Oriental Studies

Sophie Dowle

I was a super keen linguist at school. I knew I wanted to continue studying a language, but I wanted to take a challenge and try something new. I wanted to really get behind the headlines, and actually understand the events in the region, as well as their context. What I enjoy most about my course is the constant challenges and subsequent rewards! My best experience of studying Arabic and Islamic studies was my year abroad! Jordan is an amazing country, and my time here has been full of amazing experiences and memories. It’s a cliché, but it was a life changing experience!

Sophie, Pembroke, 4th year

I decided to study Oriental Studies because I was always intrigued by the complexity and beauty of the Devanagari script (the script Sanskrit can be written in) and I was eager to explore its rich culture and traditions through its extensive literature.

I enjoy the breadth of the subject – though it seems quite intense to read texts without any formal classes in History, Religion, Philosophy or Linguistics, you learn so much about all of these topics through reading the literature – and that is always an amazing experience when you find out something new in an unexpected place!

I love the support system that my college offers, and the way both the college and the department go out of their way to ensure that you have all the help and support you need, should you need it.

Tara, Balliol, 4th year
Rory Weaver

I knew that I wanted to study languages, but thought that European language degrees were a bit too literature focused for me. Chinese looked like it would be a useful language with an interesting history course, and it certainly hasn’t disappointed! I love the variety of the course – in my third year I’ve read travel diaries, ancient philosophy, and ghost stories in classical Chinese, taken interpreting classes, and written essays on a huge variety of topics, as well as starting to learn Korean.

What has my best experience of studying Chinese been? Ordering books into the library from Oxford’s central archives, going to pick them up at a reading room and being handed something scanned from original Chinese court records, and having the language skills to understand it.

Rory, Pembroke, student from 2012

Reading a more obscure subject at Oxford is a totally different experience from being in one of the bigger courses. The courses Oxford offers in European and Oriental languages vary vastly in terms of how many undergraduates they take in across the university, and Turkish falls well on the smaller end of the spectrum. As a Turkish student, your first responsibility is to acquire complete fluency in the language of Europe's rising power, particularly in preparation for your year abroad in second-year (most likely spent in Istanbul), both through the intense grammar practices and speaking instruction of the first year. Besides the language, there are both history and literature requirements. With Turkish history comes a unique vantage point in understanding the Middle East, Islam, and the roles that tradition and change play in a modern society; with literature, exposure to a writing tradition of amazing depth and antiquity. Turkish is a challenging language to learn but it’s also very rewarding.

The small size of the Turkish course gives it a number of unique dynamics. Generally, it is an asset because of the familiarity and informality characterising relations with your tutors, and they will make an effort to tailor your instruction to your interests. My year abroad afforded extraordinary opportunity to experience Turkey in depth, but the most memorable moments were during the Gezi Park riots, which went on for days, sometimes right underneath my window. I saw a popular uprising at close quarters, marched in the crowd that reclaimed Taksim Square, and had the smell of tear gas permanently imprinted in my memory.

Conor, Wadham, student from 2011

Egyptology is a three-year course in which you study the language, history, literature, art, and material culture of the ancient Egyptians. In your first year, you study Middle Egyptian (starting off with grammar and then moving onto texts) and the history and civilisation of both Egypt and the ancient Near East. After that you study Art and Architecture and Late Egyptian as well as an additional subject (this can be another ancient language or “Archaeology and Anthropology”). Finally, you learn Old Egyptian as well as hieratic (cursive hieroglyphs) and get the chance to handle actual artefacts in museum classes in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. You also narrow down your studies to a particular topic that then makes up the material for your dissertation.

I’ve always loved learning about ancient civilisations and their languages. Hieroglyphs weren’t easy to start with but I’ve really enjoyed the challenge and it’s a fascinating language to get to grips with. With three hours a week one-on-one with an expert, it gets much easier to pick up. Studying the ancient Near East has been eye opening; it gives you a broader understanding of the ancient world and the key players that enables you to look at Egypt from a different and intriguing perspective. The highlight of my year was the “Behind the Scenes” trip to the British Museum. They took us to see all the artefacts that they couldn’t display upstairs – there was stack upon stack of sarcophagi (mummies included!), statues, papyri, and pots.

