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Language requirements


ukstudent
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I still can't quite work this out. All of the grad programs require at least one foreign language (sometimes two) but do you have to have proficiency in these before starting the five year program or is there the opportunity to learn them int he first two (MA?) years so that you have the languages by the final three PhD years?

I did a bit of a search but couldn't find anything exactly answering my question and the websites of most of the unis I've looked at haven't made it particularly clear either. It doesn't help that I'm from the UK and not used to the US system either. Sorry if this has been asked and answered before and is an annoying recurring question.

Thanks. :)

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In general, you will need to be proficient in your primary research language prior to entering a PhD program (though one can enter a standalone MA without languages yet being at level necessary for a PhDl). You need to be capable of conducting research in your field from day one; in fact, you ideally will have already done substantial research using your primary research language at the time of application.

In certain fields, generally those with extremely demanding language requirements, you may need to be proficient in multiple languages to be admitted (medieval history is probably the most obvious example). Otherwise, languages other than your primary research language can be learned during the initial years of your PhD program, through a combination of academic year coursework and intensive summer programs.

If you are an Americanist (and possibly if you work on Britain, depending on the extent to which a given program lumps you in with other Europeanists), it is possible to be admitted with no foreign language proficiency, though you're still better off with some language background, and you can meet your language requirements entirely during the coursework portion of the degree.

If you're still confused, I (and others) can likely give more personalized advice if you let us know your general area of research (part of the world/time period and the like).

Edited by pudewen
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Thanks for the reply.

I'd be most interested in doing modern (20th Century, mostly) British history although, like you've emntioned, that seems to get lumped in with European at a lot of places and seems to require at least French or German (even though I'm pretty sure none of the tutors who have ever taught me British history could speak other languages). I'd be interested in US history too (again, same period) but I haven't done much of it at undergraduate level so trying to be convincing on my application might be difficult there.

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Thanks for the reply.

I'd be most interested in doing modern (20th Century, mostly) British history although, like you've emntioned, that seems to get lumped in with European at a lot of places and seems to require at least French or German (even though I'm pretty sure none of the tutors who have ever taught me British history could speak other languages). I'd be interested in US history too (again, same period) but I haven't done much of it at undergraduate level so trying to be convincing on my application might be difficult there.

ukstudent: One thing worth remembering is that American universities are primarily training students for the American job market, where British history is very much on the decline, possibly even more than European history as a whole. While in the UK itself, there are presumably still a plethora of positions for British historians, it seems to me that in the US, it is increasingly valuable for British historians to be willing to take more transnational approaches, which may mean looking at Britain as part of Europe (and thus make knowledge of languages like French or German quite important) or may mean approaching Britain in the context of its empire, which could make a plethora of languages valuable, depending on one's particular focus, anything from Hindi to Swahili to Arabic could be worthwhile.

Assuming you want to stick to domestic British history, you can probably find programs, even good ones, that won't expect any foreign language proficiency to admit you. But there are reasons that programs require foreign language skills (even Americanists increasingly find them valuable, whether to study immigrant communities in the US or transnational or comparative histories), and it's worth considering whether you might be able to improve your research by acquiring some.

If you don't know yet whether you want to work on Britain or America, you're presumably not ready to apply this Fall in any case, so there isn't really any harm, if you can manage it, in spending at least some time over the next year working on a language that could be valuable to you later, whether in admissions, research, or on the job market.

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Keep in mind that there is no single approach to languages among or even within US history PhD departments. Some will allow some flexibility in choosing which languages are most pertinent to your interests. Others will say that if you're an historian of Britain, you must know (at least) German and French. Similarly, some programs will be more rigorous in testing than others. For instance, one program I was accepted to this fall required 2 language exams of all its students (I'm an early Americanist, and based in my research interests, I doubt I'll ever find use for anything other than French) so I asked a lot of questions about it. I was essentially told that the language exams are very easy and are not taken seriously (likely just for Americanists) and I shouldn't worry about only having one language coming in. When I asked my POI about it, he acted like it was just a nuisance more than anything. Other programs take the requirement far more seriously. This makes it difficult to give any advice about what the US system is - because it differs so widely.

