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Language proficiency for Japanese History PhD


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Apologies if this has already been discussed before but I was was wondering if it is worth applying this December for PhD programs for 2015 with limited Japanese language proficiency?

I got my MA from SOAS with good grades 4 years and have been working as a journalist for an international news organization (with a few articles published on Japanese politics). Although I studied Japanese politics and history during my undergrad and masters I did not learn the language. I will fund myself to study the language in Tokyo for 6 months after 2 months of self study to start off. Is that enough to give me a chance? I think my area of interest is unique and quite contemporary in terms of what unis are looking at (my former professors say so too).

I assumed I would need 1/2 years of language study before being considered but some people are suggesting that many programs would invest in helping me learn it if they believe in me as a scholar.

What are your experiences? Do they ask proficiency level in the application process?

Also should I consider being a journalist at a reputable news org a positive or a negative?


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First, yes, they do ask for proficiency level when you apply. You don't have to be super specific (i.e. indicating a JLPT level) but you do need to be able to describe how well you read/write/listen/speak the language, both on the application and on your CV.


My experience has been that the more proficient you are in your target language(s), the better. Many programs want you to have at least 2 foreign languages. You can be a little less fluent in one, but you definitely want at least an intermediate-advanced proficiency. That said, if you're a competitive candidate, programs will invest in you learning the language to get you up to a high level (to near-native/native), but you generally do need a good foundation going in. I know for a fact that one of the reasons I wasn't considered as strongly for programs in History last year was because my third (or fifth, depending on how you count it) language (the one in which I want to do a majority of my research) wasn't as advanced yet and I didn't have a great deal of experience doing original research in that language. Assuming you get in, you'll probably do some language classes at your uni and then get sent to IUC for a summer or a year (or both).


With six months of study, you could easily get up to an intermediate proficiency, Depending on what you study, that may be good enough to get you in. More is really always better, though, obviously, so if at all possible, do as much language study as you can. If there are language schools or programs run through unis that do short, intensive language study (generally two week sessions), do those on your vacations. Programs also do seem to like people with life experience, and people come back to academia with all kinds of work experience, so I would say if you present it in the right light, it can be quite beneficial.


I have two friends who took a year between their MA and PhD to do language study in their target countries and it made them much more competitive candidates (they also worked on their theses and things and firmed up their SoP a lot, too, obviously). Their language proficiency was quite good before that, but the year abroad in directed programs and immersed in the language gave them that edge, and made them much more appealing to PhD programs. Depending on how this cycle works out, that may end up being the route that I take, as well. Language is absolutely vital. You can generally go into an MA with little to no language experience, but for PhD, it can be make or break.


This is all, of course, based on my experience, and your mileage may vary.

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Thanks for the response, that is really helpful.

I am going to go for an immersive Japanese language school in Tokyo (October 2014-April 2015). That would mean I would only be two months into the course. Could I lie and tell there where I think I will end up in terms or proficiency?

I am fluent in a South Asian language but that won't help me here though!

What is your view on whether journalism experience? I was told by a couple of academics that it would look good but I wasn't sure whether I should look at it as a positive or negative/neutral?

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Here an alumna from SOAS and applying to Japanese Art History PhD in the US this year! The message I've received in my field is that you should be able to translate without a dictionary a text of your discipline...by when depends on the program. I consider myself upper intermediate and I'm terrified they're gonna think it isn't enough. You can look for the graduate guidebooks of the programs you like and see what the language requirements are. You can also ask your PoI. Where are you thinking of applying to?

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I am hoping I can reach intermediate level by April 2015 and departments will think that I should be able to get to the level I need by the end of the 2nd year. Not sure they would want to risk it though as there must be 100s of candidates.

Good luck with the applications. At one point I was thinking of casting my net incredibly wide and go for 10-15 programs but I think I might cut that down to something like: Harvard, Princeton, IU-Bloomington, UC-Berkeley, Chicago, and Duke along with adding a couple more realistic options as back up.

I'm wondering though whether I should give myself more of a chance and go for 2016 instead.

I see you got into Ohio State. I might check out their Japanese History program too. Good luck with the rest...must be nice to know you are definitely in somewhere for this year.

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As far as telling them where you think you'll end up, I think it depends on the school. You can say you'll be finished with x level at y time, but it's not like IUC where you can just say "oh yeah I went to IUC" and have them know pretty much exactly what you have learned/will learn. I mean, obviously you're going to have to talk about what you are doing/will be doing for the rest of the year in your SOP, but it's difficult to predict proficiency. 


Journalism experience I guess also depends on the school. I would talk to POI and see what they think. If you're worried about proficiency and things, you could also try talking to POI or, more informally, current grad students at the programs you're applying for. I would see it as a positive, but that's me, and I'm just an MA student.

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I never like to rain on anyone's parade, but as someone from a neighboring field (Korean literature), I would strongly encourage the mod to take a realistic view of what is involved in learning a difficult Asian language. Even with two months of self-study to get started, six months of intensive language courses will only scratch the surface of Japanese. Even if you remain committed to studying the language for the next two years after going to a PhD program in the States, you will almost certainly not be at a level to read source documents or academic treatises. (These things are far beyond what any language course will teach and will require significant self study.) If you intend to study periods before the language reforms of the 20th century, heaven help you. 


As for admissions, most of the East Asian Studies PhD students from top schools (Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, UCLA) I have met at conferences (I studied here in Korea) already had "advanced" level proficiency in the primary language of their topic of study and were pursuing second languages. This isn't to say they were fluent--having studied primarily in the US, many of them had limited ability to express themselves--but they could at least work their way through reasonably accurate translations of advanced texts. I'm not sure that you could get into a competitive school without being at least at that level. Having seen acquaintances from even top schools struggle to find jobs after graduation, I'm also not sure what might happen to the people who go to second-tier schools. 


