“little Angelina wanting to go off and study French lesbian poetry…”
It was that ill-chosen remark by Sir James Dyson just before the admissions interviews two years ago, that got me going. I snorted off a reply to The Times pointing out that, in interviews, we hoped for more than just a sharp intake of breath; Cherwell waded in a few days later! I was at it again recently pointing out the excellent value that a languages degree represents to top employers. As we know, it is certainly more than just learning how to communicate in another medium, tuning one’s instrument to replicate sounds and effects – although that can be interesting. It is an intellectual adventure into unknown territories, ultimately, to become a better person: sharper, more alert, more altruistic; through exposure to another culture and another scale of values. Now, the celebration of the admission of women to Brasenose forty years ago, seems to be an appropriate moment to invite those women who studied Modern Languages, to join me under my banner.
We have pasted below some of the responses from alumnae that seem to highlight that diversity:
‘I am extremely glad I read Modern Languages. It has kept me in gainful employment (as a freelance translator) for over 20 years despite having a son, who is profoundly autistic, and moving 15 times (to an assortment of countries within Europe) because my husband was in the Army.’
Eugenie Pasco (née Milbourn):
‘I matriculated in 1991. Since leaving BNC in 1995, I worked in the city in financial public relations for six years, and then retrained as a teacher. I spent five years teaching French and Spanish in and around London, then moved with my husband and young family to the Dordogne where we lived for seven years. I am now living and working in Bath, where I am teaching again now.
I loved learning languages, enjoyed living in France and enriching my knowledge of the French language further, and now love being able to bring an anecdotal, evidence based flavour into my language teaching.
I haven't changed the world, but I hope that I have inspired some young people to be more inquisitive about the world around them, and open to other cultures and ways of thinking.’
‘I'm a BNC alumna from the relatively early years (1978-1982) when bathroom arrangements were rudimentary and fairly communal. I read French and German. A standard choice for a linguist, but for all four years I couldn't believe my luck that my life circulated around being curled up reading my favourite authors.
I joined the Foreign Office straight after my degree. My career has been relatively modest (I'm still not an Ambassador) but my working life has been fascinating, and spent all over the world. My languages - and more broadly my linguistic training - have been an indispensable tool in every job, whether in London or abroad, and I've added another four Asian languages to my European tally. I'm currently working in Ottawa, a bilingual city, where I've also spoken Thai, Indonesian and German, and in doing so deepened professional and personal relationships. So I can certainly vouch for the usefulness of my degree.
I'm now watching my children launch themselves on the world. They grew up in Paris and then within the lycée system so are bilingual (I well remember the day when my 12-year-old came home shaking his head and telling me that he'd met somebody who DIDN'T think Napoleon the greatest man who ever lived). One of them is using his Russian in the Foreign Office, and the other is travelling in China after a degree in Mandarin. It's great to see the next generation understand the importance of real communication.’
‘If I tell you that when your email arrived I was reading a series of pioneering lecture transcripts, newly published online by the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol (pioneering because these are the very first university lectures on Welsh Linguistics through the medium of Welsh) maybe that goes some way towards answering the question about what I gained from my ML degree? I am a lifelong language-junkie!
Language is about communication; a skill which is fundamantal to what it means to be human, justifiably next on the list after water, food and shelter, it is that important. It enables us to share, plan and implement ideas together, and thereby survive and flourish as a race. Through the study of other languages this capability is extended beyond the confines of our own ethno-linguistic group to promote understanding and cooperation between other peoples. What greater argument could there be in favour of studying Modern Languages in the Age we currently find ourselves? The ability to share understanding with people of different cultures and mind-sets opens so many windows, not only practically in the business and physical world but also within one’s own mind; breaking down prejudices and negative stereotypes, creating more tolerant individuals and engendering mutual respect between nations.
Personally, I have enjoyed periods of living and working in France and Austria (TEFL), I have taught my own children French and German, and have learnt Welsh to a fluent level. Through holiday and travel I have made many life-long friends across the World, people I would otherwise not have come to know. From literature, theatre and films to chatting with people over a ‘Krügel’, an openness to the joys of language and language learning enriches every day of my life.