I agree with pudewen that if you're unsure of your focus, you may want to take a year to think things over (your interests, your goals: do you want to work in the US or UK?) and learn at least one language. It will make you a far more competitive applicant, and will make you much less likely to be stuck researching and studying something you discover you have little interest in. When you do apply, ask your POI about the language requirements and try to get a sense of what's expected.

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ukstudent: One thing worth remembering is that American universities are primarily training students for the American job market, where British history is very much on the decline, possibly even more than European history as a whole. While in the UK itself, there are presumably still a plethora of positions for British historians, it seems to me that in the US, it is increasingly valuable for British historians to be willing to take more transnational approaches, which may mean looking at Britain as part of Europe (and thus make knowledge of languages like French or German quite important) or may mean approaching Britain in the context of its empire, which could make a plethora of languages valuable, depending on one's particular focus, anything from Hindi to Swahili to Arabic could be worthwhile.

Assuming you want to stick to domestic British history, you can probably find programs, even good ones, that won't expect any foreign language proficiency to admit you. But there are reasons that programs require foreign language skills (even Americanists increasingly find them valuable, whether to study immigrant communities in the US or transnational or comparative histories), and it's worth considering whether you might be able to improve your research by acquiring some.

If you don't know yet whether you want to work on Britain or America, you're presumably not ready to apply this Fall in any case, so there isn't really any harm, if you can manage it, in spending at least some time over the next year working on a language that could be valuable to you later, whether in admissions, research, or on the job market.

I'd prefer to stay in Britain, to be honest but the funding for postgraduate studies over here is terrible so that's why I was looking at the US. I know languages will be valuable and I do want to learn some (even if they don't aid my research). And I've started learning French. I'm more than happy to learn languages, I was just wondering if it's possible to be admitted to a program without them and then be able to learn them on the program before starting the actual PhD thesis when they're supposed to be used.

I'd probably end up focusing on Irish-British relations and Northern Ireland so other European languages aren't really going to be that useful to me. It's probably even best to stay in Britain for something like that it's just that getting funding is an absolute nightmare. Taking a year out doesn't really appeal to me that much as I'm already a mature student.

Keep in mind that there is no single approach to languages among or even within US history PhD departments. Some will allow some flexibility in choosing which languages are most pertinent to your interests. Others will say that if you're an historian of Britain, you must know (at least) German and French. Similarly, some programs will be more rigorous in testing than others. For instance, one program I was accepted to this fall required 2 language exams of all its students (I'm an early Americanist, and based in my research interests, I doubt I'll ever find use for anything other than French) so I asked a lot of questions about it. I was essentially told that the language exams are very easy and are not taken seriously (likely just for Americanists) and I shouldn't worry about only having one language coming in. When I asked my POI about it, he acted like it was just a nuisance more than anything. Other programs take the requirement far more seriously. This makes it difficult to give any advice about what the US system is - because it differs so widely.

I agree with pudewen that if you're unsure of your focus, you may want to take a year to think things over (your interests, your goals: do you want to work in the US or UK?) and learn at least one language. It will make you a far more competitive applicant, and will make you much less likely to be stuck researching and studying something you discover you have little interest in. When you do apply, ask your POI about the language requirements and try to get a sense of what's expected.

This is a bit more reassuring. Perhaps I'll try emailing some professors directly and asking about language requirements for what I'd like to study and research rather than trying to go off the general requirements for the whole department.

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Be mindful that each professor handles this kind of issue in an individual basis. There are two types.

Type A: They will feel very strongly that their graduate students must be able to master a certain level of the language regardless of the students' actual research language needs (just because it's part of their own academic identity and they want to mold their students after them).

Type B: They will evaluate you as you are and tell you what is expected based on your own interests and goals in conjunction with job expectations (whether academia or not). For example, a French historian may say, yes, you need to be fluent in French if you want a TT job but if you're interested in the Armenian refugees in France, even if you desire to study the group as an isolated one and Armenian is more important than French, your prof is going ot say that French historians will want you to be fluent in French anyway because you are studying Armenians within the national French context.

One of my POIs was Type A. He wanted fluency in Language X by my comps. I had it but not comfortable reading it w/o a dictionary. However, I really didn't need that language as badly as Languages Y and Z. Language X was his whole world. On the other hand, my current adviser is Type B. She said that Language Y is important to her and it would be better safe than sorry if I could converse in it on top of being able to read it in terms of nailing jobs. Not forcing me to do it but more of just thinking a bit sensibly.

