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historygeek

Which languages should I focus the most on?

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I'll be using some time in my Masters program on language training, which I felt was a huge missing piece from my PhD applications this time around. I'm interested in medieval to early modern Europe (especially Italy, England, and Russia), but I'm also interested (to a lesser extent) in modern European history.

I'm already fluent in Italian thanks to an Italian studies major. I'm thinking French and Latin for sure, but I'm not sure if I should take Russian (possibly to get some idea of Old Church Slavonic), German, or something else.

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7 minutes ago, historygeek said:

I'm interested in medieval to early modern Europe (especially Italy, England, and Russia), but I'm also interested (to a lesser extent) in modern European history.

Yeah I would say that this sort of statement is going to concern an admissions committee much more than your language skills.

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Posted (edited)

It depends on what you want to do. If you want to do Medieval/Early Modern, Latin is the language of most official documents/manuscripts/etc. 

It's probably not bad to know French, just so you can have some access to secondary literature. I'm obviously showing my history of science bias, but some of the foundational literature is in French. You probably don't need Old Church Slavonic unless you're planning to work on something involving the Orthodox Church.

Importantly, though, determine if you want to do Medieval, Early Modern, or modern European history. You're not always going to be wedded to one over another (18th century sort of falls in between), but you should choose one to focus on.

Edited by psstein

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Posted (edited)
9 minutes ago, telkanuru said:

Yeah I would say that this sort of statement is going to concern an admissions committee much more than your language skills.

Thanks for your concern! I'm much more interested in medieval history than anything else, but I'm still fully fleshing out what exactly I want to focus on. My concentration in my Masters program is going to be European history, more than likely medieval. I'll definitely have a more clear idea when it comes time to write a thesis and apply to PhD programs again. 

Edited by historygeek

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45 minutes ago, historygeek said:

Thanks for your concern! I'm much more interested in medieval history than anything else, but I'm still fully fleshing out what exactly I want to focus on. My concentration in my Masters program is going to be European history, more than likely medieval. I'll definitely have a more clear idea when it comes time to write a thesis and apply to PhD programs again. 

In that case, Latin, French, and German if you want consideration from any decent program.

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14 minutes ago, telkanuru said:

In that case, Latin, French, and German if you want consideration from any decent program.

Would you say in that order, too? 

Latin and French are non-negotiable, IMO. You can get around not knowing German in certain sub-fields. 

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6 minutes ago, psstein said:

Would you say in that order, too? 

Latin and French are non-negotiable, IMO. You can get around not knowing German in certain sub-fields. 

No, I think all three are strictly necessary, the first for research and the latter two for secondary sources. I know some subfields think there isn't any important German scholarship for them to read, but boy are they wrong.

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Posted (edited)

As a Russianist, I'll weigh in and say that medieval and early modern Russia is not a very big scholarly pond to work in these days with very few specialists outside Russia - and definitely requires Russian AND Old Church Slavonic, and the latter is very difficult to master due to the lack of learning resources. Should you choose to pursue the Russianist path, let me know and I'll be happy to introduce you to the scholars in the field and suggest some resources for language training -- but you will need a high level of Russian first.

Edited by TsarandProphet

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If you want to study Medieval I would prioritize Latin, then German, then French. Latin is definitely the most important, so you should being right away. Learning Latin first will also help you immensely with German, because it sounds like you have not studied a case language before. If you are already strong in Italian I would not worry so much about French - I imagine you can probably already make a go of it just using your Italian. Probably a semester of French for Reading is all you will need. 

Not to be harsh, but unless you are committed to devoting 2-3 years of INTENSIVE study to Russian it is probably too late (and not worth it) to get involved with a Russian topic. 

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3 hours ago, TsarandProphet said:

As a Russianist, I'll weigh in and say that medieval and early modern Russia is not a very big scholarly pond to work in these days with very few specialists outside Russia - and definitely requires Russian AND Old Church Slavonic, and the latter is very difficult to master due to the lack of learning resources. Should you choose to pursue the Russianist path, let me know and I'll be happy to introduce you to the scholars in the field and suggest some resources for language training -- but you will need a high level of Russian first.

Seconded.  I don't know what it is about medieval Russia that is interesting to you.. seems quite bit of left field. Again, what is it that you wish to do with a PhD? 

