A Day in the Life of an Oxford Modern Languages Student
Contrary to what my Engineering flatmate may claim, Humanities students work hard. This is particularly true for Modern Languages students! Between lengthy essays on French literature, prose translations into Italian, and intensive language skills classes, my days are packed.
That’s not to say I don’t love my degree! I have been learning French for many years and enjoying it greatly. I began learning Italian ab initio, or from scratch, at the start of my degree.
At the end of my first year, all of us Italian ab initio students sat the same exams as post A-level Italian students. The idea of this was initially terrifying! How could we speak Italian well enough, after a mere year, to successfully translate a Jane Austen passage into Italian? But, of course we did it.
Developing the language so quickly was stressful at times but also incredibly rewarding and fun. Our tutor was harsh but excellent, and we all laughed through our many mistakes, and rejoiced in her (rare) moments of praise.
That was my first year. Now, having sat my French and Italian preliminary examinations (exams sat at the end of your first year which don’t count towards your final grade), I actually have fewer Italian contact hours, since the requirement to learn the language so quickly no longer exists!
We all have a good level of Italian now. Second year onwards is the time to refine the language and to grow in confidence! Looking back at myself a year ago, I’m astounded by just how much I have improved my languages and my belief in myself. I had no idea I could learn a whole language so fast and attain a good grade.
A Day in the Life
My typical day starts at around 9am, to the sun pouring through my window at Jowett Walk (one of Balliol’s accommodation options for second years). Jowett Walk is only a few minutes away from Balliol College’s Broad Street site on foot, and about ten minutes from the Taylorian, the magnificent Modern Languages library, and where we have our lectures.
Lectures and Study Time
Many of my lectures this year are at around 10am or 11am. For my Finals paper, I chose Paper VIII for French, literature in the modern period, and Paper VII for Italian, the Renaissance.
My French lectures this Michaelmas term (the University of Oxford’s term for the autumn term: October to December) have been on Charles Baudelaire, Romanticism, and Honoré de Balzac. For Italian: an introduction to the Renaissance period, and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. These have all been very fascinating to study, and the opportunity to specialise in subjects that interest me has been especially enriching!
After my lecture, I usually head back to my room to study. In the morning, I can be productive without visiting one of Oxford’s many libraries. When I do make the trip, usually later in the day, my favourites include the Bodleian (AKA the Bod), the Balliol library and the Faculty of Law library.
Studying can range from translating a Calvino passage into English, to reading and taking notes on literary criticism about Zola’s L’Assommoir for an essay on determinism in his works.
A couple of hours later, I make lunch in our kitchen – Balliol students get kitchen access in second year, which I love! – but this differs from college to college. Cooking provides a welcome break from work, and enables me to cook inexpensive and healthy meals everyday.
After clearing up, I usually have around an hour before my next class with our French tutor at Balliol. One of my flatmates (and best friend) studies French with me, so we walk together.
Seminars and Classes
This class could honestly consist of anything! Our tutor likes to give us complex translations that we complete over the weekend, or perhaps an essay on French films. She then marks our work and we discuss our mistakes and questions with her in depth.
As she’s a highly knowledgeable tutor, and also French herself, she often goes into detail in her responses to our questions, which is super helpful. Her tangents into French culture, linguistics and politics are often unexpected but very interesting!
As language classes in French are internal, tutorials differ from college to college. I have a couple of contact hours per week, as well as extra work to complete. We are also always encouraged to watch French films, take in French news, and read French works of literature to independently deepen our appreciation and understanding of the language.
Later, I enjoy going on a walk or run. As a gorgeous city with many green spaces, there are a plethora of parks to explore and enjoy. My favourites include Christ Church Meadows, the University Parks and Port Meadow. I have particularly enjoyed chilly November evening walks recently, especially with Oxford Christmas lights up and ready for the festive season!
If I feel I still have a lot of work to do (which is usually the case later in the week, closer to my essay deadlines), I go to the library around dinner time.
The idea of an Oxford essay is daunting at first, but the tutors are so helpful and you get used to writing them surprisingly quickly. After reading the work(s) on which the essay is based, you have a seminar to get to know the topic better, and to express your thoughts. You’re then given a choice of essay titles and some secondary reading to do.
The most important things are to start writing early (something many people ignore), ask if you have any questions, and plan the essay well! Feedback is very helpful, so make the most of what the tutors say and you’ll improve quickly.
I then have dinner in my flat with my friends. It’s always lovely to catch up with them if I’ve been very busy.
In the evening, we enjoy frequenting the Balliol College bar. Every college has one, but I know for a (totally unbiased) fact, that Balliol’s is the best!
It’s underground, and its walls are covered with a fun illustrated timeline of Balliol’s historic events – Balliol, founded in 1263, claims to be Oxford’s oldest college. It’s also one of the only student-run bars! I think that is particularly cool, and it means you can work in the bar to earn a bit of extra money.
Balliol bar is particularly busy on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and closes later than usual on Fridays and the weekends. It’s always very busy, whether or not people are drinking, especially in Michaelmas term. Seeing and catching up with everyone in the evening is so lovely and fun.
One big misconception I had about Oxford University was that everyone would be extremely intense, ridiculously intelligent, and bound to the library. In reality, everyone is very personable and “normal”. Yes, we work hard and are passionate about our subjects, but we certainly know how to have fun and engage in many other hobbies and interests as well!
This leads me on to briefly speak about the extracurriculars available. Personally, I’m very interested in journalism and media, so I love writing articles for Cherwell, Oxford’s largest student newspaper. You can write on a plethora of topics, whether that be music, news updates or opinion pieces on pop culture. Getting involved in student journalism is made very accessible and rewarding, and it looks great on your CV!
For the sporty, there are also Oxford Blues sports teams, as well as individual college teams, each practising to a variety of intensities. Rowing is very popular here, and it’s a great way to make friends, stay fit, and compete in the Summer VIIIs, which many people flock to see in Trinity term.
In 2023, I was also a Welfare Rep for Balliol JCR Committee. College committees are like school councils, except with more responsibility and lots more opportunities to have an impact!
For welfare, my colleague and I had an important role as a first port of call for any physical or mental concerns students had, signposting to further support available through college (such as junior deans and counsellors). We also put on events such as movie nights each week to improve people’s welfare. A personal highlight was “Pizza and Pimm’s” in Trinity term of first year. We bought pizza and made Pimm’s for so many people on Balliol’s back quad on a lovely summer evening!
There’s actually a lot more I could talk about, but I hope this has been a useful taster of my life at Oxford. Though there is a lot of work, the fun people, beautiful surroundings and variety of activities available make it a very fulfilling and enjoyable experience!
By Keziah Mccann
Keziah is a second-year French and Italian student at Balliol College, University of Oxford. As well as learning languages and travelling, her interests include writing, journalism, film and cooking.
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