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Language Exams


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17 replies to this topic

#1 jsolo25

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Posted 04 March 2012 - 12:06 AM

I am a Latin Americanist interested in researching Brazil. I was recently accepted to my top choice program, but, perhaps more than a little irrationally, I am becoming anxious about certain requirements. My Portuguese is not a problem--though not a native speaker, I am fluent due to intense coursework and study abroad experience. What worries me is that I probably have to pass a Spanish exam for my Latin American concentration during my first year.

So does anyone have any experience with the language exams that they could share? When I read Spanish I can always get the gist, I know basic grammar, but the vocabulary is always a struggle. When they say you can use a dictionary do they mean a bilingual dictionary or an actual dictionary entirely in the language (Spanish)? Someone tell me I'm blowing this out of proportion.
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#2 remenis

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Posted 04 March 2012 - 01:25 AM

http://csl.uchicago....ams/index.shtml

This page is a link to the language exams administered at the University of Chicago for a few years - they should give you a pretty good sense of what most language exams are like. Take one of the Spanish ones and try it as a test to see how you do.
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#3 grlu0701

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Posted 04 March 2012 - 02:30 AM

This is a great thread and that link that you (remenis) shared is awesome!

I'm certainly a lot more confident about my German now that I see that.
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#4 jsolo25

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Posted 04 March 2012 - 03:44 AM

But if they say you can use a dictionary do you know if it's a bilingual one, typically, or one strictly in a given language?
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#5 grlu0701

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Posted 04 March 2012 - 04:09 AM

I would guess it'd be a single-language dictionary, but that's just speculation based on the common practice in the upper-level German courses at my uni.
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#6 StrangeLight

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Posted 04 March 2012 - 04:32 PM

my program allows a bilingual dictionary for our translation exams.

it will depend on how your program does it. if you already know where you're headed, you should look at the department's graduate handbook to see if it details how the translation exams occur. you could also consider contacting the DGS of your program and asking outright because you'd like to prepare for the exam over the summer.
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#7 Caganer

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Posted 04 March 2012 - 05:40 PM

You're blowing this out of proportion ;)

My school also allows a bilingual dictionary for proficiency exams but like StrangeLight said, its best to contact the DGS or the department in charge of administering the exam. At my school the exam is a scholarly text of one or two pages that has to be translated. I've seen the exam for Spanish and if you know Portuguese well enough, you should be able to pass. However, should passing be your goal? Since you're a Latin Americanist, knowing Spanish well will help immensely in the future. If your interests shift at all during your program there is a good chance that you're going to be using Spanish. It will also make you a stronger candidate for jobs in the future. (And normally PhD programs in LA history require Portuguese, Spanish, and French, no?)

Also, I have noticed that the culture of some Latin American departments are Hispanocentric (I think I am inventing this term but you get the gist). That is, Portuguese speakers are usually outnumbered and often end up communicating in Spanish, guests are often invited to give lectures in Spanish and rarely are lectures held solely in Portuguese (yet I'm sure this depends on the department). Knowing how to communicate in basic Spanish will allow you to take advantage of more opportunities in the future.

I bet if you took an accelerated Spanish course over the summer and put some Shakira and Calle 13 on your ipod you would pick it up in no time. ;)

Edited by Caganer, 04 March 2012 - 05:43 PM.

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#8 New England Nat

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Posted 04 March 2012 - 05:42 PM

My program generally requires the translation of two passages, one with a bilingual dictionary and one without. As it is adminsitered and graded in the history department how hard or difficult it is can really be drastically different from one exam to another. Some times everyone will fail a given language exam and other times everyone will pass it. A real red flag can be if the person sitting the exam is a native speaker of the language, this is especially true when they have to reach out to other departments to find someone who speaks the language being tested.

I wouldn't say it is being blown out of proportion, because the language exam can be a real anchor around the neck of a candidate. Don't try and worry about it too much, but do prepare for it.

Edited by New England Nat, 04 March 2012 - 05:44 PM.

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#9 Sigaba

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Posted 09 March 2012 - 01:33 PM

You're blowing this out of proportion ;)

Maybe, maybe not.