(Just wish I’d realised all this when I was 20....)’
Deborah Jenkins: (who has a flat in Nice and is brushing up her knowledge of French plumbing vocab, having recently learned the difference between a mitigeur and a mélangeur. Still learning after all these years.....’)
‘European languages have been a tremendously important part of my life, especially since spending four years living in Geneva with my family as a child. I left school at 15 to go and be an au-pair in Germany for a few months, came back to study for A-levels at home with my mother whilst working as a dresser and stagehand at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and came up to Oxford when I was 18. I had always wanted to learn Hungarian since living in Geneva as a child, where my best friend's grandmother had started to teach me a few words whilst inducting us both into the mysteries of Hungarian cooking and embroidery. In my first year at BNC Richard Cooper invited somebody from the British Council to speak at an event in college, and through him I was awarded a travel scholarship to spend part of the summer of that year at what I thought was going to be a summer school in Hungary, but which was actually a big conference on the UNESCO year of the child. To my surprise, I turned out to be the official British delegate. I was met by a chauffeur-driven car and a very nice interpreter who announced that he was allocated to translate my key-note speech. After a slightly panic-stricken night of essay crisis I produced a presentation on the UK school system which I delivered in tandem with a junior minister from the Dutch government talking about theirs.
The British Council also sent me to two real summer schools in Eastern Hungary to learn Hungarian and to a slightly strange but very entertaining month studying traditional Hungarian crafts. My third year was divided between a few months in Paris theoretically studying theatre at Paris III but actually rather miserably spending a lot of time eating in small restaurants by myself and writing morose snippets in my attic room and returning to Manchester to work in the theatre again. After finals, I spent a few months living with my parents in Leeds and learning Swedish at night school, then went to live in Tubingen, where I worked for the German Institute for Medical Mission and held conversational seminars on indo-Anglian (sic) literature and the English novel for a professor at Tubingen university, whilst studying more Swedish. After a year, I was awarded a British Council scholarship to go back to Hungary and lived in Budapest for a year, before returning to Tubingen, where I spent another year, during which, amongst other things, encouraged by my mentors, I joined a semester of dissection at the university's medical school. (My mentors wanted me to study medicine and thought it would be a good idea to see whether I was squeamish. I wasn't, but found studying medicine part-time from scratch in German a step too far.)
Throughout these years I found the experience of living and working with people from different European countries and cultures absolutely enthralling. I regard it as a great privilege to have lived in Hungary before the Berlin wall fell, and to have had the opportunity to get to know so many people of so many nationalities at a time which was a bridge between the memories of the second world war and the enormous changes after 1989. I got used to learning languages quickly and using them to communicate in chains so that people who appeared to have no way of understanding each other could actually connect through snippets and linguistic guesses. I was never particularly academic or politically aware. My interests were local to wherever I was, domestic, and social, bounded by Europe and by personal connection.
In my late twenties I ended up back in England, working in urban regeneration, leadership programmes, and various aspects of public life. For the last twenty years I have worked as a non-executive director and chair in the NHS and running a charity trying to reduce sexual offending, whilst pursuing my other interests through my own consultancy. In the 90s I commuted to and from Sweden and Germany setting up city leadership programmes, with occasional forays into Hungary and the Czech Republic. I had always rather wistfully hankered after a foothold in another country, preferably France, but couldn't see how to fit it into my working life. Nearly 15 years ago my husband and I bought a small flat in Nice and since then we have been able to spend a few days every couple of months working from there, which has been a great pleasure. Once again, I can slip into that wonderful liminal state of being in and out and between several languages, able to talk to people in French or German or occasionally Swedish or Hungarian (terribly rusty now) or even making up bits of intelligible Italian. I have five-year-old twin step-granddaughters who are half German, so that adds to the mix. On my targets for this year is to connect with the health system in Nice to see what I can learn from the way their hospitals are run to apply to my own on Teesside.
