yes, the course has a huge amount of literature. This can be reduced a little, and I know people who went to Oxford either not realising how much literature they’d have to study, or who were pressured to go, despite knowing they’d rather go elsewhere, who managed to negotiate it so that they studied lots of linguistics, film and things like Catalan. If you know that you really detest lots of literature, then going to Oxford just for the reputation isn’t worth it, in my opinion.

Course Structure – Prelims

For those who don’t know, I’m in my third year reading German and Spanish at Magdalen College, Oxford. (Reading just means studying.) Being in my third year means I’m abroad right now, and am writing this from my room in Madrid. I’ll be coming back to Oxford in autumn to complete my fourth and final year.

Broadly speaking, the course in Oxford is divided into three main parts. Prelims (short for Preliminary Examinations) are what you work towards in first year, so everything in that year is self-contained. Your marks at the end of the year do not count towards your degree – you just need to pass with 40% to continue – but they may bag you scholarships, so it’s still important to work hard.

At Oxford, you don’t really do modules – you do papers, and for Prelims you do four papers for each language if you’re doing two. (If you’re planning on doing Sole, which is just one language, you do things like film and philosophy to replace the other language.) Papers 1 and 2 are language papers: Paper 1 for Spanish was a translation from English into Spanish and then some grammar sentences that we also had to translate. (They checked for things like use of the subjunctive.) Paper 1 for German was a reading comprehension split into different parts and then mini essays. Paper 2 for Spanish consisted of two translations from Spanish into English, and for German there was one into German and one into English. To study for these, we had translation tutorials every week and language and grammar classes (which weren’t in college but organised by the faculty). I was exempted from the German grammar classes and often failed to attend the Spanish ones (oops) but my in-college tutorials were compulsory, so I usually had one translation of each language to do every week. I learnt a huge amount in every translation tutorial I had but particularly so in German, as we used to do exercises like sight-translation which really kept us on our toes!

A key difference between German and Spanish, which is on its way to being rectified, is the presence of a Lektor, who is like a language assistant. Every week for German we would have a class with our Lektor – again, there were only four of us in the group – where we would read and analyse news articles, have debates, learn about slang and geography, and generally get as much language practice as possible. For Spanish, we just had the single grammar class once a week, where the group was often much larger and the dynamic totally different – the class moved far quicker and it felt more impersonal. I know that designated oral classes were introduced last year due to the lack of language practice in first year, but I’d need to ask someone in the year below me whether they were any good.

Literature made up Papers 3 and 4. For German, we studied four novels and four plays (all from 1871-1933), including Die Verwandlung, Effi Briest, Im Westen Nichts Neues and Frühlings Erwachen. During term, we had to write an essay on each text and perhaps one or two on multiple, while in the exam we had a wide choice of questions: I think I wrote two essays on multiple texts and one essay focusing on one work alone. We also had to study two of the texts in even greater detail — Thomas Mann’s Mario und der Zauberer and Bertolt Brecht’s Die Maßnahmen — as they were the texts selected for commentary. Commentaries are annoying at best and devilish at worst, as they involve being given an extract of the text and basically having to write about it: why it’s important to the text, what is special about this section in particular, and so on. Of course, we also studied poetry throughout the year: every week, I was assigned a poem from the anthology to make notes on and present in my tutorial. Even though it was extra work, I was very pleased with my tutor’s approach, as I knew all the fifty poems (I think) pretty well by the time of my exam, whereas students at other colleges had only rushed through the poetry paper very briefly.

The Spanish side was similar: we had fewer texts to study but covered them in more detail, usually writing two tutorial essays for each text. We studied a play and a novella from the Golden Age (16-17th century), a poetry collection by Antonio Machado (early 20th century) and a novel about the Dominican Republic published in 2000. We had to study all four of these texts for commentary. Of course, we had a poetry paper too, which was dedicated to the Spanish ballad form throughout time, from mediaeval writing in the 15th century to the Golden Age, right through to Lorca in the early 20th century. While in German we studied the poetry alongside the prose or plays, in Spanish we devoted an entire term to the poetry. In both languages I enjoyed the range of poetry we did, as it was a bit of an introduction to all the different areas of literature up for choice the next year.

We don’t have any oral or listening exams in first year, but I think those students doing ab initio languages do. Again, it varies so much from course to course!

My workload in first year was usually like this every week:

  • 2 2500-word literature essays (yes, every week)
  • 2 translations (these took maybe a couple of hours each)
  • 1 poem to research, read up on and present
  • Grammar work and/or a short translation for Spanish
  • 1 practice essay or a presentation for my German oral class
  • 8 – 12 contact hours a week

No, I’m not really sure where I found the time either! Every week at Oxford is the same in that you usually have never heard of the topic when you receive your essay title, but by the end of the week you’re an expert.