It will depend not only upon the requirements of a specific program, but also the preferences of the professor who has "pass/no pass" authority.

Some professors will let you get by if you pass a course in a language department designed for graduate students.

Others will sit you down in their office and proceed to have a conversation with you about your field of study in the language under review. And that will be just for starters.

The broader point here is that graduate students in history can help themselves best by having several face-to-face conversations with any and all professors who will administer make or break exams.

Also, consider the possibility that each student is a program is going to have a different experence in that program from his or her classmates. A classmate who says "do not worry" may have a different skill set as well as an entirely different relationship with the materials and a given professor. And that person isn't going to take the exam--you are.
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In the effort to create an “instant history” with which we could live and prosper, our early historians intentionally placed our early national heroes and leaders beyond the pale of criticism. . . . And this distorted image of them has not only created a gross historical fallacy, but it has also rendered it utterly impossible to deal with our past in terms of the realities that existed at that time. To put it another way, our romanticizing about the history of the late eighteenth century has prevented our recognizing the fact that the founding fathers made serious mistakes that have greatly affected the course of our national history from that time to the present.


John Hope Franklin, ISBN-0807115479, p. 154.

 

Taking critics seriously, and responding to them thoughtfully, is a sign of respect.

 

William G. Bowen, ISBN-9780691149622,  p. 53.


 


#10 New England Nat

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Posted 09 March 2012 - 03:27 PM

Others will sit you down in their office and proceed to have a conversation with you about your field of study in the language under review. And that will be just for starters.


You are making me glad that at least it is standardized in my department.
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#11 jsolo25

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Posted 09 March 2012 - 06:01 PM

Thank you for the responses, everyone. After looking at some sample Spanish exams on the Columbia/Harvard sites, I'm not really so concerned anymore. The texts seem like pretty straightforward secondary source material that I don't have a problem understanding. I know it will probably vary from department to department, but it seems like it's not nearly as daunting as I originally imagined.

Still, I think it will be important for me to improve my Spanish as a Latin Americanist, even though I am not so interested in studying Spanish-speaking Latin America (and possibly French, for research purposes). I feel like every scholar purports to be "fluent" in everything, but, from personal experience, fluency is used as a stand-in for proficiency. I have even met linguistics PhD's whose speaking fluency in their language of focus is very debatable. I think my main goal will be to increase my exposure to other languages without pressuring myself to attain fluency.
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#12 Nordicllama

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Posted 14 March 2012 - 06:21 AM

Re: Others will sit you down in their office and proceed to have a conversation with you about your field of study in the language under review. And that will be just for starters.

Whoa whoa whoa... I can read French, but if you asked me to speak a bit of it I wouldn't be able to say more than "Je ne parle pas Francais." I do a pretty good French guffaw and "oui oui," but I don't think that counts for much. But seriously, are we actually going to be accountable for speaking in our research languages conversationally? Because I'm only 1 for 2 in that department...
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#13 remenis

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Posted 14 March 2012 - 12:09 PM

Re: Others will sit you down in their office and proceed to have a conversation with you about your field of study in the language under review. And that will be just for starters.

Whoa whoa whoa... I can read French, but if you asked me to speak a bit of it I wouldn't be able to say more than "Je ne parle pas Francais." I do a pretty good French guffaw and "oui oui," but I don't think that counts for much. But seriously, are we actually going to be accountable for speaking in our research languages conversationally? Because I'm only 1 for 2 in that department...


I think your professors will expect you to get to the level of french speaking ability that you will actually need. For example, if you intend to go to france and look at french documents in archives, you need to be able to say at least a few things in french - if you can't ask the archivists questions about the documents your work is going to be at a disadvantage. But if you are not ever going to need to do that, it probably won't be a big concern.
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#14 TMP

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Posted 14 March 2012 - 01:57 PM

Ja, das ist warum ich lernte Deutsch von die Anfang mit lesen, schreiben, sprechen und hören! Ich möchte mit andere Leute über unsere Forschung reden.

Aber ich brauche nicht fliessend Deustch sprechen! So von hier, ich kann sich auf das Lesewissen für Forschung konzentrieren.

