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For prospective theologians/ethicists/philosophers of religion: is having a language down necessary for applications?


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For those of us going for fields that only worry extensively about the two modern language requirements:

 

1. What constitutes having a language "down?" Is it moderate reading proficiency in academic German/French? Is it speaking ability?

 

2. Do you have to know one language prior to applying? As in, do you need to be able to demonstrate the results of your language training in your application to have a good chance?

 

The reason I ask is because for those who are in the traditional mainline MDiv program, summers will no doubt be taken up by required church/NGO internships that don't allow for dedicated language study. On top of that, trying to prepare for the GRE and doing this seems unrealistic since an internship will run 40 hrs/week, the language class 30 hrs/week, etc. The option of pursuing language study during the academic year either necessitates sacrificing one class for language study or putting it on top of your already 60-80 hour a week schedule, making it less than ideal then as well and rather threatening to the main academic preparation that I think should get priority.

 

In this sense, it seems much more logical to me to pursue language acquisition in the summer prior to matriculation into a doctoral program. I'm kind of hoping doctoral committees see it the same way.

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Most of them will not see it that way, sadly. It is often expected to have one research language "down" - several semesters of college study. Sometimes you can slide by having taken only one semester of "German/French for reading," but I think that for historical subfields that isn't enough. I would say 2 semesters is a good minimum. 

 

Also you shouldn't look at it as "sacrificing" a course. The fact is, having those modern languages "down" or at least underway will set you apart from 70%+ of the applicants. I have said it and will say it again: language preparation is one of the biggest reasons, if not the primary reason, that people do not continue on to doctoral work. Most committees are not going to sit down and pour over your two to three transcripts, commenting "oh wow, he took a class on X!" Generally, I think, having on your CV "reading prof. in German" or the like will set you apart. Language ability is not something that one learns fast. Many programs can get you "caught up" on a particular area you are not terribly familiar with. Language study, on the other hand, takes years. Start now. If you are in a historical field, put off as many "real classes" as you can and take language courses. It's what makes or breaks your app among the other 150 apps.

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It probably varies school to school. With regard to the specific disciplines you've mentioned, some schools that house those fields have amazing language departments (bigger research unis usually), and it's just standard that incoming PhD students take the undergrad language courses on top of their normal load in their first or second year (I did that during my first year.) It also depends on what you're studying. If you want to do historical studies, i.e. anything before the 18th century, you need to have Latin. The modern languages are not terribly difficult to learn, and most departments recognize that. Latin is tough for most people, so if you're planning on doing something in medieval Christianity or the Reformation, you do need to have some Latin under your belt to be competitive. If you're doing more contemporary ethics/phil of religion, it's not going to be as important as other application factors especially if you want to do American/English phil. of religion. I had one semester of college German that I had taken 4 years prior to my application. My original plan didn't include German philosophy/theology but that changed basically as soon as I started. Now I wish I had done more German prior to starting my program. Even though I've already passed the German reading exam, I'm nowhere near fluent and am still really slow at reading. I'm trying to get some money to go to Germany this summer for two months just to work on improving my language skills which is something I maybe wouldn't have had to do had I done more prep before.

 

You need to figure out what languages you will probably need. If you're studying figures from a foreign country, you will eventually need to be fluent in their language in order to write a good dissertation (especially if it's German.) If you're doing something historical, you need the relevant historical languages. If your language prep matches what you're proposing, that will definitely help.

Edited by marXian
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In my case I would be working in contemporary theological studies, a systematic/constructive approach with a minor in ethics. So I wouldn't have to work with Latin, Greek, or Hebrew or any ANE languages. Although, I should mention I have been trained in both Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew, both to an intermediate level and with corresponding exegetical projects that demonstrate proficiency; Not that this will matter much for my interests, but it is at least something my transcripts will show.

 

It's hard to disagree with the notion that having a language down beforehand is beneficial in its own right since it alleviates much of the pressure of trying to become competent in two languages in just two years, all while taking more coursework in one's direct academic interests. I'm very tempted and see this as a grand ideal to attain to. But I suppose this might necessitate a gap year if it is done right. Interestingly, none of the language classes at my current institution coincide well with even one of the theology classes I would take  (especially since the language course is 5x a week), so I'm not sure I can pull it off even If I try. I'll investigate this option further, though.

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Just to throw in a different point of view- I got into programs without having a language complete.  I addressed it directly with departments and let them know my plan for approaching language study.  My field is systematics and most of my programs require German, French and Latin. I've got my work cut out for me, that's for sure, but it is definitely possible.  

