Watching our languages

U iz a persn of lettrs?

Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine who’s going to become the Graduate Studies Chair of his interdisciplinary humanities department (bless his heart!), and we talked about his plan to introduce a foreign language requirement for their Ph.D. students.  I expressed shock that his department didn’t already have one, which is why I guess he wants to implement one.  He doesn’t know how the rest of the faculty will react to his ideas, and he confessed that his plan might go nowhere.

We talked about the tragic irony of universities cutting foreign-language departments while simultaneously encouraging the faculty to “globalize” the curriculum, collaborate with international researchers, and admit more non-U.S. students to our programs.  (I guess it’s the privilege of the Empire to insist that its language is the new lingua franca, but it sure seems obnoxious and anti-intellectual to me.)  I had to learn two other languages at least to the functional reading level in order to earn my Ph.D., and never thought that I’d need them for my research.  But then, my research crossed the border into Quebec, and I surely was glad that I had at least some rudimentary French language skills.  (And you know, you can improve your language skills even in middle age, if you travel a bit, spend all day in the archives taking notes in another language, and talking to the locals.  Ca marche, mes amis!  And maybe one of these days I can find the right accent marks in WordPress. . . ) 

In short, I have no idea what I’d be doing now if I were restricted to English-language only documents.  That’s where my field has been–I don’t think that’s where it’s going, or at least I hope that’s not where it’s going to stay. 

What’s the state of foreign-language study at your uni, and do your graduate programs require training in foreign languages?  Do you have any practical (or political) advice for my friend about how he might implement of such a requirement?  What do you graduate students think about your foreign language requirements?  If you are a faculty person, what is your experience with students and foreign language requirements?

48 thoughts on “Watching our languages

  1. I’m in a Performance Studies and Theatre Arts Dept. and we’re required to have proficiency in one foreign language for a PhD. However, languages that fulfill that requirement include more than your standard French, German, Spanish, Chinese, etc. Recent grads have used ASL as their language and one current colleague of mine is petitioning to use HTML, CSS, and a few other computer languages in fulfillment of the requirement. (I don’t have any problems with this, though I think some of my colleagues, and one or more of the profs, do.)


  2. This makes me think of a fellow student in my grad program. My grad program required PhD students to demonstrate proficiency in two foreign languages. Since this was a honking big graduate university, there were a ton “Reading [Whichever Language]” courses that were one quarter long, completing which would fulfill your requirement. (German, though, was two quarters.) This particular Americanist thought this requirement was OUTRAGEOUS because she was never ever going to use said foreign languages, and when some of us (*cough*medievalists*cough*) pointed out that we were required to do three languages (2 modern and Latin), she insisted that was different because we actually USED those languages, and because she had to take two languages she would never use, we should have to take FIVE languages for our experience to be the equivalent of hers.

    Yeah. (She also insisted that the name of the premier medieval studies journal – Speculum – was inherently sexist and misogynistic because it was named after the gynecological instrument. Seeing that she didn’t know it meant “mirror” in Latin and that it referenced a medieval genre. I’m not going to say it’s not a little weird to have a journal named Speculum, nor that the profession is never sexist or misogynistic, but it was not an especially welcome comment.)


  3. If you have a Mac, the easy way to insert accents is with keyboard shortcuts: alt-e for an acute accent, alt-` for a grave, alt-i for a circumflex, alt-u for an umlaut, etc. There may be something comparable for Windows machines, but I’m not sure. There’s also a set of html tags for special characters, which you can use in WordPress–here’s one list of them all: If you edit your posts in html (which you can toggle on and off in the edit window), all you need to do is insert the tag with the name (e.g. &eacute 😉 in place of that character.

    Since I had achieved proficiency in French and Latin by the end of my first year of college, and am primarily interested in studying modern Britain in graduate school, I always figured I’d pass the language requirements, no big deal, and that it was just a hoop to jump through like my undergrad language requirement. I recognized the objective merits of knowing a foreign language or two, but was never really emotionally invested in the idea. Then I started researching a senior thesis on a 19th-century British figure who, it turns out, regularly wrote in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian in addition to English. Now I see why grad-school language requirements matter, and plan on starting German at the earliest opportunity.


  4. It bugs me, in particular, that part of the implication for U.S.-focused programs (whether history, literature, or American Studies) is the false presumption that this country is (and always has been) a monolingual nation. Maybe if we asked graduate students to dabble in archive materials that were other than English we would end up with much more interesting and dynamic dissertations about the U.S.

