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I have some time this summer before starting my MARc (ethics) at Yale Divinity in the fall, so I would like to get a start on languages in anticipation of PhD candidacy down the road. Although I have taken some French in high school and college, I would say that I am intermediate at best. I have taken no German.  My preliminary plan was to start German this summer  at the Goethe-Zentrum in Atlanta with a private tutor.  The focus would be on preparation for passing a German Proficiency Exam for Reading/Translation.  Next summer, I thought I would continue preparation in French and German for reading and then attend the 7 week immersion course in German at Middlebury in the summer of 2016.  

 

  1. Which languages and to what proficiency level (fluency, reading) do I need to demonstrate given my focus/interest in ethics.

  2. What is the best approach to achieve the demonstrated proficiency levels.  Any suggestions on my plan would be appreciated.

  3. Since languages cannot be used as electives in my program, I thought of not tackling a new language while pursuing my degree requirements.   Any thoughts on that line of thinking would also be appreciated.  

 

Thanks

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I think you're right on point. German and French are going to be the two you'll need, unless you're doing something like Thomist/Augustinian ethics in which case you'll need Latin.

 

The prep you have planned out seems excellent. It might be more than you "need" to get into a good ethics program, but all you do will make you a stronger candidate. 

 

I'm at PTS and most of the PhD hopefuls do intensive reading courses French/German at Princeton University over the summers if you want a comparison.

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I think you're right on point. German and French are going to be the two you'll need, unless you're doing something like Thomist/Augustinian ethics in which case you'll need Latin.

 

The prep you have planned out seems excellent. It might be more than you "need" to get into a good ethics program, but all you do will make you a stronger candidate. 

 

I'm at PTS and most of the PhD hopefuls do intensive reading courses French/German at Princeton University over the summers if you want a comparison.

Do PTS students not take language classes during fall and spring? I was planning on taking German during fall and spring semesters since I already know  Greek, Latin and French.

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Do PTS students not take language classes during fall and spring? I was planning on taking German during fall and spring semesters since I already know  Greek, Latin and French.

Yes they do as well. Depends how you learn. The advantage of the Summer courses is that it is set up so you can take two classes in one Summer.

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Yes they do as well. Depends how you learn. The advantage of the Summer courses is that it is set up so you can take two classes in one Summer.

Awesome. That sounds really nice.

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I'd say learn as much French and German as possible, because everyone will want to see that when applying to PhD programs. I got really lucky and was admitted to a program despite having no language training (aside from speaking Spanish and one year of Latin), but I would have had better chances for sure if I'd done the kind of work you're aiming for.

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What's the level of Arabic needed for Islamic studies PhDs? I guess it would differ based on which department, with NELC requiring more than others?

(Or should I open another thread for this?)

Edited by Averroes MD
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Looking up course prerequisites at the schools you're applying to may give you an idea of how much primary language prep they would like you to have (e.g. "Prerequisites: two years of Biblical Hebrew"). This doesn't apply to modern languages like German and French, but many programs specify on the website when you need to pass proficiency exams for modern languages. Often you need to pass a proficiency exam in one modern language before matriculating and another one after the first year. In some cases, you can opt out of the exam if you've taken (and passed) a course in the language at their school. I know someone who was a "finalist" candidate at several schools having only studied German independently, but in general it's best to be able to document your language study with coursework.

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These tests usually check reading ability, and often allow dictionaries, so do not waste time learning conversational, etc. I learned reading ability of Spanish in one summer. I only learned first and third person in past and present tense. What written stuff will be in second person future? I memorized vocab from a frequency list. I passed the Spanish reading test with ease, using common sense for context. I did already know French so this was even easier.

Edited by Cfl
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One of the scripture professors at my school, a Duke grad who just landed a job at Oxford, advised me that if I wanted to go for a PhD in scripture, I'd be wasting my time and money to apply without demonstrable knowledge of at least Greek (since I was thinking about NT at the time).

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One of the scripture professors at my school, a Duke grad who just landed a job at Oxford, advised me that if I wanted to go for a PhD in scripture, I'd be wasting my time and money to apply without demonstrable knowledge of at least Greek (since I was thinking about NT at the time).

Yeah, all the Bible people I know have Greek/Hebrew down pat and are pretty good at German (many have been doing one since college). It seems that those who want to do Hebrew Bible often don't do many Exegesis class and just focus upping their language game with  Ugaritic, Aramaic, etc.

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What should one do at the MA level in religious studies? I don't believe my program requires a language, but should I take language classes anyway? I did one year of German in undergrad (with one semester abroad, so that made it count for two years of German in terms of credit hours). I haven't touched the language since and so basically only retain a conversational ability. I took French all the way back in high school.