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Another Systematics person here.

My French is very good and just needs some brushing up. I will have to learn German this summer or during my program at some point.

I also have a little bit of Koine Greek but that was back in undergrad. 

I would say from my very limited experience that it's probably a good idea to have at least one of your languages done by the time you apply.

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I was accepted with only three semesters of Koine greek under my belt (and a bit of high school and travel-related French that I think I mentioned somewhere in my applicaiton materials). With two ancient languages, my guess is that you're more than well-prepared for doctoral applicaitons.

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In my case I would be working in contemporary theological studies, a systematic/constructive approach with a minor in ethics. So I wouldn't have to work with Latin, Greek, or Hebrew or any ANE languages. Although, I should mention I have been trained in both Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew, both to an intermediate level and with corresponding exegetical projects that demonstrate proficiency; Not that this will matter much for my interests, but it is at least something my transcripts will show.

 

It's hard to disagree with the notion that having a language down beforehand is beneficial in its own right since it alleviates much of the pressure of trying to become competent in two languages in just two years, all while taking more coursework in one's direct academic interests. I'm very tempted and see this as a grand ideal to attain to. But I suppose this might necessitate a gap year if it is done right. Interestingly, none of the language classes at my current institution coincide well with even one of the theology classes I would take  (especially since the language course is 5x a week), so I'm not sure I can pull it off even If I try. I'll investigate this option further, though.

I would be really careful about believing that, just because you are in contemporary theological studies, that the ancient languages are not requisite.  So many theological works are problematic because the writer cannot navigate in and out of the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin texts of scripture and scriptural interpretation.  Ultimately, theology goes back to scripture and the world surrounding it, be it the Israelite, Hellenized, Roman, or post-Roman.  Knowing the languages only makes one better, even if their emphasis is a contemporary one.  I think the main reason why so many MDivs, at least at Fuller, do not go on to PhD is because the program is so demanding in and of itself.  If I were an MDiv, I might consider taking a year off after the degree and doing the language prep and GRE prep then.      

Edited by awells27
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^ Yup. It's a growing trend for many subfields within religion/theology to lower the language requirements. Recent talk here is about allowing Google Translate for language exams. Related, I have several friends in doctoral programs in philosophy, and most, if not all of them, have one to two modern languages and nothing else. Many of them work with ancient and/or foreign language sources somewhat regularly (or are reading a lot of 'modern' philosophy that is heavily influenced by the Greco-Latin traditions), yet they are not required to engage with the primary texts much if at all (well they cannot, quite simply). The rise of 'theory' and its assorted friends are part of the reason, I think. One need only whisper that sacrilegious interest of 'philology' to discover how truly alone we are, my friend. Perhaps it's time to trade in our lexicons for some J. Z. Smith?! Haha. Perhaps not, I say!  B)

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Yeah, don't get me wrong, I think any Christian theological studies student is significantly bettered for having Greek and Hebrew in their toolkit. The experience I have gained in knowing these two languages (even if at an intermediate level) has been invaluable even in my current work. I speak here only of the practical reality that neither Greek nor Hebrew tend to be a requisite requirement for the purposes of fulfilling PhD requirements. 

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If you're working in theology beyond the 18th century, I can guarantee that the ancient languages are not going to be requisite. There may be other reasons a person decides to add ancient languages (e.g. 19th century theological reception of ancient philosophy, etc.) but unless it is central to what you're studying, you just won't have the time to become proficient in that many languages. There's too much philosophy to worry about. I study the early 20th century, and I'm expected to be well versed in Kant's critical and practical philosophy and philosophy of religion, the Idealist tradition, Marx, and especially neo-Kantianism, a field that almost no actual philosophers are working on (so it's hard to find primers). I have barely used any of my Greek knowledge from seminary and none of my Hebrew (I know the ANE, and ancient med folks here will hate hearing that...)

 

Your adviser is going to only be concerned about language insofar as it is going to help you write the dissertation. I had considered adding Latin since many of the figures I read (Weber, Troeltsch, Otto) cite things in Latin, use Latin phrases, refer to texts written in Latin, etc., but ultimately it was just going to take too much time away from other areas that were more important to develop expertise in.