Most of the time I live in a market town in rural County Durham, where I am chair of a regeneration partnership. Through that I am a director of a Community Interest Company and we have converted an old car sales showroom into a desperately cash-strapped gallery and café. In a rather Linda Snell/Lucia way I am starting to try and encourage people who have an interest in languages to start using the venue. Who knows, perhaps we can set up connections that will give some younger people the chance to experience the excitement of European languages that has so greatly enriched my life.’
‘I was indeed one of the first intake of women and read modern languages (French and German); I now live in Germany having met my (German) husband at BNC and teach English as a foreign language at an advanced level mainly to adult education classes and in companies, I also do quite a bit of translating from German to English. (mainly university sector e.g websites and press releases). Not much chance to speak French I'm afraid.’
‘I studied English and Modern Languages (French) at Brasenose College, graduating in 2007. The study of modern languages undoubtedly opened up academic opportunities for me; it perfectly complemented my English literature degree and allowed me to spend an unforgettable year studying and working in Paris.
Since leaving Oxford, I’ve pursued a career in public relations. I’ve moved from the private sector to the public sector, and back again. Now heading up a team in a PR agency that specialises in publicising the arts, I’ve also spent time on Whitehall working in one of the busiest government press offices, the Department of Health. Despite settling in London, I’ve found that my French has come in useful time and again throughout my career. I’ve led a press trip of five journalists to Paris for an exhibition opening, I’ve drafted memorandums of agreement in French, and I was the default press officer for international enquiries in the DH press office coming from a Francophone country. On a very basic level, it’s been useful to be able to talk about having command of a second language as I’ve gone through various interview processes- even if you don’t need it every day, it certainly makes you more employable.
Not only has French enriched my professional life, but it has also had such a positive impact on my personal life. I’ve been able to make friends outside my mother tongue, read some of the best literature in its original, and successfully organise a hen do in the south of France!
The positive impact of studying modern languages has continued long after graduation and the happy memories of being an undergrad- it’s definitely a choice I would recommend.’
‘I was at Brasenose from 1984-88 and studied joint honours Modern History and French.
I am a senior partner at the strategy consulting firm, The Boston Consulting Group which I joined straight out of Oxford. I lead our European Consumer and Retail Practise.
I have four children, the eldest of whom, Francesca Hine, is in her second year studying Geography at Brasenose now.
I use French in my work from time to time. The skills I learnt at Oxford, in French literature and History of analysing, getting to the heart of a question etc are ones I use all the time.’
Eleanor Trunkfield (nee Fisher, matric 1994 )
‘I read German and Italian, graduating in 1998. I then completed a law conversion course and trained as a solicitor at Linklaters. At the time, I was swept up in the idea of working for an international law firm, partly with a view to my using my languages abroad. I did do that to a small extent - spending 6 months on a trainee 'seat' in Milan and working on a few Italian financings. It was rather satisfying being able to surprise Italians in business meetings when I could understand what they were saying! But admittedly my use of languages in a business context has somewhat disappeared since then as I have been an in-house finance lawyer at BP since 2006. My use of foreign languages is entirely limited to holidays now but I (as well as my family!) appreciate my ability to converse with people in their native language. I find it a great way to understand better a country and its people. It breaks down barriers between people and it does seem to impress others when they see that you have gone to the effort of learning their language - so much so that I find it very frustrating travelling to countries where I can't speak the language. More generally, a modern languages degree requires and teaches a combination of skills that I think is rare in a degree - on one side, the technical detail of languages and their linguistic history that has a very practical use and on the other side, critical thinking in reading and commenting on medieval and modern literature. I absolutely believe that the rigour of an Oxford modern languages degree has given me important life skills as well as giving me a great opportunity to read classic literature.’
Alice Graham (French sole, 2013)
‘When I tell people I did a modern languages degree, I almost expect the flicker of uncertainty, quickly hidden, that follows this statement. “Oh, so you must be fluent in French”, is the most common offering on the usefulness of my degree. Followed by, “So what exactly do you do now with that?” It is undisputable that studying a language at university does give you a certain level of fluency in it, both written and oral. But it would be shortsighted to view this as the only benefit my degree had to offer.
