Why are Oxbridge language degrees so obsessed with literature?

As written by Rhys, BA Spanish + Linguistics (First) St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford. Rhys has tutored in schools and privately one to one since 2012. To request Spanish, Linguistics tuition or Oxbridge Admissions support with Rhys, please email or call +44(0)207 3856795.

Oxbridge language courses are a little different to those offered at the majority of other British universities.  Sure, you’ll come out the other side with a similar set of abilities that other universities will provide – strong command of the language prime amongst them.  But that’s not all: it’s undeniable that literature plays a bigger role in the syllabus than in other universities.  Studying at least one period, place, or theme as part of your degree is non-optional (and you will be engaging with a prescribed list of texts in your first year).  This is something which, in my experience, can daunt some applicants.  My argument in this article is simple: it shouldn’t.  Here’s why.

“Analysis and context-building are not really teachable skills – they’re gained through practice.”

I should dispel something straight off the bat, though: literature is certainly not the only thing that you’ll be doing!  Both Oxford and Cambridge offer a range of non-literature options that you can choose according to your abilities, interests, and tastes.  History explorations are possible, as are study of film, or linguistics, or maybe taking up a fresh language entirely (in Oxford, for example, Catalan can be started from second year).  You might also like to consider a joint course, giving you some more variety.  History and Modern Languages is a popular choice at both universities, and Oxford also allows you to officially combine a language with Classics, Linguistics, Philosophy, or (though the question of “why literature” is a moot point here!) English.  Either way, it’s a common misconception that a languages degree at Oxbridge means nothing but battling with Borges, grappling with Goethe, or dealing with Dante.  Far from it.

But having said that, as anyone who has picked up a prospectus will know, literature does get more of a place in the sun at Oxbridge than at many other universities.  This is not an accident, and nor is it a hangover from a time when books were the only option.  To my mind, there are three reasons why this is the case.  In no particular order:

1) Pleasure.

Literature is designed to be enjoyed.  Now, hear me out.  It can be easy to forget this if, as is the case for so many students, your memories of “studying literature” mostly comprise being stuck in a classroom, in an uncomfortable uniform, as you are dragged unwillingly through The Merchant of Venice, Carol Ann Duffy, or Oliver Twist (I still shudder at the last one – it’s an unpopular opinion, but I just can’t stand Dickens).  The good news is that, if you’re at A-Level or considering a languages degree at Oxford, those days are already over.

Schools are somewhat trapped in a bind, and it’s an understandable one.  English (including literature) is a core subject, especially at GCSE level.  Consequently the aim is not to approach the texts as something to enjoy in their own right; the aim is to get students high marks in an exam.  This sucks much of the joy out of the subject.  If you’re a student of literature at A-Level, you already know that it doesn’t stay that way forever.  With age and maturity, you are given more freedom to deal with the text in your own way, to approach it as a human and not as an exam-taker, and to actually have fun while doing so.

At university, enjoyment of literature is emphasised.  Part of this comes from the small-group nature of how you are taught.  When there are fewer students, it’s way easier to go straight to personal impressions of the text.  The other part of this is the flexibility you are given in terms of what you study, at least in the final two years of the course (the first year is a little more rigid, see below).  I took a deep dive into the literature of Spanish America, for example, especially the short story form.  That was what got me excited, but I know of other people who got equally into texts in Yiddish, or medieval French poetry, or a host of other topics.  You don’t need to know what these topics are yet – far from it!  Part of the joy is trying things, seeing what you like, and latching on as hard as you can.  There are few places like Oxford or Cambridge that can give you such an ample chance to do that.

2) Literature does not exist in a vacuum.

It’s not possible to study, say, Shakespeare in English without needing to know a little about the world Shakespeare lived in.  What was society like?  What was happening in the world around Shakespeare that might have influenced what he wrote about, how he presented characters, and the themes he discussed.  Literature in a foreign language is exactly the same – only better.

There’s a word for this: context.  The context of a work of literature helps you to navigate the content, to understand the time and place in which a text was written.  The problem with context – or the good thing, depending on your point of view – is that there can be a lot of it.  Even more so with a foreign language text.

Almost all students come to university with an incomplete conception of what, say, the “French-speaking world” looks like.  I’m not going to pretend that a university education makes that picture complete.  On the contrary, it often makes the real world even more complex!  But that’s part of the fun.  Knowing more about the history, culture, politics, economics, and geography of a language always makes that language even more addictive.  Well yes, obviously, you might say.  It’s all well and good to learn about the history of, say, Imperial Russia – but what are you supposed to do with that information? 