What you do want to do as you e-mail POIs (professors of interest) and DGS (Director of Grad Studies) is just get a general idea of what is expected for admissions. And try not to kick yourself at the end if you don't get in where you want to be- you can only do so much and you did your best at the time of application.

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I agree with all of the above comments.

Just one thing I would add is this: if you are certain that you want to apply this year, just start doing some language work, preferably in an institutional setting, even if it is one class a week or something.

You are obviously not going to become fluent in a few months. But, you can mention it in your application, and it will signal to the adcomms that you are serious and have given scholarly work some thought.

Languages can make a big difference, particularly at higher-ranked places, and you can put yourself at a disadvantage if you apply with no second language or prospect of acquiring one. Just my two cents.

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TMP may be correct in some places but not in others. My language requirement was handled exclusively by the department and it was not done with the foreknowledge that I was an Americanist. It was a standardized text across everyone taking that particular language exam. In my program the exam in one language can be easy one semester and impossible the next. Everyone may pass one semester and fail the next.

My adviser had no say at all in how it was handled or how I was judged.

I needed one language, but I could have easily been classified as needing two. My university offers intensive reading courses in French and German, and will pay for other such courses elsewhere during the summer, but all lnaguage requirements must be passed before you take generals exams at the end of year two. I know of some Americanists who will never use the language professionally who carry the requirement around like a weight around their neck.

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TMP may be correct in some places but not in others. My language requirement was handled exclusively by the department and it was not done with the foreknowledge that I was an Americanist. It was a standardized text across everyone taking that particular language exam. In my program the exam in one language can be easy one semester and impossible the next. Everyone may pass one semester and fail the next.

My adviser had no say at all in how it was handled or how I was judged.

I needed one language, but I could have easily been classified as needing two. My university offers intensive reading courses in French and German, and will pay for other such courses elsewhere during the summer, but all lnaguage requirements must be passed before you take generals exams at the end of year two. I know of some Americanists who will never use the language professionally who carry the requirement around like a weight around their neck.

So it's only by the end of year two that you need to be able to pass the exams?

I had emailed Northwestern about it and they got back to me today saying that was the case there.

This was all I wanted to know. I can learn them by the end of second year but if they're needed from the off in first year and are a prerequisite for entry then I'd be screwed.

Where are you?

Edited by ukstudent
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So it's only by the end of year two that you need to be able to pass the exams?

I had emailed Northwestern about it and they got back to me today saying that was the case there.

This was all I wanted to know. I can learn them by the end of second year but if they're needed from the off in first year and are a prerequisite for entry then I'd be screwed.

Where are you?

It really depends on the field. If you don't have proven proficiency in Chinese before entry no one is going to let you into a Chinese history program. Ancient and medieval historians have to prove some proficiency in languages because they are often required to prove so many that you can't possibly learn them all during course work.

I'm at Princeton.

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So it's only by the end of year two that you need to be able to pass the exams?

I had emailed Northwestern about it and they got back to me today saying that was the case there.

What I'm just saying is that I had a POI (that Type A) who wanted me to go "beyond" the standard department requirements. And the way to prove it was to do some research for him as his RA (he's fluent but these are just rediousl tasks :)). Back to my point- it varies so widely.

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It really depends on the field. If you don't have proven proficiency in Chinese before entry no one is going to let you into a Chinese history program. Ancient and medieval historians have to prove some proficiency in languages because they are often required to prove so many that you can't possibly learn them all during course work.

I'm at Princeton.

For medievalists, really? There's a tutor at my college who's a medievalist and he does all his work using translated texts apparently, without knowing any other languages. Must just be the US/UK difference that someone above mentioned.

What I'm just saying is that I had a POI (that Type A) who wanted me to go "beyond" the standard department requirements. And the way to prove it was to do some research for him as his RA (he's fluent but these are just rediousl tasks :)). Back to my point- it varies so widely.

Well, that's annoying. I'm going to have to email lots of people.

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Yes... that surprises me. Depending on if you are looking at the early or late middle ages, or the Byzantine period, and what part of Europe I have friends who are required to show proficiency in at French, German, Latin, and Greek. The idea of being allowed to work primarily from translated documents surprises me.

