Studying MML at Cambridge (a student perspective)

MML is a popular degree, but is quite unique and differs from other subjects in many ways. Here Cate Horn explains what it's really like to study Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge.


MML (Modern and Medieval Languages) is a subject that is fairly easy to define and explain in simple terms. MML students choose two foreign languages to study from a list of options, and also study the culture attached to those languages - either two languages they already know (aka post-A level languages), or one they know and one new one (an ab initio language). Every MML student has a specific language combination, and there are also students who combine one MML language with AMES (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies), Classics or History.

MML doesn't look quite the same for anyone, but the core structure of the course is the same no matter which languages you choose. Many of the things that draw students to language degrees across the country are also at the heart of the Cambridge course: the variety of different subjects incorporated in the degree, the exciting year abroad, and the mixture of different transferable skills. But what does studying MML at Cambridge really involve? Here are a few pointers to help explain what life as an MML student is like.

Note: This post will mostly focus on “pure” MML, for students who take two languages from the MML list, rather than those who combine MML with History, AMES or Classics - this is just because I don’t have any personal experience with the combined honour options! However, those who choose a combined honours course will essentially have exactly the same experiences for the MML side of their degree, just for one language rather than two. This means that these pointers will still apply to those considering a combined course, and hopefully this insight will be helpful to those interested in the full scope of MML options. I also can’t guarantee that everything I mention will apply to every language offered by MML, as there are variations in the structure and teaching of different languages, but I have tried to keep this as applicable to the entire MML course as possible!

  • In the first year, you’ll find that your course is fairly clearly divided into four parts: your two languages are organised separately, and each language is separated into the language side and the culture side.


  • The list of languages currently available within the MML course is French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish, and all except French can be taken as ab initio languages. In second and fourth year there are optional introductory courses in other languages beyond this list, though the languages you choose for your first year will still be the heart of your course. This is especially true if you choose to do an ab initio language, which will require a lot of attention in your first few years (but there is still a balance between your post-A level and ab initio languages if you choose this route - both are important!).


  • As all the languages organise themselves a little differently, it is hard to give details on how exactly language teaching will look for each one and how your time will be divided. For post-A level languages you can expect your first year classes to continue fine-tuning your grasp of grammar, as well as introducing some contextual issues in language study. I took French post-A level, and my first year classes combined grammar teaching with investigating regional variation of French across the world, rhetorical and literary styles, and issues of gender, among other things. You will also study translation, and have oral classes to develop your spoken language. Post-A level language study really gives you a chance to explore a language beyond simply knowing how to speak it, and choosing two post-A level languages gives you a little more space for an extra cultural topic in second year compared to ab initio learners.


  • Ab initio language teaching is fast-paced and intensive, and there is a lot of work involved, but it is often very fun as well. The focus in first year is really on learning the grammar, along with keeping up with new vocabulary. I chose ab initio Italian and made very rapid progress - it was a pretty exhilarating and unique opportunity to learn a language so quickly. I had oral classes and supervisions to consolidate my learning, and a good amount of contact hours. One of the things I particularly loved about my ab initio class was how the regular small classes made it easy to make friends, and despite the rapid pace of the learning, the classes always felt friendly and laid back.


  • The cultural aspects of the course are not greatly affected by whether you study the languages post-A level or ab initio - lectures on texts are often shared between students of the language at both levels. Ab initio students are able to use translations to help them with reading, but they do find themselves launching into the literature of a language they’ve only recently begun. This sounds intimidating, and it can at times feel strange and challenging, but it really can be done - ab initio students can do just as well in their cultural studies as post-A level students. The texts studied for the cultural part of the course are complex for any student, but this leads to lots of interesting discussions and deep analysis that aren’t held back by being new to the language.


  • Each language organises the cultural side of the course differently, just as the language teaching varies, but generally in first year you can expect to study literature from a range of periods and genres (poetry, novels, drama etc), then usually a film, a philosophical text and a linguistics module, which may or may not be optional. The exact amount of texts/topics you study will vary between languages, but it’s normally around 5 or 6.


  • Whichever language you study, the first year will give you a broad range of different cultural modules, and you can then focus on those you enjoy most when choosing your second year options. And although studying a range of topics is compulsory in first year, the exams at the end of the year will likely only require you to answer on a couple of the texts you have studied - there tends to be a good amount of flexibility to choose the questions you will answer. This means you get to study a range of different texts and genres throughout the year, and be challenged to work on things outside your comfort zone, but still have a certain degree of choice in what you will focus on at the end of the year and into second year.