 

I think I'm a pretty poor language learner. I never made As, and in the German grammar class I took I got a C-. Language classes are like math for me - something I dread and avoid like the plague. I also don't see that it will make one iota of difference in my research. 

 

I feel that if I'm going to learn a language, which is a massive time sink, I better damn well go full monty and become fluent. This half assed "learn only so you can pass a stupid test that the department requires" to me is a gigantic waste of time and money. All the texts that I could ever hope to do work on have been excellently translated so far as I can tell. I'll leave it there, however, lest this turn more into a rant. 

Edited by Thorongil
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What should one do at the MA level in religious studies? I don't believe my program requires a language, but should I take language classes anyway? I did one year of German in undergrad (with one semester abroad, so that made it count for two years of German in terms of credit hours). I haven't touched the language since and so basically only retain a conversational ability. I took French all the way back in high school.

 

I think I'm a pretty poor language learner. I never made As, and in the German grammar class I took I got a C-. Language classes are like math for me - something I dread and avoid like the plague. I also don't see that it will make one iota of difference in my research. 

 

I feel that if I'm going to learn a language, which is a massive time sink, I better damn well go full monty and become fluent. This half assed "learn only so you can pass a stupid test that the department requires" to me is a gigantic waste of time and money. All the texts that I could ever hope to do work on have been excellently translated so far as I can tell. I'll leave it there, however, lest this turn more into a rant. 

 

If you're hoping to go into a PhD program, most religious/biblical/theological studies programs (along with the humanities in general) will want you to have reading knowledge of German and French at some point, preferably one of those before you enter the program. Probably most students only acquire reading knowledge rather than conversational abilities, although if you're able, that's good too since you'll be able to participate in international conferences where papers are given in languages other than English. I know it's hard to believe, but there's a world of scholarship out there that isn't in English! If you're serious about your studies, you're going to encounter many articles and works in German, French, and other languages that have not been translated into English and probably never will. Also, depending on the school, some applications want you to list all relevant courses you have taken along with your grade, so try to up your C- grade if you can!

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Welcome all you thread hijackers!   :D  Actually, all the language info is helpful no matter the area of concentration.  I have a general question to add to the discussion.  Is there a standardized test for reading/translation proficiency.  I know Yale administers an exam out of their language department that I assume I could take.  Does it matter which test or where I take the test.  I assume these are all just PhD application credentials items at the end of the day so does one particular test carry weight more?  Can the amount of time that has passed since passing a proficiency exam come into play?  Will an exam within say two years of filling out applications suffice?

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If you're hoping to go into a PhD program, most religious/biblical/theological studies programs (along with the humanities in general) will want you to have reading knowledge of German and French at some point, preferably one of those before you enter the program. Probably most students only acquire reading knowledge rather than conversational abilities, although if you're able, that's good too since you'll be able to participate in international conferences where papers are given in languages other than English. I know it's hard to believe, but there's a world of scholarship out there that isn't in English! If you're serious about your studies, you're going to encounter many articles and works in German, French, and other languages that have not been translated into English and probably never will. Also, depending on the school, some applications want you to list all relevant courses you have taken along with your grade, so try to up your C- grade if you can!

 

How does one acquire a reading knowledge of a language as opposed to the conversational knowledge they teach as an undergrad? How is the former not simply damn near fluency? Are there classes designed for reading texts only? I'm really wondering how I will find time to study what I'm supposedly there to study for a PhD if I'm learning two languages at the same time and all just so I can possibly read some article in the secondary literature that hasn't been translated. What a colossal waste of time. As I said, if I'm going to learn a language, I would want to learn it completely. 

 

I was thinking about taking Latin and going as far as I can with that because that language interests me and fits my interests fairly well. German and French are completely uninteresting to me as languages. So what would you advise me taking at the MA level? 

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How does one acquire a reading knowledge of a language as opposed to the conversational knowledge they teach as an undergrad? How is the former not simply damn near fluency? Are there classes designed for reading texts only? I'm really wondering how I will find time to study what I'm supposedly there to study for a PhD if I'm learning two languages at the same time and all just so I can possibly read some article in the secondary literature that hasn't been translated. What a colossal waste of time. As I said, if I'm going to learn a language, I would want to learn it completely. 

 

I was thinking about taking Latin and going as far as I can with that because that language interests me and fits my interests fairly well. German and French are completely uninteresting to me as languages. So what would you advise me taking at the MA level? 

