A Life in Languages, Part 4

9. Aug 2019

The headmaster of my school, like all headmasters I suppose, was keen to push people towards the Oxbridge exams. My ego was as susceptible as any to flattery, so when he suggested I try, I was up for the challenge. And so we sat in his study – about ten boys in all – doing the Entrance Exam, which consisted of a general paper (questions like “Why travel?” and “Science or Art: which is more important for humanity?”) and two papers in either language. I still have them in my files to this day, small, A5, yellowing, taking me back to the days before my adult life began.

I enjoyed the exams – as I enjoyed all exams, and soon found myself being interviewed at Christ Church, a magnificent, intimidating space, full of people with posh accents and names like Sebastian and Sophie. A far cry from the screaming seagulls and down-to-earth locals of my working class town.

But somehow I was selected, and so began four wonderful years of studying French and German. Now at Oxford, you belong to a faculty – in this case Modern Languages. And the faculty has a central building, with its own impressive library, and a lecture hall where all the lectures take place, drawing in students from every college.

Because, as you may know, there are 39 colleges in Oxford, and each of them has its own French and German tutors. So you study in your college, have tutorials with your tutor, and go to the Faculty building (known as the “Taylorian” for languages) for lectures, none of which are compulsory.

There are wonderful sides to being at Oxford: the architecture, the atmosphere, the history, the amazing libraries, and yes, the sense of privilege that goes with studying there. But in terms of language learning, it is also desperately antiquated. For a start, you spend 85% of your time studying the literature of your languages, rather than practising or extending your knowledge. That’s assumed to be something you do in your spare time, or in your holidays. We had just a couple of hours a week of practice with a native speaker.

And the literature studies were also solitary pursuits. Your tutor would set you an essay title per week, such as “Flaubert was a social critic as much as a literary author”, and it was your job to read as much Gustave as possible in a week, read the critics, scramble together an essay, and then read it aloud to your tutor, in a one-to-one session, in your weekly tutorial. Whereupon he or she would then loudly declaim on what you had got “right” and where you had strayed from the path of wisdom. 

As a learning method, it was certainly quaint.

The literature studies were solitary pursuits…

I often found myself wondering whether I might have been better off in a more modern university, where you could study Japanese, Portuguese and Klingon in year 1, just to get those language muscles active. But by then it was far too late.

It was only in year 3 that I actually got some practice. Back in those days, year 3 was always spent abroad. Faced with a choice between France and Germany, and well aware my spoken French was better (my German teacher in school had been rather lacklustre), I opted for Germany and spent a happy year working at a school in the industrial North-West. Between speaking German all the time, and being almost the same age as some of my students, I had a great time, and came back pretty fluent.

My French had held up under the competition too, and I was now the proud speaker of four languages. 

Little did I know that a fifth was about to pop up from nowhere.

But that’s for another chapter.

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