A Guide To Wider Reading For Oxbridge Language Applicants [PART TWO]


Continuing our discussion of wider reading, this post outlines some further ideas on how you can use extra-curricular reading to enrich your application to study languages at Oxbridge. 


Linguistics is an overarching, umbrella term for a few different academic fields, including:

  • Phonology – the study of sound systems and patterns in languages
  • Phonetics – the study of speech sounds and how they are physically produced
  • Syntax – the study of the formation and structure of sentences
  • Semantics – the study of word meanings/connotations
  • Morphology – the study of word formation; and
  • Pragmatics – the study of context and the use of language.

I would suggest researching these individual topics online and seeing if any of them particularly capture your interest – if so, then dive into that. Alternatively, you could start with a general introduction to linguistics; however, these often tend to be overly technical and inaccessible to the beginner. One helpful book which provides a basic introduction to linguistics for those with no prior knowledge is ‘Linguistics For Dummies’.

An understanding of linguistics can be particularly useful for those applying to study an ab initio language at Oxford, as these students will be required to take the Language Aptitude Test. You can find example tests here. One excellent way to prepare for this is by entering a Linguistics Olympiad (LO). There is an international (ILO) and a UK-based (UKLO) competition (the UK Olympiad is completely free to enter!). Participation in one of these competitions would be an excellent achievement to note down on your application.

Gaining a broader understanding of linguistics and how languages actually work is never a bad idea if you’re planning to study them at university. That said, this should be completely based on your own interest. If you don’t find linguistics interesting, then don’t force yourself to learn about it. It is not necessary, and if you aren’t passionate about it, an Oxbridge admissions tutor will be able to see that. Therefore, I would suggest pursuing the study of linguistics only if a) you are applying to study linguistics at university level, or b) you are genuinely enthused about the subject!

Theories of Translation

Before attending Oxford, I was not familiar with the breadth and variety of translation theories. However, for those considering applying to study languages at Oxbridge, I would highly recommend reading up on the art of translation and translation theories – this is something that Oxbridge tutors deeply appreciate, as translation will make up a significant part of your degree course. Showing an interest in translation early on will present you as a strong candidate.

A good place to start your reading on this topic would be ‘Translation: A Very Short Introduction’ by Matthew Reynolds. For a broader discussion of language, tangentially related to translation, you might turn to ‘Through The Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages’ by Guy Deutscher.

Furthermore, if you are based in the UK, you will be eligible to take part in the Anthea Bell Prize for Young Translators hosted by the Queen’s Translation Exchange. This is a fantastic way to exhibit your passion for languages and translation, and to highlight yourself as the perfect Oxbridge candidate. 


Now we come to my favourite area of language study: etymology, the study of word origins and histories. When you delve into the etymology of words, you embark on a linguistic journey through a variety of interrelated languages, exploring how words we use today have been formed over hundreds, often thousands, of years. You come to see just how many of our words have survived by chance, or come about through mispronunciation or malapropism, or are actually just a nativized form of a foreign word (loanwords). 

If you are interested in learning more about the etymology of the English language, some brilliant books on this include ‘The Etymologicon’ by Mark Forsyth and ‘Mother Tongue’ by Bill Bryson.


While etymology is not directly relevant to the language courses at Oxford and Cambridge, it provides you with a broader understanding of the history of the language and the countries in which it is spoken, while it may also help you to understand the word-formation processes of the target language. 

Word Formation

Most English speakers use word formation unconsciously in day-to-day speech; we are generally aware, for example, that adding ‘re-‘ to the beginning of a word provides it with a sense of repetition, while adding ‘-ness’ to the end of an adjective turns it into a noun, e.g. ‘happy – happi-ness’. 

The significance and usefulness of word formation differs from language to language; the study of Russian, for example, benefits greatly from an understanding of word formation, since its vocabulary largely consists of a few central root words to which various prefixes and suffixes can be attached. In fact, the first year of the ab initio Russian course at Oxford dedicates one hour every week to word formation alone; understanding the basics of word formation, therefore, could highlight a Russian applicant as very well-suited to the Oxford course. 

How Many Books Should I Read?

This depends on the type of book and on the individual, there is obviously no set number that you need to read, but generally you want to have read enough to demonstrate that you have really explored a range of books in your target language, and yet not so many that you won’t be able to analyse and discuss each text in depth.

To give a rough idea, in my personal statement I mentioned seven books (six of which were outside of the school curriculum) for Spanish, some of which were poetry anthologies, some were plays and some were novels. For Russian (which I was applying to study from scratch), I mentioned four books – two of these were literary classics, the other two were language books for beginners. 

What’s The Takeaway? 

The larger part (roughly 70-90%) of your wider reading should focus on literature if you are applying to study languages at Oxbridge, since literature comprises the majority of the course, however, if you want to enrich your application and make yourself stand out as a well-rounded, dedicated and passionate student of languages, then it’s certainly worth mentioning some books or interests related to translation theories, linguistics, etymology, art, film or history, and getting involved with writing or language competitions were possible. 

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