I meant to mention, but forgot: German Quickly: A Grammar for Reading German by April Wilson is a textbook many people use in courses or to study independently. For French, it's French for Reading by Sandberg and Tatham. I would also recommend Ziefle's Modern Theological German. Many institutions offer courses for learning to read German or French for humanities students. April Wilson taught such a course at UChicago for many years. Learning to read articles and books in another language (with the help of a dictionary) is a lot easier than learning to hold a conversation in the language. It's also a very different set of vocabulary. In modern language courses, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur cds, etc. you'll spend a lot of time learning to ask for directions, order food, ask the opposite gender if they would like to go to dinner, and so on. None of that will be very useful for reading scholarship. No one learns a language "completely"; we learn for particular uses. For academic purposes, it's most important for you to be able to learn how to read scholarship in modern languages. If you want to learn how to order a sandwich in German, that's fine too but it won't help you very much in grad school.

 

As far as finding time, if you can take a course, great. If not, study as much as you can independently using the textbooks mentioned above. And I think you will find that as you get further in your studies and get serious about a particular research topic, there is a lot more than just one or two articles on your topic that haven't been translated. Learning to read German and French may not be interesting to you, but the reality is that you won't be able to get through a PhD program without them. For motivation, try to find an article that is a "must read" (i.e. it's commonly cited) in your field of interest that hasn't been translated and make it your goal to be able to read it.

 

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Is there a standardized test for reading/translation proficiency.

I have never heard of this. One of my language tests was translating a couple of pages out of a book that a prof picked out. The other test was translating a few pages out of a book that I picked out.

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It might be helpful here to distinguish between two different kinds of language you need for research. The first is primary language, the original languages of texts that you'll be focusing on. As you're applying for PhD work, you'll need to have made large strides on those—so if you're doing NT, Greek; if you're doing medieval history or theology, Latin; if you're studying modern philosophy of religion, German or French (depending on your school); if you're doing Islam, Arabic; etc. Neither you nor your program is going to want you to have to take up time during your coursework learning the languages you will already need to know. And the more textual your filed, the more important having primary language down.

 

The second, of course, are the secondary/modern literature languages. These are almost invariably French and German, and are generally required of everyone. So much of religious studies scholarship is done in these two languages (in addition to English) that you'll need to be able to read them and not rely on translations that may or may not exist. (There's nothing like getting that perfect resource you need but can't read it.) It's a good idea to have one of these down before you enter; some programs in fact require it.

 

As far as speaking vs. reading knowledge, they're two separate ballgames. Speaking knowledge is about how to get by when you're in a country; reading knowledge is learning how to decode. You might learn how to speak conversational French, but if you need to pick up Durkheim, Foucault, or John Calvin and read it, knowing how to give directions on the Paris Métro isn't going to help you much. Much less if you're given 250 and you have an hour to translate—a lot of native speakers can't do that. Think about language exams as bare minimum check boxes—if you're going to focus on a particular language for research, you're likely going to need far beyond what those tests will cover.

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As far as speaking vs. reading knowledge, they're two separate ballgames.  Speaking knowledge is about how to get by when you're in a country; reading knowledge is learning how to decode.

 

 

This is true only to a point, I think.  We know from second language acquisition research that speaking and writing help us learn languages, and that's true even if your ultimate goal is only to read.  I'm not saying you'll be able to read Voltaire after one semester of conversational French.  But even a little bit of speaking and listening can be very helpful with reading.  It's one thing to pass a translation exam; it's another thing to read foreign-language scholarship quickly and (relatively) easily.  In terms of long-term language proficiency, I would recommend pairing a conversational course with something like Sandberg's French for Reading or Wilson's German Quickly.  Yes, you'll learn a few words that you won't see in academic works, but that won't really slow you down.  Heck, some of us even speak (ancient) Greek and Latin, precisely because it makes reading much easier.  And somehow I don't expect to ever order a beer in ancient Rome.

 

 

 

I'm really wondering how I will find time to study what I'm supposedly there to study for a PhD if I'm learning two languages at the same time and all just so I can possibly read some article in the secondary literature that hasn't been translated. What a colossal waste of time.

 

As Theophany noted, your field is important here and will determine how many languages and which ones you need.  I'm writing a paper on patristic exegesis this semester for which I need Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian.  All of those are indispensable for what I'm doing.  But even for Americanists, I can't imagine having nothing but English.

 

At any rate, last year's probably worth mentioning here.

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It might be helpful here to distinguish between two different kinds of language you need for research. The first is primary language, the original languages of texts that you'll be focusing on. As you're applying for PhD work, you'll need to have made large strides on those—so if you're doing NT, Greek; if you're doing medieval history or theology, Latin; if you're studying modern philosophy of religion, German or French (depending on your school); if you're doing Islam, Arabic; etc. Neither you nor your program is going to want you to have to take up time during your coursework learning the languages you will already need to know. And the more textual your filed, the more important having primary language down.

The second, of course, are the secondary/modern literature languages. These are almost invariably French and German, and are generally required of everyone. So much of religious studies scholarship is done in these two languages (in addition to English) that you'll need to be able to read them and not rely on translations that may or may not exist. (There's nothing like getting that perfect resource you need but can't read it.) It's a good idea to have one of these down before you enter; some programs in fact require it.