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Keep in mind, also, that applying to PhD programs is about making your application stand out amongst the others applying. It may not be requisite to have languages down in general, but if you're applying in a pool of people who have one or two languages down (maybe even majored in a language as an undergraduate, or spent their whole time of their M* program doing languages), you're going to be at a disadvantage. Doctoral applications aren't mostly about "do I have all the boxes checked," because everyone will; it's about what you have over and above everyone else. 5-7%, remember.

 

Of course, everything gets taken in whole, but I bet you're going to be spending more time worrying about GREs than languages, which is by far less important in the long run. If you walk into a library and don't speak French and German, the resources you can use will be greatly fewer; and translations are unreliable when you're doing the hardcore kinds of textual analysis necessary for all the fields we're going into. Don't think of language requirements as requiring "sacrifice" to other coursework; they are just as important, if not more so, for doing your own research.

 

As for summer study, my coursework in linguistics leads me to be unconvinced that the average person (i.e. a non-polyglot) can get much out of them. Everything we know about language learning suggests that cramming a year's worth of teaching into two months or less does not work. Language isn't a knowledge like other things; it's an ability, a capacity that can only be acquired over a continuous period of time in which it can be nativized, so to speak. 

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Are we talking about ancient languages or French and German? I can definitely attest that for someone doing more contemporary theology, getting started on French and German now is a good idea but only because it's tough to start those from scratch once you start your PhD. I started from *almost* scratch, and it has not been easy. But I was referring to the suggestion that having a long list of ancient languages under your belt will help if your proposed field is contemporary theology. Ancient languages are going to be seen as only peripherally relevant to an application in contemporary theology and not something I would think would be the first thing an adcom goes to in deciding between two candidates in that field in particular.

 

Anything at all you can do to start in on French and German (especially German) is going to be helpful in the long run.

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Are we talking about ancient languages or French and German?

 

For those of us going for fields that only worry extensively about the two modern language requirements:

 

1. What constitutes having a language "down?" Is it moderate reading proficiency in academic German/French? Is it speaking ability?

 

Windfish's question was about fields that only care about two modern languages, and mentioned French and German specifically. The discussion about ancient languages is interesting, but wasn't the original question. So yeah, either French or German down before you apply in order to be competitive (some programs require one for application in the first place). For what "down" means I'd look at what language qualifying exams look like. For example, at HDS they involve translating a few hundred words of intermediate difficulty theological/religious studies text in an hour with use of a paper dictionary. (Samples here) That seems a pretty fair standard to me, so I'd aim to be able to do that. Look at what programs you're thinking of applying to require. Speaking is great, but really only if you plan on giving presentations in that language. If you want to focus on, say...Barth, being able to speak German would be important. Otherwise, eh.

Edited by theophany
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Theo (god, heh),

 

What are your thoughts of 'rapid' immersion language learning? I did Middlebury last summer (German) and will likely do modern Hebrew this summer. The German program progressed my German quite a bit, I think, but we could not hear, read, write anything but German. I don't study linguistics, so I'm curious!

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If you want to KNOW the language, or at least get started down that path, Middlebury would be a wonderful experience - I did it for French and Arabic.

 

If you're working in contemporary studies and merely need reading proficiency to work with texts and ultimately pass your language exam, it's overkill - there are far better, and cheaper, options.

 

EDIT: By better I mean options geared toward maximizing reading proficiency in a language. A lot of universities have 1+ credit courses dedicated to obtaining reading proficiency. Princeton's summer courses come HIGHLY recommended, if you can get a spot in one, that is. Outside of housing and meals, the course is about $500 or so. They're also structured so that you could do French and German in one summer block.

Edited by xypathos
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To echo xypathos:

 

Immersion is an entirely different story. Immersion is the way (I think) we best learn language, and you can make further strides doing "rapid" immersion than years of sitting in a classroom. There's a vast difference between sitting in a classroom and having to think on your feet in a casual conversation, order food, give directions, or whatever. Middlebury is known the country over because of how effective its program is at simulating the language conditions of a study abroad program (if not actually better, given how much English is spoken worldwide).

 

There is a caveat, though. Middlebury doesn't teach philosophical or theological vocabulary. Its emphasis is on everyday written and spoken languages. Knowing that the word for "intersection" in French is "carrefour" is probably not going to help you read Calvin, Durkheim, or Foucault, if all you need is to read them. German is an entirely different beast because of the way German thinkers play with language. So, though I'm fluent in French, I still often need a dictionary to get through theological or philosophical texts. 

