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Questions about languages and a year off


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Hi all! 


So, some background on me. I'm currently a Master's student in the UK, and classical archaeology Master's students here really have no language requirements or classes. I am taking a year off once I'm done this MPhil and will be applying to PhD programs later this year, and I want to improve my languages. I was a pretty good student as an undergraduate, and did the equivalent of 4.5 years of Latin, 3 of Greek. My Latin seems to be pretty good even still, but my Greek is, as always, incredibly weak.


I'm wondering what might be the best approach to improving at the languages during my time off. Can anyone recommend anything specific? Should I tackle PhD lists where they are provided on program websites? Or should I just pick a random array of things to work through? Or a textbook?? 


I'm also hoping to improve my German - I took 2 years as an undergraduate so I have a pretty good grammar base but I have no idea what a PhD German exam would look like and I obviously don't need practice in conversational German (knowing how to order dinner isn't going to help me very much!). Does anyone have any suggestions for how to go about this too? Should I just pick a random archaeological text in German and work my way through it to get a grasp on vocab or should I go about this in a more systematic way? 


Finally - in addition to the German, I have pretty good Italian (being Italian-Canadian myself) and have zero concerns about passing an Italian exam, but I also have some French behind me (... being Canadian). The French is a bit rusty and I'm much better at reading French literature, newspapers, etc., than reading academic texts, although I get by really well regardless and I can't say it's a struggle, more that it's just slow. Is there any merit in spending time during my year off - which, as I've said, I will already be devoting to Latin, Greek, German, and applications - on French as well? Are they going to quiz me at interviews on just how good my French is if I mention it on a letter/ CV?


Any advice would be appreciated; I'm getting very nervous about language reqs/ exams!

Edited by ciistai
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First off, let me just say this: you will be fine. Language requirements are stressful, but you are much better prepared than most applicants. As it is, you have enough language training (both ancient and modern) to get into the best classical archaeology programs. 


Where are you planning to spend your year off? Could you find an ancient Greek reading group to improve your reading skills? Since you have already met the entrance requirements in terms of ancient languages, I would recommend just picking a text that will/might be relevant to your dissertation topic, and try reading it. Don't focus too much on what programs have on their reading lists; you don't know where you will end up going, and it's probably a better idea to focus on reading texts that will benefit you and your research rather than texts that you will maybe potentially have to read for an exam at any given school. 


As for the modern languages, look through various department handbooks to see how different universities handle the exams. My department asks each student to provide a list of 5 books or monograph that are relevant to their research. The examiners choose a passage from one of these books for the translation exam. This way, students are compelled to develop a solid vocabulary in their own area of research, and archaeologists don't end up having to translate some obscure philology article on their German exam. The best way to prepare fo this kind of exam is just to try reading articles relevant to your field in German. A good way to make sure you are on the right track would also be to begin with a famous book that has been translated into English (say, Paul Zanker's The Mask of Socrates), try reading it in German, and check that you've understood the arguments properly by referring to the translation. Another tip is to buy a good paper dictionary to look up vocabulary and to put a red dot next to every word that you look up, every time. If a word ends up having three red dots, you should make a flashcard! If you are reading material related to your research, this will allow you to learn the relevant vocabulary quickly in order to read more efficiently. 


You should also give yourself a break at some point during your year off. The MPhil is exhausting and you deserve to give your brain a holiday, at least for a couple of weeks! :)

Edited by Melian4
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Hi Melian,


Thank you for your response! I am pretty stressed about this, but I'm trying to be reasonable about things. I suppose I just feel like I am very inadequately prepared for an American PhD program!


I am hoping to spend my year off back in my hometown of Toronto, and hopefully working full-time. I actually didn't think about trying to find a reading group, but now that I think of it, I'm sure some of my old friends from my alma mater would love something like that. I am not a giant fan of Greek but it would definitely be less of a drag if I could get someone else involved. 


Your department's policy on modern languages sounds excellent. I am definitely afraid of having to translate some irrelevant text! I was in a German for Classicists course here at Oxford last year, but it was mostly aimed at ancient historians and philologists; the vocabulary was entirely useless to me. I'm glad to hear some departments are a bit more understanding about our wish to actually learn what's useful to us! Thank you as well for the suggestion about dictionary + flash cards. I have the big Oxford German dictionary back home, so I think that will work nicely!


A break is certainly in order once I'm done with this!! I hand in my thesis June 5th and have a viva June 25th; soon after that I will make sure to take a mini-vacation! 


Thank you so much once again; I was pretty nervous about all this so it's really good to get another perspective :) 

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Ha! I also did the German for classicists course at Oxford... It was fun, but pretty useless, as you said. :) You're massively more prepared than most applicants, even at the best programs, so try not to worry too much. Once you've met a department's basic criteria (which you already have), it's a question of research and personality fit more than anything else. You'll have plenty of time to worry about requirements and exams once you begin your PhD! Good luck on the dissertation and viva! Do you know who will be administering it this year? I remember it being terrifying but oddly fun at the same time...

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