This is where literature comes back into play.  It is the anchor that holds all this context together – the place where you can analyse, apply, and evaluate what you learn.  Knowing more about context will enrich your study of a text – and studying a text might well prompt you to go and find more context.  It’s a virtuous cycle. 

Some of this contextual knowledge comes from lectures.  But not all of it.  It’s often said that contact time with tutors and lecturers in Oxbridge is relatively low – and that’s true.  But it’s not neglect.  It’s space for you to think and explore independently – which is far more valuable in the long term.  Speaking of long-term value …

3) You learn how to read.

The subheading above might sound silly and flippant, but I promise: I am completely serious.

You might have heard of the phrase “transferable skills” as being an upside of an Oxbridge-style education.  It’s a bit of a cliché.  There are lots of interpretations and questions about what that phrase means – so in explaining myself, I’m going to stick purely to literature and what it teaches you to do.

There was a time when it was said that the need to understand text was a dying art.  Some day, it’d be all videos and speech-recognition, and the need for textual analysis would be gone.  I don’t think so, and you probably don’t either.  First of all, have you ever talked to Siri or Alexa?  They’re a bit rubbish, aren’t they (I don’t allow them into the house, let alone talk to them)?  Text has had a resurgence … and it’s here to stay.  But that’s a bit superficial.  Let’s go a little deeper.

University study isn’t just about critically interpreting texts (which is an important skill all by itself, by the way) – but also about justifying those interpretations.  It’s done in an oblique way, through essays and through seminars and tutorials/supervisions – but the good news is that, in all that time, your skills and abilities are being built up.  Dealing with text is a huge part of life – and you’ll get good at this.  Really good.  And not just for literature, but for everything.  Persuasion, writing, negotiation, analysis, evaluation, and more – there are few fields where you won’t find a use for these skills.  The catch is that they’re not things that can be learnt in isolation – nobody takes or offers persuasion classes.  They come piecemeal, through trial and error – and the good news is that, via studying literature, you’ll be doing it the entertaining way.

So, with that in mind – what can you do to prepare?

Oxbridge are aware that these skills are not necessarily something that you have kept sharp in your final years of study (though, for a strong candidate, sharpening them should be part of your preparation during the application process).  You might not be studying English Literature or History, for example – which is where a lot of those analytical skills are honed (that said, they are popular choices).  The amount of literature with which you engage if you sit, say, the IB, is variable.  For candidates taking UK A-Levels, it is possible that your school will only expose you to two texts (or one text plus a film).  It might not feel like a lot, but that’s no problem in the context of applying for the course.

This is why (as mentioned in point 1) first year is a little different.  It’s more structured – the texts you’ll study are chosen by the university, and you’ll work on them together with your tutors.  There will almost certainly be accompanying lectures as well.  Students arrive at university with varying levels of familiarity with literature, and with different experiences.  The Universities know that, and part of the purpose of first year is to give you the basics – both of how to analyse different kinds of texts, and of the aforementioned context.  This might sound initially like a return to the boring old days of literature classes – but it’s not.  The tutor-student relationship is different, as mentioned before, and that makes the process both more engaging and rewarding.

So, since part of the objective of first-year study is a crash-course in literary analysis, currently studying literature isn’t so necessary.  That’s not to say, though, that there aren’t things you can do to make yourself the most enticing candidate possible.  You do need to demonstrate some literary ability through what you put on your personal statement and (for Oxford and for many Cambridge Colleges) in written work submissions.  You will also almost certainly be presented with a literary stimulus at interview.  If you happen to be studying English or another literature-based subject, the tools you’re using there will be equally applicable here.  If not, the responsibility is a little more on you to sharpen those tools independently.  Though in either case, reading in the target language (follow your instincts – you know what you like) is something of a must as part of the application process.

There is more to say on that subject but, for brevity, it’s going to have to stay outside the remit of this article.  For now, the main focus is that yes: Oxbridge does emphasise literature.  It’s not just because they think it’s a good use of time in its own right (which it is), but because it’s a tool for other things.  Analysis and context-building are not really teachable skills – they’re gained through practice.  There’s a reason that honing these skills via literature is a time-honoured tradition: in short, it’s because it really, really works.

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