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Proving Language Competency for PhD Applications


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Hello! I searched the forums, but I did not find an answer to my specific question. I am in the military and I am currently getting an MA in history online. I realize this isn't considered ideal, but it is the only realistic option for me while in the military. It is a fairly rigorous program and I will be doing a thesis option, so I don't think my chances of a PhD program are abysmal. 

 

I want to go into German history (focus on 1871 to the present). At this point I know I could pass language exams from PhD departments in German. I have three years to get even better and also learn French. My program ends in 2016, and I will apply for admissions to PhD programs to enter in 2017 (when my military enlistment ends).

 

My question... Is there any way for me to prove language competency before entering? During my undergraduate career I took one German class and got credit for everything that came before it (equivalent of 2 years of college German). My skills are much better now. I want to show this improvement. Also, I will be learning French on my own. Extra undergraduate classes are not an option for me (no money, no availability). 

 

I know that there are official competency exams, but they often have speaking and listening components. I am far better at reading than the other areas (though I am getting better). Are there any reading exams that someone can take to prove competency? 

 

Otherwise I will have to just put a "self-assessment" of my skills on my PhD applications. I am not sure adcoms will believe a self-assessment without any proof.

 

My thesis will use primary sources showing German ability. Is this enough? Will they even notice? I won't be using French in my thesis (most likely), so that won't come up from the thesis.

 

Coming from an online MA I want to be as strong of an applicant as I can be, and foreign language competency is one way I can show this.

 

What are my options here?

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Hello,

 

I'm a recently admitted grad student enrolling in a Ph.D. program in the Fall and I study exactly what you do, ctg7w6: German history 1871-present! I did not do an MA but rather applied directly to Ph.D. programs (after two years out of school following my undergrad), and I, like you, could pass a German competency exam but not a French one (yet). Here's my advice for you:

 

When I applied to the Ph.D. program I will be attending (and several others), I simply used a writing sample from my undergraduate thesis (which features extensive use of German-language primary and secondary sources), and described my language skills in my statement of purpose. I lived in Germany for the two years following undergrad and simply stated that I'd been able to improve my language skills while living overseas. No school required me to submit a competency exam result, and I feel that if you outline what you've been doing to improve your competency in your SOP, that should be sufficient. Use of German-language sources in my writing sample and a description of my overseas experience was more than enough for the schools that I applied to (top-ten institutions for history). 

 

However, if you really feel the need to have your competency evaluated, I recommend doing the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI), and getting a rating (Novice through Superior) describing your skills. The interview will only take half an hour, and must be administered by someone familiar with the guidelines of the OPI, usually a language teacher. If you can't find someone qualified, I'd ask a language teacher to write you an evaluation that clearly describes your language skills and enclose that as an additional document with your application. I don't know of any reading-only exams … the TestDAF and the Goethe Zertifikat, the most prominent German language tests offered around the world, include speaking, listening, reading, and writing in equal proportions, and require a lot of study (as well as being rather costly).

 

All in all, I believe that the proofs of competency that you can provide in your SOP and writing sample will be more than sufficient (they were for me). Good luck!

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Good on you for what's very evidently a lot of drive and passion! Yay history!

 

I wonder though, do you necessarily need to provide a formal (and external) assessment of your language abilities? In my discipline it's nothing but self-reporting, with kudos to those who demonstrate their knowledge in their work via primary sources/secondary literature. Oral skills are far far far less important and are never evaluated over the course of your degree. 

 

You could also mention/reaffirm/emphasize with flair your language skills in your statement of purpose. Talk about how engaging with primary sources, in their original language, has dramatically deepened your comprehension and enthusiasm for the work of history or somesuch.

 

Also- don't be afraid to jazz up the way you describe your competency. Being tied to google translate and needing 3x time to get through a text still = "reading proficiency" with a language. No need to call yourself a beginner. 

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I wouldn't worry too much about this. Some applications will ask you to list your level of proficiency, and a couple might ask you to detail your language courses, but in my experience no one asked for formal proof, either on the application or the interview process. I think answering whatever the application asks, mentioning it briefly in your statement, and using a sample that has footnotes to primary sources in German/French, is more than sufficient. And like biisis said, keep in mind that the level of "proficiency" required by most programs is fairly low. 

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From my experience, PhD programs simply ask on their applications for self-claimed competency. Once you're in the program they'll have you demonstrate proificency by a reading exam that they'll set up, or refer you to that relative department for the exam. Coming into my Masters, I claimed limited proficiency in Chinese, Tibetan, and French. Since I am interested in further PhD work in East Asian Religious History - especially at the school I'm currently getting my Masters at, the department strongly suggested I go ahead and take reading proficiency exams just in case I can't further language courses during my Masters, and if it works out as such, my languages are stronger now than what they'll be in say 2-3 years from now.

 

When I inquried, the Department Chair said of the two modern languages (French and German), reading proficiency in one of them is required upon entry into the program. Applicants self notify which language they have proficency in on their application. During the first semester, there will be mandatory opportunities to prove proficency in the claimed language. Should the applicant fail the exam, rather than being removed from the program, they have until the close of the summer between Year 1 and Year 2 to prove profiency. If they're still failing the exam, then they're excused from the program.

 

As per pertinent languages, say Chinese and Tibetan (since my interest is in East Asian religious history), those profiency exams are done during the mandatory interview and campus tour when they invite their strongest candidates to campus.

 

Schools naturally differ with their approaches to languages so it's best to review the schools you're most interested in and/or contact the Department Chair for further clarification.

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Cheapest and most efficient way to demonstrate your proficiency is to use sources in the language as part of your writing sample.  The readers just want to know how good you're with conducting research in foreign languages.  That is all.  No need to go overanalyzing such a simple task :)

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I want to go into German history (focus on 1871 to the present). At this point I know I could pass language exams from PhD departments in German. I have three years to get even better and also learn French. My program ends in 2016, and I will apply for admissions to PhD programs to enter in 2017 (when my military enlistment ends).

 

What are my options here?

 

As TMP indicates, you may be over analyzing things here. If you're confident in your German, demonstrate it in your master's thesis/report. For example, do a close reading of a war plan, and compare your interpretation of it to ones offered in previous works. If such a tactic doesn't do the trick, just arrange to take an exam as soon as possible after your arrival at your next program.

 

A caveat: I would recommend that you be mindful of the fact that your proficiency will be determined by the professors with whom you work. Some professors may have a different vision of what skill level you should have given your preferred area of specialization.

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