Attending a British University – Acclimating to a New Vocabulary and Class Structure


A man walks his bicycle in front of a puddle in Oxford

Having returned to the United States for winter break, I miss the beautiful architecture of the University of Oxford and the city’s eclectic coffee shops. Much of the Oxford campus dates back to a thousand years ago, and the entire area is decidedly pedestrian-friendly. During my first term at Oxford, I was surprised by the enormous differences in the vocabulary in the United Kingdom, as not even the greetings are the same as in North America: informal salutations feature “hiya,” and “heya.” People in the United Kingdom frequently employ the terms “keen”, “quite”, and “reckon” (instead of “think”), and ask “isn’t it?” after making a statement. Britons usually refer to a restroom as a “toilet,” which can sound jarring to North American ears and can be awkward for expatriates to utter aloud. Other standard vocabulary includes “uni” (short for university) instead of what North Americans call “college”, “cutlery” (in place of “silverware”) and “queue” (the line in which people wait). Pronunciations and emphases are also dissimilar to those of the United States, such as “tomato” (like “tomahto”) and “weekend,” where Britons place the stress on the second syllable. In conversation, Britons regularly speak softly and rapidly, sometimes making it difficult for North Americans to understand.

Social Sciences Library, University of Oxford

Parked bicycles beside a puddle near the Social Sciences Library, University of Oxford

Political correctness does not exist to nearly the same extent in Britain as in the United States, and students at Oxford frequently wish each other “merry Christmas” (assuming that all celebrate Christmas) before departing for winter break. Moreover, Christmas decorations abound throughout the city, although over a forth of Britain’s citizens were non-religious in 2011. Growing up in a half-Jewish family, I longed for the greater religious diversity of the United States while studying in the United Kingdom. While outdoor Chanukah decorations are not particularly ubiquitous in North America, I yearned for the giant electrical menorahs in the front lawns of Jewish households. Only 0.4% of the United Kingdom’s citizens are Jewish, as opposed to 1.8% of the United States population. Within Britain, the vast majority of the country’s Jews reside in England, with 195,000 Jews in Londonless than 6,000 Jews in Scotland, and 335 in Northern Ireland. The Jewish population is more spread out in the United States than in Britain, and yet just a few states are home to many of North America’s Jews. In the United States, New York state has the highest number and proportion of Jews, with a population of 973,600 that comprises 6.3% of the state’s population. California has the second-largest number of Jews, with a population 577,700, and Florida has the second-greatest proportion of Jews: 3.6%.


A puddle reflection of a handrail and church in Oxford

The class format at the University of Oxford is markedly different than those of most North American universities. For example, in undergraduate English courses at Oxford, a historical tradition continues of students reading their papers aloud to professors. While I may not fully appreciate the merits of this teaching method, I believe this structure limits the amount of instruction in each class, as reading aloud takes far longer than reading from a paper or a screen.

I thoroughly enjoyed the one-on-one dynamic of my courses at Oxford (which is the standard system for visiting students at Oxford), which allows for effective discussions and for the student to ask the professor several questions in every class. In North American universities, history classes typically have less reading and writing and specific essay prompts, and so it was difficult for me to grow accustomed to reading over a thousand pages every two weeks and writing a 3000-word essay in response to abstract questions. At Amherst College, in stark contrast to Oxford, history classes incorporate gender studies, sociology, philosophy, and political science. Additionally, during the conclusions of essays at Amherst, students are normally encouraged to pilot the essay in an entirely new direction (commonly bringing the issues to the present). Because of these reasons, it was challenging to maintain a more singular historical focus and write conclusions that mirrored the introductions in my Oxford history class.

Throughout my first term at Oxford, I learned to read and write more rapidly, construct a superior Oxford-style paper, and how to more directly approach abstract essay questions. These skills will undoubtedly prove helpful after college, where efficient research and writing can be both useful and necessary. Blogging about studying at the University of Oxford has encouraged me to reflect upon my identity as a white college student from an upper-middle class family in the United States. While racism and classism clearly still persist in North America, this blogging experience has caused me to more fully appreciate the United States’ more vibrant ethnic and socioeconomic diversity and higher level of racial acceptance.

St Catherine's College, University of Oxford

A reflection of a tree in a river near St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford











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