At the end of first year you start choosing your papers for the rest of your degree, which brings me on to…

Course Structure – Finals

Finals consist of second and fourth year and the exams that come at the end of your degree. Unlike other courses, we don’t have exams at the end of second year, meaning that you somehow have to remember everything you learnt at the beginning of second year (aged 19) all the way in the summer of final year (aged 22). The argument for this is that your general writing skills will be so much better in final year and so you’ll do far better in the exams than you would if you sat half of them in second year, but most of us just find it annoying. It’s like a shadow looming over you on your year abroad, reminding you that you should be reading.

The way you choose your papers is kind of complicated and changes hugely with each course combination, not forgetting the funny rules like having at least one pre-modern literature paper or one linguistics paper or something. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just say what I’m doing.

Again, you have two language papers per language. Paper 1 usually contains a translation into your language and a longer essay, where you’re encouraged to bring in as much of your previous course knowledge as possible. I currently find the essay pretty intimidating, especially as you’re somehow expected to have a ridiculously high level of writing in the foreign language (in German, we were told to think FAZ levels, which is terrifying), but I’m sure it’ll be fine…somehow. (Actually, I find the entire prospect of Finals terrifying, so let’s just move on.) Paper 2 often contains two translations into English, and these are much longer and more difficult than the ones for Prelims. The structure of classes and preparation for these papers isn’t markedly different from first year, except we have one extra Spanish language class alongside the grammar and translation (which has helped a lot and is pretty enjoyable), and for German we have two separate translation tutors: the German native speaker takes us for translation into German, and our regular tutor takes us for translation into English, which means we get intense practice for both. Again, in Spanish it’s pretty lopsided and so my friends and I feel quite unpreprared for translation into Spanish, so we’ve asked our tutor to focus on that next year.

For some reason, we also had random extra language classes in German last year, where we had to sign up to at least one seminar-style class on pretty strange topics, like geography and short-story writing. (I guess this is how Americans feel?) While I enjoyed the individual classes, I found the concept really annoying as it was yet more work on top of everything, and so in my second term I demanded to be exempt from the classes. In first term I took a class on the book Siddhartha, which was frankly awesome, and in third term I took a class on current affairs. (It may have helped that I had a bit of a crush on the tutor I had for both classes…) The latter class in particular was good for language practice and discussing things that weren’t rhyme schemes and symbolism for a change. I don’t know if they’ve gotten rid of the classes since I’ve been abroad.

In German oral class, we also did year abroad prep: writing CVs, learning about flat-hunting, etc. I would have loved something similar in Spanish at the time, but it turns out it’s pretty self-explanatory when you get here. There are oral and listening exams in fourth year but these were mentioned twice in the whole of last year, with the general stance that they’re not too complicated and we’ll be fine. Yay?

Then for literature I had to choose two papers for each language, and each paper spread across two terms, so a lot of work was involved. First, I chose a period paper, which is where you study lots of works from a specific period of literary history – in German I chose the Modern paper, which is everything from the late 1700s to the present day, and in Spanish I chose the Early Modern/Golden Age paper, which is the 1530s to the 1690s. I completed the first half of each paper in the first term of my second year, and am doing the second half when I come back. I think splitting the paper this way is a good idea, as it refreshes your memory when you come back, but not everyone chooses to do this. Splitting it was my German tutor’s idea, but most tutors are really flexible and work around what you want to do. You normally do eight essays in total, then choose five topics from these to revise for the exam, then end up writing about three, but my German tutor was once again a bit evil and has made us do ten instead of eight, which meant six essays instead of four in that term.

After the period paper, I chose a Special Author paper, which is where you pick two authors you want to study in greater detail, and spend one term on each. For German I chose Goethe and Mann, who both come under the Modern period, and for Spanish I chose Cervantes and Gongora, who come under the Early Modern period. It’s totally not necessary to make all your eras match up, but I wanted to make life easier for myself! I haven’t completely finished these papers as I was very ill in second year and missed a few essays, but it’s not the end of the world as you only write one essay on each author in the exam, I think. This pretty much goes to show how little exams matter at Oxford, in a way: you might think it’s pointless doing so much work for just one hour-long essay at the end, but the emphasis is not on learning for the exam; it’s on doing so much reading and writing on these authors because you enjoy it and want to learn everything for your own sake.

