Oxford Language Degree: A Tale of Two Faculties

Katie Kessler compares her experience of studying Japanese within the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies to studying European Languages at the University of Oxford.

If you’re thinking of studying a language degree at Oxford, there are two potential destinations for you: the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages (MML), responsible for all European language study, and the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (FAMES).

The separation of non-European languages from the category of modern languages carries a legacy of Orientalism that used to be much more explicit, as until earlier this year, the FAMES was referred to as the Oriental Institute. One may question the usefulness in continuing the separation as Oxford has done, rather than simply enveloping all these language courses into the general category of ‘Modern Languages’ at Oxford – but the distinction goes deeper than labels. It relates to the philosophy of study at Oxford, and what studying a language as a degree really means. 

Modern and Medieval Languages (MML) Faculty

Studying a European language at Oxford consists of two main components: language study and literature. You’ll spend a lot of time translating texts into and out of your target language, learning how to write academic literature essays and generally using literature as both a language resource, and a means of gaining a richer understanding of the culture you’re studying. This philological approach is not unique to Oxford, but it is nonetheless part of a centuries-old tradition of literature being the primary source of cultural, philosophical and religious knowledge at the university.

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (FAMES)

As a student of Japanese with the FAMES, I had a radically different experience of language study at Oxford. Firstly, Japanese – along with all other Asian and Middle Eastern languages – is taught ab initio (‘from scratch’) with ten contact hours per week dedicated to language study alone in the first year, as opposed to the usual 3-4 hours for most language degrees at Oxford. This meant my introduction to the stereotypical Oxford experience of weekly literature essays and endless amounts of academic reading was comparatively tame: one essay every two weeks, as part of the ‘East Asia Survey’, a series of lectures introducing students to a variety of disciplines focused on China, Japan and Korea, with topics ranging from archaeology to economics.

The purpose of the first two years for students of Japanese (with this applying broadly to the faculty as a whole) is to become as comfortable with the language as possible, aided by the year abroad taking place in the second – rather than third – year, and to gain an overview of the society, so as to start developing personal areas of interest. Literature can be one of these interests, and indeed I personally decided to mostly take literature modules for Japanese, but it is by no means the only route available. For students who are more interested in the social sciences, or other areas of the humanities like history or art, it is quite easy to do a degree in Japanese without writing a single literature essay. What’s more, while an MML degree will have students analyse literature in its original language, in Japanese, outside of translation tasks and the focused special texts study, all textual analysis is in translation.

There are practical reasons for these distinctions. Japanese and other non-European languages are not widely taught in the UK, so students are not expected to reach the level of fluency required to read whole texts in the target language and analyse them until quite late in the degree. This also explains the much higher emphasis on language acquisition over more traditionally ‘academic’ pursuits like literature study. But there is something to be said for the more interdisciplinary approach taken by the FAMES, where literature is not the be-all and end-all of a language degree. 

One could argue that a German degree is structurally and principally more similar to an English degree than a Japanese one. If this is true, it says as much about Oxford’s approach to languages as it does about the ‘othering’ of non-European languages. Their outsider status and relatively recent introduction to the Oxford curriculum has allowed them to bring less traditional approaches, demonstrating all the other possible avenues of studying a foreign culture and language. Dedicated study of a country’s political and economic system, for instance, arguably gives the student grounding in more useful disciplines for finding interesting work in or relating to that country.

“Their outsider status and relatively recent introduction to the Oxford curriculum has allowed them to bring less traditional approaches, demonstrating all the other possible avenues of studying a foreign culture and language.”

While literature and translation remain important tools for language acquisition with the FAMES, the various approaches taken within this Faculty illustrate that we don’t need to rely solely on literature for the purposes of studying a language degree, and that there are multiple ways a student with foreign language interests may want to engage with their subject. Nonetheless, the fact remains that enthusiasts of any language will find satisfaction in a degree at Oxford, either through being exposed to a rich quantity of literature or to a wide variety of disciplines, each headed by a respected specialist in the field. While different faculties may take different approaches, the core principles of an Oxford education are the same across the board: encouraging students to learn independently, to think critically, and to become true scholars of their subject.

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