Ellen, Univ, student from 2012

For Oriental Studies, you study the language, literature, history, and culture of a Eastern hemisphere civilization. To apply, you must choose between Arabic, Chinese, Egyptology, Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Hebrew Studies, Japanese, Jewish Studies, Persian, Sanskrit, and Turkish. (There are also some additional options within these languages.) Some are three-year courses, others are four with a year-abroad in second-year.

Arabic and Islamic Studies

Arabic and Islamic Studies and Arabic with a subsidiary language follow the same course until the third year.

In your first year the Islamic Studies side aims to give you a general introduction to the Middle East and essay writing. Throughout the year, you’ll cover Islamic History (pre-Muhammad to the present day), Islam, an introduction to Islamic Literatures (Arabic, Turkish and Persian), various cultural topics and a bit of Linguistics.

Your second year is spent abroad (currently in Jordan). In your third and fourth year, the two courses split. You all do modules in classical literature, modern literature, history, and religion. IS students then pick two more specialist topics and write a dissertation. Subsidiary language students have an optional dissertation and subsidiary language classes.

The wide breath of this degree is so exciting. People study some really interesting specialist topics as well as fascinating languages (some aren’t offered anywhere else for undergrads!) Unlike almost all other universities, we take the plunge and do our year abroad in second year, so our Arabic gets good quickly! Then, we can work with really challenging and exciting texts in the third and fourth year.

What helped inspire your love of the subject?

I’d always recommend reading the Panchatantra – it's the Indian equivalent to Aesop's fables, and to me, it is simply magical and a wonderful way of accessing and appreciating the literary tradition!

Tara, Balliol, 4th year
Sophie Dowle

"Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing" — it's difficult but an inspiring read, and a great introduction to women and gender in the region.

Also "Orientalism" by Edward Said and "A History of the Arab Peoples" by Albert Hourani.

Sophie, Pembroke, 4th year
Rory Weaver

"The Search for Modern China" by Jonathan Spence is a great (and readable) introduction to how China came to be the way it is today.

Rory, Pembroke, student from 2012

Tell us about your interview?

Sophie Dowle

Interview 1: Oriental Institute (30 minutes). I was given a short passage on the Muslim Brothers. I had to read it and then summarise it. It was from the 1950s, so we then discussed how their role had or hadn’t changed. For the rest we mainly discussed my personal statement and elaborated upon the points I’d made. I had written about a feminist writer so we discussed her and her views on women and choice of language (she wrote in French). We also discussed translation (I had discussed the problems of this in my personal statement), and what was important in translation, and did it matter if things were changed through the process. We also briefly discussed comparison of Arabic and Western literature. I was asked challenging questions (such as is language just functional, or can it be beautiful?) but I was guided through anything that I was struggling with.

Interview 2: Arabic at college (30 minutes). We discussed literature and whether it could be useful when looking at culture, events past and present, language etc. This was provoked by my written work; an essay on the Great Reform Act in which I had used a quotation from Eliot. We spent a lot of time discussing the importance of tolerance and prejudice and Western ideals imposed on Islamic customs, and whether these customs/traditions were truly Islamic. We also discussed how I am aware of prejudging and placing Western and feminist ideals on Maghrebi/Middle Eastern situations. Then we discussed how through study of Arabic I wished to overcome this, and “wipe the slate clean, take a step back and then re-evaluate” but also not forget what my morals and ideals are.

Interview 3: Arabic at another college (30 minutes). We began by discussing why I’d chosen Arabic. I studied Welsh for A-Level and we spend most of the interview discussing Welsh language, its modernisation and use, why I’d learnt it, what I thought about its modernisation and also the role of the media in its modernisation and the role the media play in promoting and keeping it alive and relevant. They asked how (linguistically) Welsh had been modernised. They then spoke about a language that is related to Arabic which has undergone similar changes.

Most of the discussions were prompted by what I had written in my personal statement, so make sure you know this inside out, and have read everything you mention, and have read around all of the subjects.

Sophie, Pembroke, 4th year

Applicants that might be offered a place are invited for interview in December.

Find out more

Course length: 3 or 4 years (depending on whether your language has a a year abroad)
Students per year: 45
Typical weekly contact time in first year: 2-3 hours lectures, 1-2 hours tutorials, 10 hours language classes

Make sure you read the official prospectus entry for the course which contains entry requirements, full course structure, additional interesting resources and full details of the application process.

If you're going to apply, you'll want to check which Oxford colleges offer this course.

You might also find it helpful to hear from students studying Classics, Modern Languages, Theology and Religion or History of Art (or even consider applying for those courses!).