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Yes, definitely learn French and Latin. I will also say though that you should take other language courses you’re generally interested into because sometimes those languages can come in handy for the future. For example, learning Arabic may sound out of left field, but if you’re interested in it and eventually learn some Arabic, you may even be able to utilize it somehow in your research, or at the very least, have an extra skill that could make you more marketable.

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10 minutes ago, Procopius said:

Yes, definitely learn French and Latin. I will also say though that you should take other language courses you’re generally interested into because sometimes those languages can come in handy for the future. For example, learning Arabic may sound out of left field, but if you’re interested in it and eventually learn some Arabic, you may even be able to utilize it somehow in your research, or at the very least, have an extra skill that could make you more marketable.

I'd add that comparative approaches to medieval Europe and the Islamic World seem far more popular and marketable, today especially, than more Europe-centered work alone.

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2 hours ago, TMP said:

Seconded.  I don't know what it is about medieval Russia that is interesting to you.. seems quite bit of left field. Again, what is it that you wish to do with a PhD? 

I took a course my freshman year of college that was a Russian Civilization and Culture class. We focused on medieval Russia, the Primary Chronicle, iconography, and church buildings. Our textbooks (one about medieval Russia as a whole, one about women in Russian history) really sparked an interest in medieval Russia, which ended up evolving into an interest in medieval and imperial Russia.

I want to do academic research with my PhD, with a lesser interest in exploring archeological work (I've talked extensively to a professor at my current undergrad about marrying the two). 

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6 hours ago, kaufdichglücklich said:

Not to be harsh, but unless you are committed to devoting 2-3 years of INTENSIVE study to Russian it is probably too late (and not worth it) to get involved with a Russian topic. 

Not taken as harsh at all! What I was afraid of, but not harsh. 

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29 minutes ago, historygeek said:

Not taken as harsh at all! What I was afraid of, but not harsh. 

Really, have you considered taking the next year off to narrow your interests a bit and self-study a language? As you know from learning Italian, learning new languages takes dedication. And it is very challenging to do so when you're loaded with graduate-level coursework.  There is a reason why most PhD students try to make sure that their main research languages are at intermediate/advanced stages when applying, or take intensive summer courses (which will then eat up time used for studying comprehensive exams and research). My $0.02.

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10 hours ago, TMP said:

Really, have you considered taking the next year off to narrow your interests a bit and self-study a language? As you know from learning Italian, learning new languages takes dedication. And it is very challenging to do so when you're loaded with graduate-level coursework.  There is a reason why most PhD students try to make sure that their main research languages are at intermediate/advanced stages when applying, or take intensive summer courses (which will then eat up time used for studying comprehensive exams and research). My $0.02.

I'm taking an intensive Latin over the summer, as it would be a bit more difficult than French. One of the emphases of my program is the exploration of one's research interests, and the flexibility is one of the reasons I chose this MA program in the first place.

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34 minutes ago, historygeek said:

the flexibility is one of the reasons I chose this MA program in the first place

As everyone, from your professors to the adcoms to the posters on this board, has been telling you over and over again, you don't need flexibility. You need focus. If you were actually ready for this next step, you wouldn't be asking us which languages to take. You would know.

An MA on the way to a PhD is a time to refine your area of study, not discover it. You have extremely limited time and need to hit the ground running; many of the people you will be competing against started their language training in middle school. At the very least, at this point you need to be able to articulate a time period, a geographic region, and a structural approach (e.g. I want to study the south of France during the central middle ages through the lens of postcolonial theory). How else are you supposed to pick what to take?

You come across as interested in the idea of having a PhD rather than any particular subject of study. Nothing you've said instills confidence that you've even begun to plan to fix this. Unless you do, your next application cycle will go no better than your last. I would strongly suggest you take @TMP's advice, look into your deferral options, and spend some time meditating on your own motivations and desires..

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1 minute ago, telkanuru said:

As everyone, from your professors to the adcoms to the posters on this board, has been telling you over and over again, you don't need flexibility. You need focus. If you were actually ready for this next step, you wouldn't be asking us which languages to take. You would know.

