How my subject helps me in life: French Literature

Gide, Flaubert, Racine, Sartre, Beauvoir, Villon. For many people these names are remote, or even entirely unknown. They might make you think vaguely of obscure French poets and philosophers, long dead and consigned to musty libraries, but they are not likely to frequent your modern life.

For me, these writers represent the four years of my life that I spent studying French literature at university: hours upon hours reading, translating, attempting to understand their works, in lectures, in seminars, in tutorials, in the library, on the bus, in my bedroom at 2 am in the morning; hours of frantic revision, even tears in the bathroom between examinations. They were four long years of toil. And yet, what have I really gained from those four years? I’m not an academic and I’ll probably never need to know or talk about these people. They rarely crop up in conversation. I’ve never been asked about them in any job interview. What was the point?

Despite this, I do feel that, in some small way, I am better equipped to understand the world and cope with it. Studying each author, you realise that each one has a slightly different take on the world; each one perceives and represents reality differently, according to their environment and their own individual psyche. One author perceives the inherent comedy in the human condition, another chooses to depict its tragedy. When you’re faced with so many different visions of reality, which is the ‘correct’ one? Studying multiple authors makes you confront the truth that there is no one absolute reality, only personal interpretations of it. Whereas before I perhaps held much more dogmatic views about the world, I now have a much more nuanced view of things and a willingness to consider other viewpoints. I’m much less likely to dismiss them as ‘wrong’.

I’m also much more aware of how language is a powerful tool in its own right, something which has a role in shaping rather than just reflecting reality. Certain beliefs and norms are inscribed in our language and imposed by it; one of the most obvious examples of this is how the default pronoun in English and French is ‘he’, reflecting society’s assumption of male dominance. Women and other minority groups, it can be argued, are disadvantaged by the fact that language does not represent them equally: it is much more difficult to assert your power when the very language you speak also speaks of your marginalisation. Exploring topics like these has given me a better understanding of political issues surrounding language, whether it’s the controversy around the correct terminology for trans-people, disabled people or people of certain ethnic groups. I’ve become more sensitive about using the correct term since I realised it’s not as petty as I once thought it was; words are power, and they do make a difference.

There is also the knowledge that however bad I might sometimes feel, sometime, somewhere, someone has felt the same as me and they have written about it. A knowledge of literature gives you countless examples of humans getting to grips with living in an imperfect universe. If I hear a friend complaining about their boyfriend’s relationship with his overbearing mother, I think of how Racine depicted the Emperor Nero’s struggle for psychological independence from his mother Agrippine in his 1669 play Brittanicus. Victor Hugo laments the death of his beloved daughter; Césaire wrestles with the legacy of colonialism; Sarraute muses over the fickleness of memory; Annie Ernaux grapples with gender and class. There is something for everyone. Perhaps this is the most important thing that literature has taught me – whatever your problems, you are not alone.


Languages like Spanish can open up whole continents to the traveller (Latin America’s Argentina and Mexico are highlighted here).

Whether you are 18 or 80, or somewhere in between, deciding to learn a new language could literally be life changing.

It’s great to be able to go on holiday and converse with the locals. However, this is far from the only advantage of language learning. Here is a list of reasons for booking onto that language course today!

1. Learning a language can be a fantastic tool in defeating stress, anxiety or depression. If you’ve ever felt that things were getting on top of you, or felt overwhelmed by negative thoughts and feelings, you’ll appreciate how difficult it is to pick yourself up and keep going. Spending some of your spare time learning a language can be a welcome distraction from your worries, as it forces your brain to focus on the task at hand. You can also use language learning as a means of reaching out to others in your local community, perhaps meeting others learning the same language.

2. It can actually make your brain bigger!
Yes, you did read that correctly! The Guardian recently reported on the results of a Swedish MRI study on language learning, with Alison Mackey reporting that the ‘MRI scans showed specific parts of the brains of the language students developed in size whereas the brain structures of the control group remained unchanged’. This suggests that the benefits of language learning on physical and mental health are drastically underestimated.

3. It can help to keep you sharp in your old age!
Many studies have suggested that those who learn languages and keep their brains as active as possible will experience a much slower decline in thinking skills as they age. Some reports have even suggested that language learning can slow or alter the onset of dementia.

4. Learning a language can help to advance your career.
Whatever industry you are working in, learning a language can help you to reach out to clients or customers on a much wider basis. In addition, if you can add good knowledge of a second language to your CV, employers will be able to see that you are self-motivated, intelligent and have a strong work ethic. Even if you are not using the language directly in your work, every employer wants their staff to have those attributes!

5. It can equip you with better life skills.
Finally, as a more general advantage, the methodical approach that is taken to learning can be applied to your home life and career. Making lists, setting goals, and researching and reading are all skills that can benefit you for the rest of your life.


Here, Norwegian is being celebrated in Germany

Since 2001, at the initiative of the Council of Europe and the European Union, the European Day of Languages has been successfully celebrated every 26 of September across 47 member states. The three main aims of such an event are stressing the importance of language, learning in order to develop intercultural understanding; promoting the vast linguistic and cultural diversity in Europe, and encouraging lifelong language learning.

