Italy’s language, literature, history, and culture have proved a constant source of admiration and study in Britain. From Chaucer and Shakespeare, through Milton and the Romantics, down to E. M. Forster and Seamus Heaney, writers of English have regularly turned to Italy for inspiration.
Italian at Oxford allows you to learn this language of poetry and music, and to study in the original not just the great works of the past (of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Machiavelli), but also famous recent writers (Pirandello, Calvino, Primo Levi), as well as renowned exponents of the visual arts (Alberti, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Cellini) and cinema (Pasolini, Bertolucci). Contemporary Italy still has much to teach us, and students who spend their year abroad in Italy enjoy a unique, culturally enriching experience (not to mention the food, fashion and sport), regularly form lasting friendships with Italians, and often return there to live and work.
As in the 2001 RAE, Italian at Oxford achieved an extremely high score in the 2008 RAE. The Sub-faculty achieved the second highest percentage (30%) nationally of ‘world-leading’ (4*) scores for its research publications and activities, while 60 per cent of its work was classed as either ‘internationally excellent’ or ‘world-leading’.
Why study Italian at Oxford?
The study of Italian is enjoyable in itself, both because of the richness of its literary and artistic culture and because the language is one in which rapid progress is made in the early stages. A degree in modern languages is also, as recent studies have shown, one for which graduate unemployment is very low, and the range of jobs open to language graduates is extremely varied. The Oxford syllabus has undergone radical reform in the last few years to respond to the changes in A-level syllabuses at school. The first year course in particular attempts to develop some of the skills learnt at A-level, whether you have done A-level Italian or not, and also to introduce new ones, both in language and in reading literary texts. After completing the first year, students of Italian have a wide range of choices for the rest of the course, between literary and linguistic topics, ancient and modern texts, cinema and other options: the syllabus structure ensures that at least 50% of the final examination is language-based, and the existence of Special Subjects allows the student to write a dissertation on a topic of his or her own choice, in place of a traditional 3-hour written examination. The Italian Sub-faculty at Oxford also has a policy on the amount of teaching that is done in English and in the target language: all language classes and at least one lecture course per term are conducted in Italian.
Can I start Italian from scratch?
Oxford has for many years admitted beginners in the language to read for a degree in Italian over the standard four-year course. In our average first-year intake of 35-40 students, about half of these will have no A-level or equivalent qualification in the language. The first-year course allocates extra hours and separate language groups to allow beginners to cope with the demands of studying a new language at degree level, though at the end of the first academic year all students are required to take the same four papers in the Preliminary examination. Because the Prelims course moves rapidly, we do expect students wanting to study Italian from scratch to have done some preparation on their own before they start the Oxford course, and we provide them with plenty of advice on how to do so. We also run every year a pre-sessional residential course for beginners or near-beginners in Italian; attendance is highly recommended, albeit not compulsory, and participants are required to contribute to the costs. By the end of the four years of the course, it is statistically evident that a beginner in Italian has the same chance of obtaining a top first-class or upper second class degree as a non-beginner.
How many students study Italian?
Undergraduate applications and admissions are at an all-time high, with at present 135 undergraduates reading Italian, spread fairly evenly over the four years of the course: though the recent increased intake means an average of 38 students per year over the last three years. They are mainly in the Honour School of Modern Languages (the great majority of them offering Italian as one of two languages, usually together with French), but also in the smaller Joint Honour Schools of Classics and Modern Languages, English and Modern Languages, Modern History and Modern Languages, Philosophy and Modern Languages, and European and Middle Eastern Languages.
How do I prepare for the first year at Oxford?
It is quite possible for an interested student, with some experience of language-learning, to acquire a good level of oral and written Italian before starting the course here.
Any courses you can attend beforehand (either in Britain or in Italy) will be beneficial, but the main burden of learning the language will rest with you and your own capacity for independent study. You can obtain a booklet entitled Courses in Italy from the Italian Institute, 39 Belgrave Square, LONDON SW1X 8NX, or consult its webpage at www.icilondon.esteri.it/IIC_Londra.
Both for pre-university work and during your time here you will need a good grammar-book. You should choose one of the most useful recent grammars, all of which have copious exercises for you to work on each grammatical point:-
- A.L. Lepschy and G. Lepschy, The Italian Language Today (especially Part II)
- A. Proudfoot & F. Cardo, Modern Italian Grammar
- M. Mezzardi, Essential Italian Grammar Practice + Answer Keys
- G. Lazzarino & A. Moneti, Da capo (3rd ed)
For Advanced students (and for subsequent years):
- M. Maiden and Cecilia Robustelli, A Reference Grammar of Modern Italian (2nd ed)
You may also wish to start learning Italian via the RAI TV programme, In Italia. L’Italia e l’italiano per stranieri, http://www.initalia.rai.it/
Once you have worked about half-way through the grammar of Italian, you should be able to start reading. You should start with some short stories — recent writers in this area are Buzzati, Calvino, Ginzburg, Moravia, Pavese.
The titles you will be reading in your first-year course are:-
- Primo Levi, Se questo è un uomo (1947)
- Natalia Ginzburg, Lessico famigliare (1963)
- Italo Calvino, Il barone rampante (1957)
- Anna Maria Ortese, Il mare non bagna Napoli (1953)
Try to read at least the first two by October; if you are a beginner, you may use translations in the first instance (If this is a Man, Family Sayings). You will also study the film I cento passi (2000; available on DVD) directed by Marco Tullio Giordana. Finally, your first-year course will have a poetry component: you will be required to study a number of Italian sonnets from Dante to the present day (we will provide you with an anthology when you arrive), plus one collection of contemporary poetry:-
- G. Ungaretti, Vita di un uomo (106 poesie) (Mondadori Oscar) — ONLY the sections ‘Allegria’ and ‘Sentimento del tempo’ (read in advance at least ‘L’Allegria’)
Italian books and grammars are most easily obtained from:- Grant and Cutler, 107 Charing Cross Rd, London, WC2H 0EB, www.grantandcutler.com; or The Italian Bookshop, 5 Warwick St, London W1B 5LU, 020 7240 1634, www.italianbookshop.co.uk.
It is not essential to go to Italy before coming here, though it will help. But you can also benefit from reading Italian newspapers (the best dailies are La Repubblica, Il corriere della sera and La Stampa) or magazines (L’Espresso, Panorama, etc.), or seeing Italian films with subtitles. The dailies and magazines also have well-maintained websites: www.repubblica.it, www.corriere.it, www.lastampa.it, etc.
Italian sites and resources from the Taylor Institution Language/Country Resources page
Information about Italian courses at the Language Centre (on Weblearn)
Italian weblinks from the Language Centre web site