An MA on the way to a PhD is a time to refine your area of study, not discover it. You have extremely limited time and need to hit the ground running; many of the people you will be competing against started their language training in middle school. At the very least, at this point you need to be able to articulate a time period, a geographic region, and a structural approach (e.g. I want to study the south of France during the central middle ages through the lens of postcolonial theory). How else are you supposed to pick what to take?

You come across as interested in the idea of having a PhD rather than any particular subject of study. Nothing you've said instills confidence that you've even begun to plan to fix this. Unless you do, your next application cycle will go no better than your last. I would strongly suggest you take @TMP's advice, look into your deferral options, and spend some time meditating on your own motivations and desires.

With all due respect, I chose a program for flexibility after talking with several of my professors at my undergraduate institution as well as the advice of the professors at the graduate institution. I've also been reading in my spare time, and (as I've said before on this thread) am heavily leaning towards medieval history, with a strong interest in cross-cultural ideas of women & gender (to an extent through an intersectional framework) and the intersection of religion and public health, as well as urban society and stratification. I'm also interested in similar questions in modern and early modern Europe; however, I'm leaning towards the medieval period.

Just because I haven't spelled out all of my reading and personal exploration here doesn't mean I'm just interested in the idea of the PhD or that I'm wholly incompetent. I knew French and Latin- both of which I'm beginning to learn and planning to take courses on -but I wanted to know if there was any other language that I should take. 

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6 minutes ago, telkanuru said:

. At the very least, at this point you need to be able to articulate a time period, a geographic region, and a structural approach (e.g. I want to study the south of France during the central middle ages through the lens of postcolonial theory). 

One way to do this is to think about what burning historical questions you want to answer. Then, think about which region and time period is best suited for answering those questions. This exercise will also help you move beyond “a love of history” as a motivation for a PhD, which is not really sufficient to sustain a dissertation’s worth of research.

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Thanks for the feedback, everyone! I will be taking a French class in the fall (the instructor basically told me not to worry about doing the coursework beyond practicing, which was reassuring) and an intensive Latin class over the summer. I will also be working on German.

Re my research interests: I will be continuing my independent reading and taking a medieval history course this coming fall. I will also be continuing to narrow my interests (while, to a small extent, exploring them). 

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15 minutes ago, historygeek said:

I chose a program for flexibility after talking with several of my professors at my undergraduate institution as well as the advice of the professors at the graduate institution.

Splitting the difference between "what professors say" and "what professors think" is an important skill. Most professors will, if given a specific choice to make (program X or program Y), will give a straightforward answer, but express concerns with the binary in a more subtle way. Remember when one of your professors told you to "expect disappointment"? That was one of those ways.

15 minutes ago, historygeek said:

heavily leaning towards medieval history, with a strong interest in cross-cultural ideas of women & gender (to an extent through an intersectional framework) and the intersection of religion and public health, as well as urban society and stratification.

That would seem to be something you've determined, at best, over the course of this very thread, and even then it's still incredibly vague. For example, are you going in a Mary Perry and Sharon Farmer direction, a Barbara Rosenwein direction, a Barbara Newman direction, or trying for a HoS push? 

15 minutes ago, historygeek said:

I'm also interested in similar questions in modern and early modern Europe; however, I'm leaning towards the medieval period.

Articulate why this is.

15 minutes ago, historygeek said:

I haven't spelled out all of my reading and personal exploration here doesn't mean I'm just interested in the idea of the PhD or that I'm wholly incompetent.

I didn't say you were. I said that's how you present yourself (and not incompetent - unfocused). Based on your application season, that's how you came across to the programs to which you applied, as well. 
 

15 minutes ago, historygeek said:

I wanted to know if there was any other language that I should take. 

You should work on how you ask questions.

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Posted (edited)
43 minutes ago, historygeek said:

Thanks for the feedback, everyone! I will be taking a French class in the fall (the instructor basically told me not to worry about doing the coursework beyond practicing, which was reassuring) and an intensive Latin class over the summer. I will also be working on German.

Re my research interests: I will be continuing my independent reading and taking a medieval history course this coming fall. I will also be continuing to narrow my interests (while, to a small extent, exploring them). 

I would encourage you to refine specifically why you want and need the languages you're taking up. I understand @telkanuru's point about German, but I'm not sure I agree with him. Certainly some sub-fields benefit very much from having access to German language sources, including my own (history of medicine). With other sub-fields, however, focusing intensely upon French and Latin will prove far more useful. German history of science literature, for example, heavily focuses on late 19th/early 20th century physics and the development of disciplines like physiology, biology, and organic chemistry.