In first year, you stick with your main tutor for pretty much everything: translation, poetry, prose, plays, but for Finals, you see tutors who are specialists in your field. That’s one of the things I like most about Oxford: I’m treated like a mini academic who is allowed to ask to be taught by a specific professor if they’re available, and my tutors do everything in their power to ensure I’m taught by the best person for the job. My own German tutor had actually thought about how my personality would work with a very well-known don who taught Mann, and decided I would fare much better if she taught me herself. When it’s just you and the tutor (and most of my tutorials last year were one-on-one, which seems intimidating but is actually great fun!), chemistry is so important: I ended up really not enjoying one half of a paper because not only was the material pretty dry, but my tutor was (despite being a lovely person) also quiet and very reserved, which didn’t make for the lively, sparky tutorial discussions I’m used to.

The last thing I get to choose is a Special Subject, which you study in the penultimate term of your final year usually. I’ve chosen Advanced German Translation, as it’s a break from all the literature, and translation theory is something I’m interested in studying. It’s also portfolio-based, meaning one fewer exam for me next summer!

Academically, I really enjoyed last year, as I was able to choose virtually everything I wrote about. I had worked really hard to improve my writing in first year, and that effort really paid off, as my tutors didn’t have to spend ages working on basic flaws with me. It was like a huge academic adventure, and not having exams meant tutors were incredibly flexible about illness, rescheduling, etc. We were told very seriously that the work we put in in second year would affect how easy it would be to catch up in final year, and while I do feel nervous about having to remember how to write after a year away, it’s comforting knowing I have very good essays to revise from.

My workload every fortnight in second year:

  • 2 3500-word literature essays (tutors are usually flexible about word limits; I just write a lot!)
  • 4 translations (again, these took a good few hours each)
  • 1 huge chapter of vocabulary to learn
  • 2 pieces of work for German oral class (e.g. a chapter to read, an article to present, etc)
  • 1 piece of work for Spanish oral class
  • 8 – 14 contact hours a week.

Course Structure – The Year Abroad

There isn’t a great deal to say here that I haven’t covered in my earlier blog posts, apart from the fact Oxford enjoys chucking you into the deep end, saying “You don’t need practical language skills! You’ll learn them in your year abroad!” and as much as I hate them for it, they’re kind of right. If you do have any specific YA questions that I haven’t covered in my post about planning it here, then do ask! Bear in mind that ab initio learners go abroad in their second year, and some Classicists have two years at Oxford after being abroad instead of one. The course website is usually pretty clear on this point.


Yeah, it’s a lot. I have really high academic standards and so in the summer of first year I turned into one of those people who never comes out of their room, and that doesn’t seem to have changed. (Which is why the year abroad has been a fantastic break!) I do cook from scratch, which ought to count as a significant hobby as it takes a lot of time, helped run the #OxTweet project during first and second term of second year, and during the third termI sat on the Women’s Campaign Committee and ran a Working Group. So, not a great deal. I’m hoping that having my own house and not going home in the holidays next year will mean a slightly more balanced lifestyle where I can get enough sleep (?!) and exercise and blog. Of course, there are people who are JCR President and edit the Cherwell and play netball and lacrosse and produce plays and still go to more lectures than I do, so maybe you should ask them how they do it! The main thing, though, is that I really enjoy my course and my work, and so if I’m sitting up at an essay at 5am, it’s usually because I want to, because I want to make it good. I did struggle with the workload and having poor health last year, and my tutors were usually very good about it (there were a few disastrous exceptions, of course), and I’ve already started speaking to some of them about spreading out my workload next year.

Okay wow, this is about the length of one of my tutorial essays! Congratulations if you’ve stuck with me till the end, and I hope I answered any questions you had – or never knew you had! As always, everyone has a totally different experience, as every course combination, college, and tutor is different, so don’t take this post for gospel that it’ll be the same for you. If you do have any questions, please ask away! I’m always happy to help.

If you enjoyed this, you might like:


4 thoughts on “Should I: Study Modern Languages at Oxford?

  1. Sascha says:

    Wowww. What I got from this article is that I don’t think I could manage studying at Oxford! Massive kudos to you and to anyone who can cope with that workload. But I know that such a busy timetable will really make you love what you do, and that’s the best thing. As a classicist I am now intrigued as to the similarities and differences of studying classics at Oxford opposed to modern languages. (I’m reminded of how my classes in Latin/Greek and French/Russian differed.) It’s always amazing to me that a degree is the same qualification no matter what institution you attended, but the courses themselves can vary so diversely. Cheers for the little insight into Oxford’s program. 🙂


  2. Amanda says:

    Great article! I thought I’d point out for future readers that it’s only ab initio Russian-ists who go abroad in second year. Others (Italian, Portuguese etc.) go in third year as normal.


  3. Jan says:

    Hi! Lovely, informative writing.
    A little question: isn’t it weird that you write your essays in English? you’re actually studying the texts in their original language… but say you wanted to explain a pun or metaphor used in the text… you’d have to use English while quoting Spanish/etc in your essay/tutorial discussion?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s