Edited by theophany
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Makes sense. Though learning the 'theological' words are not so much a problem once you have a good foundation. And as you know, written German tends to follow a set of verbal patterns, while spoken varies much more. Yes the cost of Middlebury is very high! I have thankfully had funding to attend previously, and will this summer, too. I figure if I am going to spend a summer on a language I would rather go 'all out' and try to think (and dream, eventually) like a native.

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Windfish's question was about fields that only care about two modern languages, and mentioned French and German specifically. The discussion about ancient languages is interesting, but wasn't the original question. So yeah, either French or German down before you apply in order to be competitive (some programs require one for application in the first place). For what "down" means I'd look at what language qualifying exams look like. For example, at HDS they involve translating a few hundred words of intermediate difficulty theological/religious studies text in an hour with use of a paper dictionary. (Samples here) That seems a pretty fair standard to me, so I'd aim to be able to do that. Look at what programs you're thinking of applying to require. Speaking is great, but really only if you plan on giving presentations in that language. If you want to focus on, say...Barth, being able to speak German would be important. Otherwise, eh.

 

Right. Which is why I was addressing the people who were saying not to discount the ancient languages when I said that those languages wouldn't be requisite. I was confused because your first reply to me essentially said "languages might not be requisite, but they'll make you competitive." So I didn't know which languages you were referring to because it seemed like you were addressing me and not Windfish.

 

Regarding your last point about only needing reading comprehension...if Windfish (or anyone else) is planning on studying German figures, speaking German is absolutely essentially and giving presentations in the language is not the reason. Most of us who study German theological figures want to go to Germany for a year of our program because, frankly, that's where all the best scholars on those figures are by and large. To win a DAAD research grant or a Fulbright or something like that, demonstrating that you know the language beyond reading comprehension is essential (the DAAD, for example, has a language evaluation form that goes with your application package that evaluates your speaking and listening comprehension abilities to be completed by a German prof at your uni.)

 

Furthermore, De Gruyter in Berlin is the major academic publishing house for all things related to German theology. Yes, many people over there speak English, but you're just going to have a much easier time establishing a relationship with the people there if you speak German. They publish encyclopedias, dictionaries, volumes upon volumes of edited essays, new editions of texts, etc. in both English and German and are always looking for competent academics to head up those projects. Someone who doesn't speak German is not going to get those jobs.

 

If you're working on a German figure, even someone widely translated into English, fluency or at least advanced competency in German (speaking, writing, reading) is absolutely essential by the time you're deep into your program. 

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Regarding your last point about only needing reading comprehension...if Windfish (or anyone else) is planning on studying German figures, speaking German is absolutely essentially and giving presentations in the language is not the reason. Most of us who study German theological figures want to go to Germany for a year of our program because, frankly, that's where all the best scholars on those figures are by and large. To win a DAAD research grant or a Fulbright or something like that, demonstrating that you know the language beyond reading comprehension is essential (the DAAD, for example, has a language evaluation form that goes with your application package that evaluates your speaking and listening comprehension abilities to be completed by a German prof at your uni.)

 

Furthermore, De Gruyter in Berlin is the major academic publishing house for all things related to German theology. Yes, many people over there speak English, but you're just going to have a much easier time establishing a relationship with the people there if you speak German. They publish encyclopedias, dictionaries, volumes upon volumes of edited essays, new editions of texts, etc. in both English and German and are always looking for competent academics to head up those projects. Someone who doesn't speak German is not going to get those jobs.

 

If you're working on a German figure, even someone widely translated into English, fluency or at least advanced competency in German (speaking, writing, reading) is absolutely essential by the time you're deep into your program. 

 

Right, which is what I said. Or meant to say with the Barth reference. If your primary focus is on a figure who predominantly wrote in a different language, you obviously will need to be able to speak that language too in order to participate in the scholarship.

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Would it be harmful to take language classes as Pass/Fail if the intent is to apply for a PhD later? 

 

For those at HDS, can I take my Arabic classes as Pass/Fail ? I've taken language classes before and they are hard as heck to get an A in. Thanks.

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Would it be harmful to take language classes as Pass/Fail if the intent is to apply for a PhD later? 

 

For those at HDS, can I take my Arabic classes as Pass/Fail ? I've taken language classes before and they are hard as heck to get an A in. Thanks.

 

As per, http://www.gsas.harvard.edu/handbook/academic_information.php - Graduate Students are not entitled to utilize the Pass-Fail option with their courses, it's an undergraduate option only.

 

That said, with instructor permission, you may be allowed to take a course as SAT/UNS

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