    For the record, too, it’s not like I was raised speaking anything other than English. Language acquisition continues to be an ongoing challenge for me. But isn’t that sorta the point of being in academia in the first place?


  5. I also knew a grad. student training as an Americanist who railed against the dreadful and unfair system of being forced to learn a foreign language, when such knowledge was “completely irrelevant” to American History. And to him, I guess, it was: his dissertation was an intellectual history based upon academic documents produced by English-writing elites. Since he worked exclusively with English-language sources I suppose it never occurred to him that significant percentages of Americans at any given moment write and speak other languages. In the end, he managed to pass a Spanish exam, and to get statistics accepted as his second language.

    I would imagine that if your friend wants to gain any visibility for his interdisciplinary program, he will have to have a language requirement. If and when his program is reviewed by an external committee, I would imagine such an oversight would receive some critical feedback.


  6. First, I think you need to make a distinction between undergraduate and graduate studies.

    Let’s start with undergraduate studies. In my current (private) institution (which offers Masters but not PhD), there is a 6 credit language requirement explained with references to “globalized world”, “cross-cultural communication”, etc. The first problem is, with 6 credits, you will forget whatever you learn in 3 months. On the other hand, it’s politically impossible to try to establish more than 6 required credits (and our mandatory core curriculum is huge, as a good religious institution we are). Moreover, although most of us in the Foreign Language department know this very well, we won’t say how ridiculous the requirement is because that’s why we have a job. And in somebody in another department brings up the issue, we’ll defend the requirement to death.

    The second problem is, what is the outcome you expect from a six credit hour foreign language requirement in an undergraduate degree. To put it bluntly: should the student be able to ask for a coffee in Spanish when s/he goes to Cancun on Spring Break, or s/he should be able to read basic texts in the language? Ideally, it would be both. Realistically, because how textbooks are designed, it’s impossible. And most textbooks, regardless of publishing companies, have almost the same grammar components. I taught Spanish 101 last semester, and I had to teach “ser” vs. “estar”, direct and indirect object pronouns, present and preterit conjugations of verbs, all in three months. The second semester covers “preterit” vs. “imperfect” and the present subjunctive. If I don’t teach those grammar points, they will flunk the written exams. They don’t need to know direct and indirect object pronouns in the first semester in order to be able to communicate, and many of them have no knowledge of what that is in the first place. And trust me, teaching the present subjunctive in a second semester Spanish course is no fun either.

    According to the trends in SLA (I could rant for a long time here), you should focus on student “communication” skills. In my opinion, it’s a waste of time because if the student doesn’t have the opportunity to speak often in Spanish after finishing the requirements, s/he will loose the oral skills in no time. While if they had minimum reading skills, they could practice it every day if they wanted.

    For graduate studies (at least in the Humanities), I think it’s essential. My program had a requirement of one additional Romance Language, and it focused on reading skills. You could either take an exam where you were given a text in the additional language, and they would ask you questions in Spanish that you could respond in Spanish or English, or take special courses designed for grad students to fulfill the requirement. I already had reading knowledge of French and Portuguese, so I never tried the courses. I don’t know how good they were. But the idea and how the requirement was structured were good.


  7. For Byzantinists, the minimum is Greek, Latin, French and German, and most of us have a fifth or sixth language. I have minimal Coptic, another student has Russian, two others have Syriac (which I really should learn, along with Armenian). Our Medievalists all have Latin plus something- mostly Spanish, but some Arabic, German and French. The Americanists, naturally, have no language requirement. I think they do statistics instead.

    There’s some question about whether any of that will continue, because the university (despite being Catholic and having a prominent Medieval studies program) has decided that Latin and Greek are no longer priorities. We’ve got no TT faculty in Latin, and our one Greek instructor is a thousand-year-old Jesuit. They’ve shifted the money to Arabic and Chinese, which would make a certain amount of sense if we had budgetary constraints. But last year the endowment set a new record, and the campus now includes an outdoor pool with palm trees in the Midwest, so I’m guessing that if the administration actually cared, the money could be found.


