The study of modern foreign languages was pioneered in Oxford by women’s colleges like Somerville. 

While Somerville is now a college for both men and women, we have maintained our focus on modern languages as one of our most important academic subjects. 


The aim of the course is to make you fluent in speaking and writing, and to get to know other cultures. In your first year you will be taught mostly by your college tutors and language lecturers based in Somerville. From the second year onwards, you will have tutorials with academics all across the university, depending on who is most expert in the particular topics you have decided to study. You will spend one year of your course abroad in a country or countries where your language is spoken, usually as a teaching assistant in a school, an exchange student at a foreign university, on a work placement, or some combination of the three. Somerville places teaching assistants via the British Council scheme, and has excellent formal arrangements for student exchanges with the Sorbonne and Tours; Bamberg, Berlin, Bonn, Freiburg, Heidelberg, and Tübingen; Padua, as well as through the Turing scheme.

We have three full time Tutors in Modern Languages. Professor Simon Kemp is our professor of French, and is currently working on the second volume of a trilogy of academic studies on the representation of consciousness and the unconscious mind in 20th century French culture. Professor Francesca Southerden’s research centres on medieval Italian literature by authors such as Dante and Petrarch, with a particular focus on the relationship between language and desire, and between subjectivity and poetic space. Professor Almut Suerbaum is our Tutor in German language and literature, and her work focuses on the dialogue between vernacular and Latin culture in medieval Germany. We also have a full time Linguistics fellow,  Professor Louise Mycock.

We offer students the opportunity to study French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Czech. You can study them singly (except for Italian and Czech); with another language; or with one of five other subjects: English, History, Linguistics, Classics, or a Middle Eastern Language (the latter subject in combination with French, German, or Italian only). Italian, Russian, German, and Czech may be studied from scratch, as can Linguistics, Classics and Middle Eastern languages.

Whichever language(s) you choose to study, the course will consist of intensive language and literary study through the first year, followed by a very broad range of options in the second and final year, enabling you to follow your interests into modern or earlier periods of literature and culture, linguistics, or other fields including philosophy, critical theory and film.

Somerville was a pioneer of Modern Languages teaching in Oxford and has one of the largest college libraries in the university, with a particular emphasis in its collections on the arts and humanities. The Upper Extension is entirely devoted to modern languages, where we have huge and constantly updated holdings of literature, criticism, language and linguistics for all the languages taught here. The college’s modern languages collection holds around 12,000 volumes in total, and students are free to browse and borrow as they wish. Among the many other fields of the humanities represented in the library, of particular note for modern languages students are the extensive holdings on women’s studies and the visual arts, a film studies section and a selection of DVDs in modern European cinema. The light and airy main reading room, overlooking the college lawns, provides a popular space for our students to study.

We are also, without doubt, the best situated college for the subject: Somerville is across the road from the language centre and right next to the Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities which will open in 2025. Students of modern languages at Somerville can access generous travel grants and scholarships to enable them to experience the cultures they are studying at first hand.


We have one of the university’s largest communities of modern languages academics, postgraduate and undergraduate students at Somerville. Fellows in German, French, Italian and Linguistics are based here in Somerville; we share our Russian and Spanish tutors with the nearby Lady Margaret Hall. All are at the leading edge of their field, with an international reputation in research, and a wealth of experience and enthusiasm in their teaching. We have native-speaker language lecturers, all of whom are contribute to the tuition of the fifty-or-so undergraduates studying modern languages here at any one time.

Some brilliant linguists started or built on their careers at Somerville, including Anthea Bell, the prolific quadrilingual translator of academic literature and fiction including the Asterix comics; Serena Medal recipient Anna Laura Lepschy; and literary critic and writer Enid Starkie, who was awarded the Legion d’honneur for her biographies of French poets. Additionally, Channel 4 show Countdown’s resident lexicographer Susie Dent began her career as a Modern Languages student at Somerville.

Next Steps

Somerville students study a wide variety of languages, and often do extremely well – both in terms of their final degree results, and in the range of careers into which their degree allows them to move. Modern languages graduates are highly sought after by employers for their linguistic capabilities, as well as the skills of close analysis, critical thought and reasoned argument fostered by the course. Our graduates have gone on to a wide variety of careers, including finance, law, management, international relations and the media.

You can learn more about studying modern languages via the Modern Language Faculty’s Schools and Outreach blog ‘Adventures on the Bookshelf‘ set up by Professor Kemp, which is full of information about the subjects on offer, as well as advice on applying and studying here.

Adventures on the Bookshelf 

Fellows and Lecturers
  • Simon Kemp

    Fellow & Tutor in French; Associate Professor of French
  • Vilma de Gasperin

    Retaining Fee Lecturer
  • Hanne Eckhoff

    College Lecturer
  • Manuele Gragnolati

    Senior Research Fellow; Professor of Italian Literature, University of Paris-Sorbonne; Associate Director, ICI Berlin
  • Ole Hinz

    German Lektor
  • Louise Mycock

    Fellow & Tutor in Linguistics; Associate Professor in Linguistics
  • Francesca Southerden

    Fellow & Tutor in Italian; Professor of Italian
  • Byron Spring

    Retaining Fee Lecturer
  • Almut Suerbaum

    Fellow & Tutor in German; Professor of German
  • Amina Zarzi

    Stipendiary Lecturer in French
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