It is a common assumption that modern languages interviews are simply designed to test a candidate’s grasp of the language they are applying to study, and that they will therefore focus on speaking and reading in the relevant language. But in fact, although candidates will be given a chance to show off their speaking skills and of course their grasp of grammar and vocabulary is important, their ideas about language, culture and nationality will also be explored, and their responses to these questions are just as vital to their chance of being offered a place. The importance of these issues is made clear by this week’s genuine Oxbridge interview question, posed by Stephen Goddard, of St Catherine’s College, Oxford: “In a world where English is a global language, why learn French?”

Know Your Motivation

Goddard explains that he would use this question early in an interview to try to establish a sense of the candidate’s motivation for learning a language. Asking an interviewee why they want to study the subject they are applying for is one of the most commonly asked, and worst answered, of all Oxbridge interview questions. Many candidates have focused so hard on preparing for rigorous technical questions that this simple and straightforward enquiry can leave them completely thrown. So take some time before your interview to think carefully about why you are so interested in the particular language you are applying to study, and try to come up with some detailed and specific ideas to stand out from the crowd. “I’ve always liked it,” or “I like the country,” aren’t likely to get you very far, but “I’m interested in the way the language reflects the development of … aspects of that country’s culture,” or “the structure and form of the language are fascinatingly different from…” are much better ideas.

Don’t Consider Language in Isolation

Goddard emphasises that the modern languages course at Oxford is broad, with the culture, history and literature of a country being as intensely studied as the language itself. So remember that a language does not exist in isolation, but is a window into these aspects of a country’s identity. In your answers you should consider the connection that language has to who we are as a people, and the ways in which it is able to express our cultural development. A strong answer to this interview question would almost certainly assert the value of learning any language as a means of insight into the heritage and culture of that particular country.

Question the Question

As with previous blogs in the Real Oxbridge Interview series, it is always important to consider the question carefully before you jump straight in to giving an answer. Across all the subjects, it is common for Oxbridge admissions tutors to present candidates with questions that make a particular assertion or assumption, to see whether the candidate will stop and question that assumption before answering the question. In this case, a strong applicant would question the assertion that English is a “global language”. They might argue the case for French also being considered as such, or for other languages like Chinese being more qualified for that description than English. Another way of reconsidering the question would be to imagine the reaction a candidate would have to that question as a French student at a French university- or whether the fact that English as a global language no longer ‘deserves’ study, whilst threatened, or dying languages should receive greater attention.

Above all, remember that although your focus may be on learning a language, you must show yourself to be a rounded, enquiring student who would be equally interested in the other aspects that study of a language entails. Engaging in some philosophical discussion of the nature and function of language may well crop up, so it is worthwhile spending some time thinking about these questions in order to be fully prepared.