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In your field, most likely, you'll get the chance to pass the language while you're working on your coursework, because you already have the primary research language (i.e. English); in most other fields, a lot depends on how long it takes to acquire a specific language. French is easy; Chinese is not. No Chinese History program would admit someone who can't read Chinese already, since it takes years to learn it well.

In Latin American History, you can have just Spanish and learn Portuguese along the way, or viceversa... but if you don't have either it will be very difficult to get into a decent program.

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For medievalists, really? There's a tutor at my college who's a medievalist and he does all his work using translated texts apparently, without knowing any other languages. Must just be the US/UK difference that someone above mentioned.

Well, that's annoying. I'm going to have to email lots of people.

At the same time, you don't want to give POIs ANY reason to reject or doubt you. Keep your question very, very general and you can deal with the specifics ONCE you've been admitted (and hopefully have choices!).

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I've talked to a few POIs already, and, in my experience, they would rather have you solid in one other language -- preferably your 'backbone' -- and also the language of the geographical area you want to cover. For example, I've been asked about my working knowledge of Latin, German, and French directly as a potential history PhD with a cert/focus in medieval history. They definitely want Latin, but if you're better at German or French, that's not a downside. On the other hand, if you're doing Napoleonic France, for example, French is required flat out, because it's the language of diplomacy and the geographic area you're covering. As TMP has said, it depends on who you're working with now and who you will be working with in the future that really makes these reqs stringent or not. But use your common sense.

It's better to be an overachiever than not; I'm personally going by Harvard's requirement of reading ability in at least 2 languages. Unless it's Latin, I'd shoot for basic "I can get around the city without ending up in a landfill or the redlight district" speaking competency.

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Yes, as others have pointed out, you will have a chance to work on languages while you are a student. You don't need to be 100% proficient from Day 1.

BUT, I would re-iterate the point that was made earlier: if you apply with no languages and no sign of having taken any interest in learning them, you may effectively shut yourself out from certain programs (obviously, nothing is absolute. Maybe they will be so impressed with some other part of your application that they will take you in regardless.)

So, even if you don't think you will need French or German or whatever language, I would suggest enrolling in something - an evening class, an online course, a summer class - just something which shows that you have the motivation and ability to do it, if needed.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I got some very snarky emails back from POIs recently stating that I need to have proficiency in a second language for their Literature program.

I was confused as I stated in the original emails that I had a double major in English Lit and Latin language composition and translation.

Does Latin not count as a second language now?

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What is the typical procedure with language exams if you have studied at an institution where the courses have been taught in that language?

You'll be able to discuss your (real) ability with your adviser and the department once you're admitted and enrolled. They'll want to make sure that you can pass the exam on the first try so they'll work with you. Also, generally how exams are conducted and graded are out of department's control- only under the foreign language department's control. Some foreign language departments have specific dates that one can sit in. You, your adviser, and the person conducting the exam will work together.

I got some very snarky emails back from POIs recently stating that I need to have proficiency in a second language for their Literature program.

I was confused as I stated in the original emails that I had a double major in English Lit and Latin language composition and translation.

Does Latin not count as a second language now?

Judging from your interests, it sounds like they want MORE than Latin. Latin is already required for Renaissance/medieval. Check the department's requirements for foreign languages for MA students. They may be thinking French or German. Also, don't be afraid to contact the DGS and say that you're uncertain whether or not your second major in Latin would make your a competitive applicant and would it be necessary to pursue another language before applying.

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Judging from your interests, it sounds like they want MORE than Latin. Latin is already required for Renaissance/medieval. Check the department's requirements for foreign languages for MA students. They may be thinking French or German. Also, don't be afraid to contact the DGS and say that you're uncertain whether or not your second major in Latin would make your a competitive applicant and would it be necessary to pursue another language before applying.

Good point. That's interesting! I've never seen any departments list Latin as a requirement for Renaissance Lit-- Medieval, yes. I have a working knowledge of written French (Canadian, though). Hmm!

I'll definitely contact the DGS. I have a feeling I'm being laughed out of the house by the rest of the professors... I erroneously referred to it as an English department. I think that may have contributed to the (deserved) snarkiness.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Just to answer an earlier question ... about having studied at an institution where the primary language was other than english. It's enough for some places and not for others. I have friends who have been required to sit exams in their native languages. Though I'm pretty sure that was a secret english test given how rampent cheating on the TOFEL is.

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