There are 24 official languages, 5 semi-official, 39 minority and 27 sign languages in the European Union (European Commission, 2006). English is the most widely spoken language and, according to The Guardian (2014), the UK is in the top five countries where people are least likely to be able to speak any foreign language.

In order to mark this event, thousands of activities took place in schools across the EU. For instance, at Bridgwater College, a tertiary college in the UK, an international lunch was held. Students and staff have been able to taste a veritable European menu from its restaurant, including Italian meatballs with penne, Greek gyro, boulangere potatoes, Danish braised cabbage and Belgian waffles. The Spanish students created posters to highlight the importance of learning languages and also gave away copies of the booklet 1000 palabras en español, which was created by them last October in order to support the 1000 foreign words challenge which urges the UK population to learn at least 1000 words in another language ( ).

• European languages day official website:

• European and their languages, European Commission, 2006.

• Most Europeans can speak multiple languages. UK and Ireland not so much, The Guardian (published on Friday, 26 September 2014).

• Students take part in 1000 words in Spanish project (published on Friday 8 November 2013)

• Vocab Express Competition 2014


By Itziar Simo Arroyo

Itziar is a Spanish tutor with Oxford Home Schooling

What initial conclusions about the future of GCSE exams can we draw from the mountain of documents which Michael Gove and the Department for Education released last week? And who will the winners and losers be if these proposals come to pass in their current form?

There is no doubt that the new exams will be harder and more “academic”. If not a return to the degree of difficulty posed by the old O-level exams, these new outline specifications match the difficulty and depth of the current IGCSE (International GCSE) specifications set by Edexcel and the Cambridge board. The message seems to have been: take the best of the current IGCSE specs and call it a GCSE instead.

The subject advisers seem to have taken this brief quite literally in most of the core subjects. It is perhaps most clearly seen in Mathematics, a subject in which the IGCSE specifications already require a number of skills that have been beyond the scope of the GCSE Maths syllabuses for 25 years but which are fundamental to AS level Maths. These include function notation, kinematic problems, set notation, rates of change and Venn diagrams, to name but a small sample of topics. There they are in the new drafts in bold print. This is IGCSE Maths by another name.

Most topics are not in bold print, implying that the boundary between what is now the GCSE Foundation and the current GCSE Higher levels is set to shift. Vectors, formerly to be found in the GCSE Higher level requirements, appear in plain text here, including the multiplication of vectors by a scalar. Some maths teachers may need to go on a refresher course to master the required skills!

Similar principles underlie the Science draft. Not only will the individual specifications require considerably more depth of study, as they do in today’s IGCSEs, but the Combined Science qualification will be the equivalent of two GCSEs, not one, just as it is today with IGCSE Science but not GCSE Science. The simple principle behind GCSE Science is to take one-third of the Biology specification, one-third of the Chemistry and one-third of the Physics, while IGCSE takes two-thirds of each of the respective individual subject specifications. The new proposals unashamedly mimic the IGCSE formula.

If this means that all candidates will now face a choice between tackling the new Double Science GCSE or leaving school without any formal recognition of their achievements in the sciences, there will be huge numbers of schoolchildren who fall in the latter category. While the old “everybody passes” philosophy of GCSE had its disadvantages, do we really want to stigmatise a whole generation as incapable of taking and passing the “simplest” of the new science specifications?


Children who are educated at home are unfairly denied access to examinations, according to a report in today’s Daily Telegraph.

This is not really a new story. Some home-schooled candidates have always found it time-consuming and awkward to locate suitable exam centres to take their exams for GCSE or A-level. But the Commons Education Committee has now said that it is “not reasonable” that some young people are struggling to sit national tests. It calls for a duty to be placed on councils to provide access to examination centres.  It also asks for examinaton fees to be met from public funds. We are happy to endorse all those proposals!

As Graham Stuart, the Committee’s Chairman, says: “Everyone else gets to take GCSEs and home-educated children should do so [for free] as well.”

These are welcome sentiments and time will tell whether they lead to genuine change. But they ignore the more fundamental problems of GCSE examination entry for the home-schooled, namely the need for all candidates to produce controlled assessments (coursework) in most of the main subjects, including English, History, Geography, languages and all the science subjects. Controlled assessment (as the government has defined it) is not possible for home-learners on distance learning programmes like the ones we offer, so, whether the costs are met or not, our students simply cannot take GCSE exams in these subjects.

Four years ago, Oxford Home Schooling fought hard to preserve GCSEs which were genuinely accessible to home learners, but the government rejected all our pleas. As a result, most of our students now take International GCSEs (IGCSEs) rather than GCSEs, an equally valid alternative but confusing for many families. And now those IGCSEs must call themselves “certificates”, not GCSEs, which also leads to marginalisation and confusion.

There are moves afoot to re-introduce exams (at age 16) which do not require controlled assessment, possibly based on the current IGCSEs, and such a development would be welcome news to thousands of home learners and their families.

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