Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
St John's College has a strong commitment to Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and typically accepts several students each year. The Director of Studies for the subject is Dr Adam Chau, who is an anthropologist of Chinese religion. College Fellowship also includes two other China specialists (including one who is also proficient in Japanese) and two Hebrew specialists, making St John's one of the leading Colleges with Asian and Middle Eastern Studies expertise. In recent years students have been accepted for a wide variety of courses and languages taught in the Faculty.
St John's can provide financial help to enable undergraduates who travel in the Long Vacations to the country whose language they are studying. In addition, all undergraduates are eligible for generous book grants.
The course is very flexible with numerous options and combinations available. You can study Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Japanese or Persian. In addition, you can combine Arabic, Hebrew and Persian with each other or with subjects from other faculties such as a modern European language (provided you have an A Level/IB Higher Level in the European language). In Part II Chinese and Japanese can be combined with one another under special circumstances. See the Faculty website for full details of various pathways and possible combinations. Please note that studying these languages requires a sustained interest in the cultures and civilisations that they represent, so as well as linguistic skills, students should be committed to learning about and even embracing ways of seeing the world that are entirely different to their own.
In Part I, which normally takes two years, you get a thorough grounding in the language(s) of your choice, while your study of the cultural component gradually increases. Whether the culture is modern or pre-modern, you will choose from a variety of paper options including literature, history, religion, politics, anthropology, films, and society of the region you have chosen.
You spend your third year abroad, studying or working in a country where the language you're learning is spoken. In the fourth year, greater specialisation is expected and students write a dissertation on a topic of their choice.
Organisation of Teaching
What makes the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies unique is the level of personal attention paid to the progress of each student in the classroom. As a part of a small faculty – and an even smaller subject area –you benefit from being taught in small groups, geared to your needs.
- Language teaching takes place in small groups, as required by the intensity and pace of the course. The modern spoken form of the languages is normally taught by native speakers.
- Lectures in non-language classes may be taught in larger groups, particularly if the class is for a core paper.
- In addition, students have one or two weekly supervisions. Involving usually just one or two students and a teacher, these meetings are, in contrast to supervisions in most other subjects at Cambridge, organised by the Faculty. As a result, little of the actual course takes place in the College or relies on instruction arranged by the College.
Choosing St John's
Even though supervisions are arranged centrally by the Faculty, St John's is fortunate to have a Director of Studies as a Fellow of the College who is also a staff member of the Faculty. This provides the crucial advantage of being able to offer students at St John's the necessary guidance and support throughout the course (e.g. arranging informal language exchange partners and providing contacts for study abroad opportunities). The Director of Studies meets regularly with the students to discuss their progress and achievements. St John's has a lively community of AMES students and is committed to further expanding student numbers in AMES subjects. We welcome applicants from all educational and nationality backgrounds.
Essential: No prior knowledge of your chosen AMES subject language(s) is required, unless combining a modern European language, in which case an A Level/IB Higher Level in the European language is required.
Desirable: A foreign language at A-level (or equivalent) is particularly desirable, if only to demonstrate the applicant’s ability to learn a different language. Other useful A-levels (or equivalent) are History, Mathematics, and the Sciences, though applicants have been accepted from a wide variety of academic backgrounds.
Typical offers at A-Level is A*AA. The subject in which the A* is to be achieved is not specified. Typical IB Offer: 40–42 points, with 776 at Higher Level.
Applicants for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies will need to sit the University's Pre-Interview Assessment, more information on which is available here. Candidates applying for a Modern Language will also be required to sit the At-Interview assessment for that language. Further information can be found here.
In advance of interview you will be asked to submit two school essays, on any subject, as examples of written work. Those who are invited to attend for interview will have two interviews at St John's. Your first general interview will be with the Tutor for the subject, and the second Subject interview will be with the AMES Director of Studies and one other subject expert. Candidates applying for a European Language will also have a Subject interview with the Director of Studies in the language they have selected to apply for. The aim of interviews, which last up to 30 minutes each, is to find out from you at first hand about your motivation and aptitude for the course you have chosen. We conduct our interviews in a friendly and informal manner, and you should not feel daunted by the prospect of them. The Director of Studies will naturally want to discuss subject-related questions with you, and perhaps discuss samples of your writing. Language exercises are not required.