  8. I’m a graduate student in the humanities, and even though I specialize in Britain, I’m surprised by how many fellow grad students don’t bother to learn another language. In most programs in my discipline, it seems that those studying Britain are “required” to demonstrate proficiency in one or two other languages (usually French and German, in my subfield), but I’ve gotten the impression that many institutions just sort of go through the motions with it. Many of my colleagues studying France, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe, etc. are drilled a bit harder on the foreign language skills. This seems like a shame to me. Why is it that grad students in the humanities studying the US or Britain don’t always see the benefits of brushing up on another language or two? I don’t think we’re doing ourselves any favors, in terms of trying to develop marketable skills (both in the classroom and in research). And comparative, transnational studies aren’t really accessible without these tools.


  9. I think there’s a huge benefit to learning to speak a second or third language, or at least to read. And I can’t imagine an Americanist not focusing on one of the many non-English languages that have been and are increasingly important in the Americas. I regret not having Latin, but I’m grateful my Spanish is still decent enough to understand what folks most of the time.

    Another aspect of the benefit, though, is that working hard to learn something that may be difficult for us should remind us that for many of our students, the stuff we love (and probably find relatively easy) is hard!


  10. Requiring a foreign language without a clear and direct need of such language seems to be pointless. If PhD students require any knowledge they don’t have (in my case more math or stat), we require them to take the appropriate classes.

    Outside the university confines, K-12 schools should teach a least Spanish and either Chinese or Japanese. These language skills are as important as geography and gym.

    I want to see someone use accent marks in Polish or Czech. Good luck.


  11. I think anyone studying literature at a high level should be required to study *at least* one other language, even if all of their work is monolingual. Studying a non-native language helps you understand *how language works* and that’s important brain work for someone studying literature (and you can think of literature broadly to include all those fields for which primary textual materials are the major object of study).

    @Rustonite — About your “thousand-year-old Jesuit” — have you been watching True Blood? Are you sure he’s not a vampire? 😉


  12. Foreign Language Study at Lake Woebegone State is a mess. It used to have multiple programs: Spanish, French & German were separate departments, plus Arabic, Chinese and Japanese were parked in Global Studies. The Teaching Spanish, German and French BA degrees withered on the vine due to lack of student interest, faculty squabbling and incompetence. All the languages have been absorbed into Global Studies, which is now called Global Studies and World Languages (Anschluß anyone?).

    Students at Woebegone State can fulfill a six credit hour humanities requirement by taking two semesters of a language. But they can also fulfill this by taking history courses, literature, art history, etc. So many of the students skip it. Some take a language because they think it will help them get a job, but most don’t. If they do take another language most students don’t go beyond two semesters, which is a bloody shame for all the reasons Spanish Prof has outlined above.

    The school has stopped teaching Arabic, but it does have full time instructors in Chinese and Japanese. Only a handful of students (I can count them on one hand) go beyond two years in these languages. In short its a freaking disaster for undergrads.

    When I advise history majors who are interested in going to graduate school I tell them that they will need to study at least one modern foreign language for two years, minimum, to get into a decent history program. If they have any interest in European history before 1789, they will also need Latin, which they can take with the seminarians at the local Catholic University.

    I tell my wanna-be-grad-student advisees that if the history program they are applying to does not require at least two years of training in one foreign language for admission it is not a serious program. The university is just taking your money and the degree will not get you very far.

    @ Koshembos: I studied German for two years in night school before I could apply to grad school in a serious way. Even if I had not made it as an academic and used German to conduct research, it would have been worth it. I developed a much better grasp of English grammar and language because I had to figure out how German works. I have applied that knowledge to my writing ever since. So yes, taking a language, even one you might not speak fluently, has a pay off.

    Finally, many of the problems we have with language in the US comes from the fact that it is not a part of the curriculum from day one in kindergarten. Another language has to be a core requirement in primary and secondary education. Period. Otherwise it doesn’t matter what the requirements are in college.


  13. Oh, I should add that our MA students can take Old English and Middle English to satisfy their language requirement (these are language courses cross-listed with linguistics, not lit classes, and they have to take both of them). Since OE, especially, is foreign enough to provide some of the benefits of studying a truly foreign language, I don’t have a problem with this.


  14. Chez nous, we’ve maintained our language requirement as ‘proficiency’ and demand the equivalent of 12 hours (2 years or four semesters). In the same language, which had to be added because some fool decided intro to everything should work. So we say for the BA you have to have a language; the default is Spanish. The BS does not require any as far as I know – we did away with our History BS when I was chair. I argued (successfully) that a BS in history was just that, and that if we were to maintain it as a way that students could get a history degree w/o language, they had to have stats. Not just intro, but real statistical competency. No argument, so we made the change.