Translation:
Yes, that's why i learned German from the beginning with reading, writing, speaking and listening. I want to speak with other people about our research.
But I don't need to speak fluent German. So from here, I can focus on reading knowledge for research.
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#15 Nordicllama

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Posted 14 March 2012 - 02:16 PM

Hm. Wunderbar. Danke, TMP.

Yo puedo hablar en espanol, pero no hablo en Frances o Aleman. Solo puedo leer Frances y un poco Aleman.

Guess I know what I'm doing this summer!
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#16 Sigaba

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Posted 14 March 2012 - 09:52 PM

Re: Others will sit you down in their office and proceed to have a conversation with you about your field of study in the language under review. And that will be just for starters.

Whoa whoa whoa... I can read French, but if you asked me to speak a bit of it I wouldn't be able to say more than "Je ne parle pas Francais." I do a pretty good French guffaw and "oui oui," but I don't think that counts for much. But seriously, are we actually going to be accountable for speaking in our research languages conversationally? Because I'm only 1 for 2 in that department...


I think your professors will expect you to get to the level of french speaking ability that you will actually need. For example, if you intend to go to france and look at french documents in archives, you need to be able to say at least a few things in french - if you can't ask the archivists questions about the documents your work is going to be at a disadvantage. But if you are not ever going to need to do that, it probably won't be a big concern.


The expected level of proficiency may also depend upon a professor's whims/quirks/expectations. If she did archival research for her dissertation while living in France, she may think that it is perfectly reasonable for her students to demonstrate the same level of expertise regardless of their individual needs.

MOO, the key point here is that each student needs to consult with those professors who have the ability to say "go/no go" when it comes to benchmark tasks such as foreign language exams. These consultations should take place early (if not also often) to make sure you're on the same page. Please note that these consultations might be cryptic so you want to go into them with a calm mind--if not also a clear head.

Another resource for informal discussions may be a professor's graduate students who are ABD. Do keep in mind that once a graduate student gets passed the language and qualifying exams, the everyday terror of the dissertation soon comes to overshadow memories the terrors of being pre-quals. This change of perspective as well as individual differences can lead to a different understanding of terms like "It was no big deal, I wouldn't worry about it."

Edited by Sigaba, 14 March 2012 - 09:53 PM.

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In the effort to create an “instant history” with which we could live and prosper, our early historians intentionally placed our early national heroes and leaders beyond the pale of criticism. . . . And this distorted image of them has not only created a gross historical fallacy, but it has also rendered it utterly impossible to deal with our past in terms of the realities that existed at that time. To put it another way, our romanticizing about the history of the late eighteenth century has prevented our recognizing the fact that the founding fathers made serious mistakes that have greatly affected the course of our national history from that time to the present.


John Hope Franklin, ISBN-0807115479, p. 154.

 

Taking critics seriously, and responding to them thoughtfully, is a sign of respect.

 

William G. Bowen, ISBN-9780691149622,  p. 53.


 


#17 StrangeLight

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Posted 16 March 2012 - 02:51 AM

in my undergrad honours program, we had to pass a translation exam as part of obtaining our degree. we could use a dictionary and had to do a direct translation of the material presented. 2 hours. everyone was put in the same room, whether they were doing the same language or not. the kid whose first language was german flew through that translation exam in 5 minutes, while someone else writing the exact same exam barely finished in 2 hours. some had an entire page in their language to translate, but it was fairly standard secondary material. one student doing latin had a one paragraph passage that became 2 exam booklets in translation.

me? the professor assigned me a poem in spanish. A FUCKING POEM. i had to translate a goddamn poem in 2 hours. the metaphors were the worst. the double-meaning of words. it was hard. i wish that on no one.
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#18 rising_star

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Posted 16 March 2012 - 06:18 AM

me? the professor assigned me a poem in spanish. A FUCKING POEM. i had to translate a goddamn poem in 2 hours. the metaphors were the worst. the double-meaning of words. it was hard. i wish that on no one.


Dude, I totally had that experience as an undergrad. Except it was 3 hours and I was a lit student so we also had to analyze the text in addition to translating it. Afterwards, we discussed how each of us translated the metaphors differently, resulting in completely different explanations of what the poem was about. It would've been funnier if I hadn't suffered through it.
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