A year and a half after graduating, I am nearly at the end of a two year law conversion course. Although not directly related, I can honestly say that my French degree has equipped me with a number of transferable skills that continue to be of use. A modern languages degree at Oxford is characterised by its heavy focus on literature. The sheer volume and range of texts you cover imbues you with a certain mental agility and flexibility upon being presented with new material. You cease to be overwhelmed, but rather learn to approach difficult concepts with interest from a variety of angles. This approach is invaluable for the problem solving aspect of a legal career. The role of a lawyer, amongst other things, is to understand the nature of your client’s objectives and evaluate how best to achieve these. Often the answer is not clear-cut. My literature tutorials and essays taught me firstly how to order my thoughts. They taught me how to structure and develop an argument, how to question and analyse, and how to argue my case.
On a more general note, studying the literature of a country gives an unparalleled insight into the mentality of its people and culture. The skill of literary translation demands an appreciation of the nuances of a language that can’t just be learnt. Being able to speak French is something I enjoy. But it is only a small part of what I have taken away from my degree. What it did teach me how to do, was how to think for myself.’
Lizzie Fraser (2006)
‘I now live and work in Hong Kong where there are a lot of French speakers but I don't use the language as much as I would like. However I still find I discuss the literature that we studied quite frequently; the topics (for example love, memory and the passage of time) are applicable to many situations and it means I can add an interesting angle to day to day conversations with friends and colleagues. I also realised out here that my interest in Asia was borne out of my studying Marguerite Duras; I was especially influenced by her texts set in this area of the world.’
Jocelyn Wall (2013)
‘It’s nearly two years since I finished my degree in French and German at Brasenose. Reflecting on my experience, I would highlight three levels at which it had profound impact on me.
First: the languages themselves, the nuts and bolts of grammar and vocabulary, debates between classmates about whether a particular English word conjures up the essence of the original, or whether something is lost in translation. Over the course of translation classes, my ears and eyes became attuned to the subtleties of syntax, punctuation, the art of a well-placed adverb. The lasting legacy is an attention for detail, which serves me well in my current role as a government official, when one misplaced word can spark a diplomatic incident…
Second: the unparalleled opportunity to explore the rich literary and cultural traditions underpinning both languages. I had the freedom to follow my own interests, to specialise in authors from any era – 1610 or 2010 – to go where curiosity took me. This has unlocked doors that will remain open for the rest of my life –Montaigne will be there when I want courage and wisdom, and Fallada when I need a glimpse of human spirit. Modern languages introduced me to a multitude of voices, ideas and perspectives and the benefit will be long-lasting.
Third: the year abroad. I cannot stress enough the impact this had on me. To live overseas, to work, make friends, and gradually transform from foreigner to local in the course of a year, is an experience like no other. I learnt about my own capacity for resilience, about building a network from nothing, about the importance of embracing opportunities outside my usual comfort zone (which may at one point have involved traditional Breton dancing). Berlin and Nantes, my year-abroad homes, are now points on my compass, places to return – and who knows, perhaps one day to settle. Ultimately, the most significant lesson I learnt was to have confidence in myself. I took away the knowledge that determination and a little courage could get me to where I wanted, provided I was prepared to take a few calculated risks on the way.
So if someone asked me today whether I would recommend studying modern languages at Brasenose– it would be a definite yes. This degree offers variety, challenge, intellectual freedom, and exotic opportunity that cannot be found anywhere else. It’s got me to where I am now… and I believe will get me some way further yet. For that I am truly grateful.’
‘I did Classics and Modern Languages from 2003 to 2007 and reap daily benefit in my working and personal life in Belgium.
Having seen at first hand the advantages of a truly bilingual society, I remain more convinced than ever that we should prioritise Modern Languages in the UK education system. Deeper, broader and more flexible thinking guaranteed!’