As far as speaking vs. reading knowledge, they're two separate ballgames. Speaking knowledge is about how to get by when you're in a country; reading knowledge is learning how to decode. You might learn how to speak conversational French, but if you need to pick up Durkheim, Foucault, or John Calvin and read it, knowing how to give directions on the Paris Métro isn't going to help you much. Much less if you're given 250 and you have an hour to translate—a lot of native speakers can't do that. Think about language exams as bare minimum check boxes—if you're going to focus on a particular language for research, you're likely going to need far beyond what those tests will cover.

Very helpful post!

What do you think is the minimum number of years of study for your primary language prior to starting a phd?

Edited by Averroes MD
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Yeah, all the Bible people I know have Greek/Hebrew down pat 

 

he first is primary language, the original languages of texts that you'll be focusing on. As you're applying for PhD work, you'll need to have made large strides on those—so if you're doing NT, Greek; 

 

I guess I'm asking the same question as Averroes (again) but what exactly constitutes "down pat" or "great strides"?

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This is true only to a point, I think.  We know from second language acquisition research that speaking and writing help us learn languages, and that's true even if your ultimate goal is only to read.  I'm not saying you'll be able to read Voltaire after one semester of conversational French.  But even a little bit of speaking and listening can be very helpful with reading.  It's one thing to pass a translation exam; it's another thing to read foreign-language scholarship quickly and (relatively) easily.  In terms of long-term language proficiency, I would recommend pairing a conversational course with something like Sandberg's French for Reading or Wilson's German Quickly.  Yes, you'll learn a few words that you won't see in academic works, but that won't really slow you down.  Heck, some of us even speak (ancient) Greek and Latin, precisely because it makes reading much easier.  And somehow I don't expect to ever order a beer in ancient Rome.

 

Oh, I know all about second language acquisition (I'm a linguist by training), and I'm deeply suspicious of writing knowledge-only learning. The issue is that with language qualifying exams, you need to be able to translate Voltaire after a semester or two. I couldn't actually make it through Voltaire on the conversational path until after 4 or 5 semesters. It's a matter of being pragmatic about timeframe. You don't want to waste 3-4 classes during coursework learning your secondary research languages when you need to be spending those in seminars, developing research skills, writing, and preparing for comprehensive exams. If you're going to be reading a lot of German, for instance, then you obviously need to learn it at a deeper level, and then I would suggest the conversational-style classes. But if what you need is to fill a requirement, it may not be the best use of your time. One has to prioritize, esp. if you want to make it out of doctoral work in 5-7yrs rather than 7-10yrs. However, I will say that the way we teach so called conversational-style language in universities also does not accord with second language acquisition research, so I'm not so sure that's necessarily going to fix the problem.

 

 

Very helpful post!

What do you think is the minimum number of years of study for your primary language prior to starting a phd?

 

This is a difficult question, and I don't have a clear sense of the answer. It's going to differ based upon the field, and also based upon your ease of use of the language. And what you're particular research is on. And if there are good, reliable translations. I would talk to your advisor and/or a professor in the field at your institution. All we're going to be able to offer here is anecdotal evidence, where faculty are the ones actually reading applications and doing the teaching.

Edited by theophany
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Oh, I know all about second language acquisition (I'm a linguist by training), and I'm deeply suspicious of writing knowledge-only learning. The issue is that with language qualifying exams, you need to be able to translate Voltaire after a semester or two. I couldn't actually make it through Voltaire on the conversational path until after 4 or 5 semesters. It's a matter of being pragmatic about timeframe. You don't want to waste 3-4 classes during coursework learning your secondary research languages when you need to be spending those in seminars, developing research skills, writing, and preparing for comprehensive exams. If you're going to be reading a lot of German, for instance, then you obviously need to learn it at a deeper level, and then I would suggest the conversational-style classes. But if what you need is to fill a requirement, it may not be the best use of your time. One has to prioritize, esp. if you want to make it out of doctoral work in 5-7yrs rather than 7-10yrs. However, I will say that the way we teach so called conversational-style language in universities also does not accord with second language acquisition research, so I'm not so sure that's necessarily going to fix the problem.

 

Not all linguists know "all about" SLA, but I'm glad you're one of the exceptions.  How to apply SLA research to language instruction is a vexed question and I don't mean to hijack the thread any further.  But it's safe to say that a decent communicative language class is much more in accord with SLA research than grammar-translation instruction in ancient or modern languages.  At any rate, my point was that speaking a language, in the long run, can be and often is more effective than "German for Reading," "French for Reading," etc.  There's a reason why people go to Middlebury every summer.  But you're right, of course, about having to prioritize in order to jump through language proficiency hoops.

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