I do echo his call, however, about finding a very specific time period and framework. For example, my MA project is about attempts to control syphilis, focusing on human medical experimentation, in both the US South and one Latin American country between 1945 and 1965. My SoP discussed French Jesuits in the New World and their role as knowledge producers and circulators. My question for you is, precisely: what do you want to do and why do you want to do it? You don't need to have a completely articulated, entirely set out framework, but it does help to understand precisely what you want to look at and why it matters. I would suggest that even your current interests are far too broad. Obviously, some of the work of the MA (and PhD) is about refining and narrowing your interests, but as you show below, you have a lot of interests. I'd strongly recommend choosing one and really digging into it. Maybe it's my own work showing, but the intersection of religion and public health sounds fascinating. I can think of many profitable ways you can go with that topic alone (e.g. church attendance as a form of medical surveillance in 15th C. Vienna), but the overarching point is that you need to become more of a specialist, rather than someone with diffuse interests.

By the way, having diffuse interests is not bad, but you need to focus very heavily on one, without seemingly overly narrow. You should have a significant amount of intellectual curiosity, but you should also read with what one of my professors calls "active plunder," how a book allows you to do what you want to do.

55 minutes ago, historygeek said:

With all due respect, I chose a program for flexibility after talking with several of my professors at my undergraduate institution as well as the advice of the professors at the graduate institution. I've also been reading in my spare time, and (as I've said before on this thread) am heavily leaning towards medieval history, with a strong interest in cross-cultural ideas of women & gender (to an extent through an intersectional framework) and the intersection of religion and public health, as well as urban society and stratification. I'm also interested in similar questions in modern and early modern Europe; however, I'm leaning towards the medieval period.

 

Edited by psstein

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@historygeek, you are getting more than "feedback." You are getting excellent support from people who want you to succeed.

I think that you would be well served if you were to reread your posts over the last year and a half. Over that interval, your "interests" have arced back and forth without clear statements of how they revolve around any approach to academic history to which you're committed. IMO,  the absence of a committed approach is a significant obstacle that should be addressed immediately.

If you're going to focus on intersectionality, then (maybe) a place to start is with a very deep dive into the evolution of the concept, then an assessment of its impact on professional academic history in general, and your fields of interest in particular. In regards to intersectionality and the study of history, you probably should prepare answers to questions like "Is this really a new approach to the study of the past?" (If you follow this course of inquiry, you should be able to argue different variations of "yes" and "no" and "sort of.")

To circle back to the question you asked in your OP. A way to know the answer is through the close study (not reading) of key periodicals and pivotal monographs in your areas of interest.  The footnotes will lead you to the langauge you need to know. 

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I'm not sure I agree on this divide between flexibility and focus. If you're pursuing an MA with the goal of then reapplying to Ph.D programs you need some of both, realistically. For instance, I chose my MA program because I knew what, when, and where my interests were, but was still working out how I wanted to approach things. But I had also taken a year off between finishing my BA and applying to MA programs to answer those questions and it was only to my benefit, since it was quite different from the work I had done as an undergrad. I chose the program that I did because it has scholars who provide more focused direction on what my interests already were, but also would allow me to explore how I wanted to study these things. Focus and flexibility was what I needed in the program, but you also need time to really think about what you want to put your effort towards.

I think it's ok to go into your MA with some uncertainty about what you want to do specifically, but you'll have to work that out fairly quickly since realistically you only have about a year of MA work before Ph.D applications are due (assuming you want to go right from one to the next). My advise would be to spend your first semester figuring those questions out while doing as much reading as you can, and then spend the spring and summer producing a real quality piece of research that you can use for applications that shows you're committed to what you say you are.

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Just now, WhaleshipEssex said:

I chose the program that I did because it has scholars who provide more focused direction on what my interests already were, but also would allow me to explore how I wanted to study these things.

I don't think anyone in this thread would disagree with this, and you phrase it excellently. What several of us have been saying is that, even in your formulation, focus comes first, and then flexibility. A flexible program gives you the freedom to narrow the focus you already have. 

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