Apologies for the negativity, but (as I hope you're already aware) Asian studies, and Japanese much more than Korean, is actually extremely competitive when looked at over the course of a career. If you have the commitment, I think it can be very rewarding--but I would second Skylarking's suggestion that taking a year to work on your language in Japan would make you much more competitive, not only for PhD admissions, but later in your career as well. Specifically, you could look into Fulbright fellowships and grants/fellowships from the Japan Foundation. I'm not sure about time frames, but both of these programs offer money for people interested in pursuing Japanese studies related research and/or for learning the language. 


Anyhow, don't get discouraged--but do make sure to think about the long game and where you hope to fit within the Japanese History establishment. 

Edited by thevillagersid
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No, that makes sense. I think you have answered the question already but would 2 months of self study, 6 month immersive/intensive course, followed by 5 months of nothing but self study get me anywhere near upper intermediate level you think? As my year leading up to (assuming by some miracle I get in somewhere) uni starting I will be doing nothing but focusing on Japanese. Then followed by spending summers of my university time in Japan learning the language too hopefully.

I will look into Fullbright to see if that might fit. I was thinking of applying to MEXT scholarships and Japan Foundation grants as backup in case I don't get what I want for 2015 admissions. Not sure I have the money to fund too much more than 6 months study in Japan.

Thanks for the advice and good luck with the Korean.

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If you're British Fulbright won't be the fit for you, I believe.


Are you in London, as your profile says? Would you like to meet up for some tea and maybe I can advice you a bit on the study of the Japanese language?

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I hate to rain on your parade as well, but I'd have to agree that I don't think the language training you're suggesting is going to be sufficient to be accepted to a PhD. At least in my History department, all the students are expected to have at least one foreign language under their belt upon admission, and to pick up the second while they're here in the first two years. If you're doing an earlier field that will require Bungo and Kambun as well, it is even more imperative that you have your modern Japanese up to snuff before you get started.


I recommend spending some more time on your language. Perhaps apply for IUC after your first year of language training abroad. (Yes, it is easier to get funding for IUC if you are already enrolled in a graduate program, but as someone who received full funding for the program between their BA and MA, I can tell you it can be done :) ). My advisor is recommending a couple of our MA students in East Asian Studies who wish to apply for History PhDs to go to IUC before applying, so I wouldn't be surprised if POIs would recommend the same to you.


Good luck!

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As someone that has JLPT level 1 and has spent 5 years living in Japan, I have to say I don't think a 6 month program and that amount of  self-study is really going to get you to a very proficient level in that time frame. Japanese is a language, like many others, dependent on cultural references to communicate effectively. I think that you'd have hard time calling yourself proficient/fluent without a decent amount of time spent in the country. And, no, I don't think 6 months is enough.

I would spend time in Japan doing something that allows you to study intensively, but for a longer period of time.

Then again, I don't know your abilities or your skill in absorbing a language. For reference though the following are a must:

Kanji in Context (the full series plus reference text)
Intermediate Japanese (Writen by McGloin I believe)

Anki (study every day!)

Lang8 (You can use this to study Japanese with Japanese people while helping them learn English)

Once you get to a level of proficiency where you can start reading even a little bit, do it and just keep doing it. I hope this doesn't come of as arrogant! Let me know if you need any other suggestions for helpful texts!

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@maeldoin and kyjin

Thank you for the advice. And no need to apologise or feel bad...I am here looking for views from those who are in the same situation, or have been in the past. And this is all helpful...not looking for cheerleaders! Please send over any other books you think I should get for self-study.

I met up with a former professor of mine the other day and his perspective is that language is not the most important aspect for US universities. He thinks the "story" in the SOP is the most crucial along with recommendation letters, followed by the writing sample and then language and GREs. While he is working here in the UK, he has taught in the US and goes back there quite often. That is not to say that I do not need to work on my language!

He thinks my plan of looking to apply at the end of this year for 2015 is right. While I should have a better chance in 2016/2017, it would be good preparation and he says some departments may not be as worried about language as others because, unlike here in the UK, you get a lot more time.

Despite all that, I doubt I will get in anywhere in 2015 but considering I left my job to focus on a PhD, I might as well put in some applications.

@elisewin: I've moved back to the UK this month and spend about half my time in London commuting in from my parents place. It would be great to get your thoughts over some tea. Shall send you a message now with my email to see if we can work out a time that works.

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Nothing wrong with doing a trial run of applications if you can afford it. I realize you already have an MA, but perhaps you should apply to a handful of MA programs in East Asian Studies/East Asian Languages and Cultures as well next year? Might be another way to up your language skills and up your application for PhDs. There are a handful of programs that have funding available, so it might be a decent option. (And again, if professors advise you to go to IUC, this will give you some sort of affiliation that will help with financials.) 


Out of curiosity, which era are you interested in studying?

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That is something I have considered but not really looked at closely as of yet. I am up for keeping all my options open...I have started emailing professors in Japan that are looking into similar research to me in case I have to go for the MEXT scholarship. I think the applications for the 2015 scholarship open (April) after the decisions from US universities come out. Have to look into that properly, will start reading into MEXT guidelines soon.

Although I find the Tokugawa period fascinating my area of interest is in migration into Japan 1980s-present. I am assuming this is regarding the need for understanding Classical Japanese? I am assuming it is even tougher than modern Japanese. Is that right?

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