  • One thing that I actually didn't really think about until I started at Cambridge was the "Medieval" in my course title: some of the texts we study are very old, and they can be really interesting! For both my languages I had one Medieval text in my first year, so it wasn't a huge part of the course, but it was a very cool thing to be introduced to - and the option is there to continue learning about medieval languages and cultures into later years of study if you wish.


  • Essays are a big part of studying any humanities subject at Cambridge, but MML students actually have fewer major analytical essays than many other humanities subjects, because of the fact that the language side of the course involves other kinds of work - grammar exercises, translations, short commentaries, and generally smaller pieces of written work in the foreign language. We still write longer analytical essays in English, but this is for the cultural side of the course, so it is only one part of our regular workload and assessment, rather than the bulk of what we do. Again, the organisation of regular essays varies between languages, but in my first year I’d generally find myself writing an essay every two weeks for each of my languages - in other words, I had roughly one essay to write per week. This can still seem like a lot, especially if you didn’t take any essay-heavy subjects at A level, but it’s something that you just adapt to. Some languages also involve commentaries as an alternative to essays, where you are given an extract from the text you are studying to closely analyse, rather than looking at broader themes. The range of different assignments and tasks involved in MML is something I really like about it - you get to develop your essay skills regularly, but your workload is more varied than in some other subjects. MML essays also tend to be shorter than in some other subjects - I was usually asked for somewhere between 1200 and 1500 words for the regular essays I was set. The varied nature of the MML workload means that it can sometimes be more difficult to keep track of all the small tasks you are set, but it can also provide opportunities to organise your time in more diverse ways.


  • Reading is a major part of the course: both reading the actual texts that you will study, and reading secondary texts (critical analysis from other academics) to support your essays. Again, the varied structure of MML means there is less literature to read than in some other subjects like English, but it is still a significant part of your workload. The reading you do will also be an important way of increasing your familiarity with your languages and building comprehension, so it really ties together the two parts of the course.


  • Beyond first year, MML students are given gradually more room to shape their course to their interests. Students who took two languages post-A level will continue to have compulsory language tuition in both languages in second year, though ab initio students are able to drop the language part of their post-A level language if they wish, and will continue to develop their ab initio language either way. Students are also able to choose from a list of cultural papers, including papers specific to their languages, introductory papers in other languages, and Comparative Studies papers, which allow you to look at a number of different languages in comparison (such as studying the linguistics of the entire Romance language family). Papers on offer vary between years, but you should have the chance to focus on the parts of first year that most interested you. In fourth year, when you return from the year abroad, the amount and range of papers you can choose will increase again.


  • The third year abroad is a big part of the MML experience. Many students choose to spend the majority of their time in one country, as we are encouraged to consider focusing on really pushing one language, but it is also possible to share your time between different countries. There are a number of options for what you can spend your year doing, depending on whether you want to work, study or do a bit of both. You will also complete a Year Abroad Project as part of your studies, which can involve a dissertation, a translation project, or a linguistics project. The year abroad is a really exciting part of the course, and provides an opportunity to gain real world experience (as well as have fun exploring life in a new country!).


  • Alongside the dedicated third year abroad, MML students are encouraged to travel to the countries they study as much as possible. Many colleges will have funds available to help with travel expenses, and some language departments may organise trips for students during the first years of the degree. Although travel is an important part of language study, not everyone will have had the same opportunities to travel before beginning their course or when applying - when I started at Cambridge I had still never been to Italy even though the Italian language interested me hugely, and I was worried about how my lack of travel experience might affect me. But while travelling is hugely beneficial, and opportunities to travel once you start are a really exciting part of the course, the amount that you’ve been able to travel in your life does not equate to your ability to succeed as a languages student! Similarly, some students may have only studied one language before, while others may have done several at school, which might cause you to worry if you fall into the former category - but this is why the ab initio option is a really nice opportunity to widen your studies to new languages you may not have had the chance to try before.


Overall, MML is a truly wonderful subject to study if you want some variety - our studies touch on literature, history, philosophy, linguistics, and even politics - while simultaneously developing real skill in your foreign languages. The "MML" label covers a whole range of languages, experiences and pathways, but all of them provide a great mix of academic exploration, exciting opportunities and a lovely community.

For more details on any of the course options, exploring the faculty website is the best way to find information:

Cate Horn



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