Full information about all AMES subjects and pathways can be found on the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES) webpage.
When I began as a student at St John’s, in all honesty I was expecting not to fit in because of my relatively humble background, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. My College experience has been the cherry on the cake for my whole time at university so far. Living here is like being at a home away from home and I’m always excited to come back to a place where everyone, from the porters and gardeners to the students and professors, makes you feel welcome. There are plenty of clubs to join, and loads of events taking place all the time (of course the May Ball especially is something everyone looks forward to!) which really helps students to find a much-needed balance between work and play.
Yet the thing that has blown me away the most is the sheer amount of opportunities available for students. The staff at St John’s work tirelessly to ensure that its students are able to make the most of their time at here at Cambridge. So whether its access to a variety of ridiculously generous funding packages and bursaries, or travel and internship opportunities, all students are supported from day one by the College so that their prospects extend far beyond their years at the university. All in all, I cannot recommend AMES or St. John’s higher to all students looking for an intellectual challenge and a tight-knit, friendly working environment.
The Cambridge course aims for you to reach an advanced proficiency in Modern Chinese by the end of the degree, which means the pace of learning is quick and intense. Learning to speak and write Chinese is by no means a small feat, but the sense of achievement is just as great. The small class sizes (typically no larger than 10 people) and supportive, high-quality teaching means your Chinese comes on in leaps and bounds term by term. I am really looking forward to reaping the rewards of my studies thus far during my upcoming year abroad in Beijing. The study of Classical Chinese alongside this deepens your intuitive understanding of the language as well as opening up the pleasures of reading pre-modern philosophy, prose and poetry in its original form.
The course also allows you to study various aspects of East Asian culture alongside intensive language work. Over the last two years, I have covered topics ranging from post-war Korean cinema, to Heian Japan and even China's reaction to Brexit. The freedom to study many different academic fields under one degree is very exciting and the faculty will support you in pursuing whatever academic interest you may have. The small size of the faculty means you end up building very close relationships with your classmates and professors.
Cambridge is a beautiful and comfortable city to live in, full of many interesting and ambitious people. The student community is really buzzing and there are so many things you can get involved with! Alongside my studies, I have found the time to help organise an international student film festival, take Spanish classes and keep up old interests in running and yoga. Whatever your interests, you are bound to find a society that suits you.
I also have no regrets about choosing to study at St John's. The college community is big and diverse which means it is easy to make friends with like-minded people. The central location and stunning architecture make it a place you are truly proud to call home. The generous travel grants are second to none amongst Cambridge colleges and have allowed me to make the most of the summer vacation to visit Chinese-speaking areas. I have been lucky enough to have the support of the college to go study Chinese in Taipei for two months and travel in Xinjiang and Gansu this summer. I can fully recommend Chinese Studies at St John's to anyone interested.
The support I received from the College in this decision and then in my subsequent decision to take some time out before re-starting my degree with Arabic was astounding. Both pastorally and academically the College have supported me from the start of my time at St John's and I have felt comforted in the knowledge that they have my best interests at heart. Whether through extra help with improving my essay writing skills or providing me with excellent accommodation, St John's really do everything they can to ensure your time in College is comfortable, happy and conducive to social and academic success.
Beyond academic work, the College provides the facilities for you to pursue extra-curricular interests and assures you there is time to do both. St John's is also extremely generous with its resources through grants for books, travel and sports which enabled me to purchase the necessary equipment to found a College Rounders Society.
The College has a great atmosphere and after the holidays I couldn't wait to go back. It is large enough to find your own group of friends but there is a great communal feeling as most undergraduates live in College for the entire duration of their degrees. It feels like an extended family and is a huge comfort to see the numerous friendly familiar faces from College around town. St John's is centrally located in a city which in itself is reassuringly small and homely and convenient for anything you could need.
Changing to study Middle Eastern Studies with Hebrew and Arabic was the best choice I could have made. The Faculty is small and lessons are intimate, with just a few of us in supervisions. I have always been made to feel comfortable asking questions in class and if ever I can't grasp something there is always someone to help. The range of papers on offer allows you to focus on what interests you most and, with a third year in the Middle East to look forward to, the degree course doesn't seem so daunting. I have especially enjoyed the Hebrew and Arabic language classes and then being able to practice and improve my knowledge whilst on holidays in Israel