Reading The World: The Importance of Literature 

Studying literature is a key part of modern languages degrees at both Oxford and Cambridge. Although at first glance this focus may not seem as practical as learning about the history or politics of the countries in which a language is spoken, reading novels, plays, and poetry offers an opportunity for intellectual development which goes beyond factual information. 

The linguistic benefits

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of studying literature when learning a foreign language is that it improves your linguistic abilities. Reading texts in the original language both expands your vocabulary and deepens your understanding of how the language is used; for example, you will gain a sense of how to structure sentences so that your written and oral expression sounds more natural. Furthermore, literary texts present you with more unique and creative uses of language than works of non-fiction do. They introduce a variety of contexts that you may not have previously encountered; for instance, dialogue – or even an entire novel – may be written in a dialect other than the standard one, or there could be different registers of language used throughout the work. Most notably, while non-fiction texts such as newspaper articles are written with a clear intent and are usually not open to interpretation, literature requires you to engage with the text more actively. The use of techniques such as figurative language and multiple narrative voices introduces an element of ambiguity, and analysing such features enables you to appreciate different ways in which meaning can be formed through language. Hence, literature helps you to communicate more confidently and allows you to develop your skills of comprehension and critical thinking.

Broadening of cultural knowledge

However, this is far from the only reason why studying literature can be beneficial for linguists. Literature is also a vessel for culture, as it is likely that authors will have been influenced by their upbringing and surroundings when writing. The cultural environment in which a work has been created will affect the ideas, beliefs, and attitudes which are conveyed in it, even if it is set in another place or at a different point in time. Of course, an awareness of culture not only forms an essential part of learning a language but also broadens your view of the world more generally. When you learn about another culture you also gain an insight into your own; you may come to realise that customs and values which you have taken for granted are not universally accepted, and that your perspective has been shaped by your cultural background. By exposing you to new ideas and opinions which may diverge from your established point of view, literature improves your ability to empathise with others and helps you to become more open-minded.

History through a personal lens

Moreover, literature offers a unique perspective on culture and history, as it depicts aspects of human experience which factual texts cannot fully capture. As noted by Oscar Wilde in his essay ‘The Decay of Lying’, “art is a veil, rather than a mirror”. Instead of presenting an objective picture of the surrounding world, fiction alters it – for instance, through the formation of a coherent narrative, or the inclusion of imaginary elements not found in the real world. Yet, paradoxically, it can be argued that by examining the “veil” or “mask” of fiction we can come to appreciate the essence of a people. The Peruvian novelist and intellectual Mario Vargas Llosa refers to this idea as “la verdad de las mentiras” (the truth of lies) and proposes that through its fantastical nature fiction embodies “the subjectivity of an era”. The stories we tell as a culture provide an insight into our inner lives – our feelings, fantasies, and aspirations, how we see ourselves and how we wish to see ourselves – which cannot be expressed by anthropological or historical data. Thus, reading literature alongside non-fiction can broaden our understanding of a society and culture by depicting not only the conditions of people’s daily lives and the historical events which they experienced, but also how they felt and thought about this. 

In conclusion, it is well worth exploring the literature of your chosen language or languages because it will deepen your appreciation of both language and culture. Great works of literature are thought-provoking, often challenging your preconceptions, and the skills which you learn by reading and analysing them are widely applicable beyond the sphere of modern languages. And most importantly: it’s fun!

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