    In a bit of startling news, the uni is now offering classes in Chinese, French, German, Spanish… Arabic AND Italian! I’m very pleased, and want to audit the Italian. The Arabic is still a bit intimidating to me, but I’d love to at least get the alphabet.


  15. Here at Brezhnev State U I *think* we just rolled all language study into something called the “Department of Foreign Languages,” which seems kind of sad. I tell our gen. ed. students that our fine state abolished the requirement that high school students take one year of Latin after (and because) Mr. Steer not only deservedly flunked me in that course in ninth grade but then rubbed it in by eFFing me in English the last marking period! But seriously, I studied French four years in a row in H.S. and this was enough to get me past the achievement exam by one bleeping point–and thus out of having to take any language in college. Another mistake. Then BFU let us take statistics in lieu of a foreign language in a doctoral program. As an Americanist, my projects have lately veered into Francophone terrain, and I only wish I had Historiann’s confidence (and competence) to think I could osmose back to what I understood in 13th grade by reading French primary and secondary sources. So far, though, it’s been pretty heavy lifting.


  16. I have to say that the stats OR language requirement has always struck me as a bogus dodge meant to placate duma$$ Americanists like those described above who huff and puff at the notion of a *two quarters* of language study. I thought it was bogus even 20+ years ago, back when cliometrics was pretty tired but perhaps not yet completely dead. SPSS, Fortran, and BASIC are also now all dead languages, btw. (On the other hand, I never stop finding reasons to learn some Latin–perhaps in retirement.)

    Asking students to study stats as a component to any kind of History degree seems just silly, because I haven’t seen a chart or a graph in a history book or article since the 1980s. (Stats instead of a language is still an opiton for our undergrads, but not our grad students.) I’m willing to change my mind if anyone has an argument about this–I just have never seen anyone I know apply statistical analyses to their data, whereas I HAVE seen people using their language training directly in their research.


  17. Kind of off topic, but I wonder why statistical analysis and cliometrics largely disappeared from historical studies. Sure, they were dry and dull, but they also seemed like pretty useful tools. I wonder if they will make a comeback someday.


  18. I grew up in Glastonbury, Conn., which was the home of the ALM (Audio-Lingual Materials) language programs that many of you might have studied, where the first dialog begins with “Where is the Library …”
    So in the 1960s every third grader learned French or Spanish, introduced in alternate years – yes, at age 8. The town still has a model foreign languages program. I got French, and because I did well, in 7th grade I started 3 years of Russian (those Cold War years …). I also took a year of Latin in high school, with the idea that it would help with the verbal SATs (it did, I scored extremely high in verbal, and barely passing in math).

    As an undergrad I took a couple of French classes to meet the requirement, and started on Portuguese, which I needed for my specific area interests.

    As a graduate student I continued the Portuguese, but as I was in African history I was also required to study an African language (Portuguese and French did not count, even though those are the official languages of many African nations). I took three years of Swahili, enough to read novels. Unfortunately I never used it in the field, though I did use Portuguese.

    My husband, born in the US to immigrant parents, grew up speaking Italian and only learned English when he went to kindergarten. He is also fluent in Portuguese and Spanish, does reasonably well in French, and he had 3 or 4 years of Latin at his parochial high school. It has been important to us to have some facility in languages other than English, and both of our children have studied languages – my daughter minored in Italian and now uses Spanish daily in her work, and my son double-majored in History and Classics; the Classics department required their undergrads to learn either Latin or Ancient Greek (he did Greek), and he also had French.

    I can’t imagine not trying to learn other languages, and I have to say, I don’t understand the cranky avoidance attitude of people who expect to have a viable academic life with English only. And I don’t really see computer languages as a window into other global cultures.


  19. Paul, I think historians are still crunching numbers, but I’ve never known any in my field/s that use more than basic mathmatics in their crunching. By the late 1980s, historians no longer had to write special programs to crosstabulate information–spreadsheets and relational databases did the work for us, hence my skepticism of the value of computer languages or statistics.

    I’m personally not *against* cliometrics. If there’s something to count, I count it–but I’m just not dealing with masses of evidence like modern historians, who may have a very different view of all of this. I just think that most of us are hiding those spreadsheets and charts in our footnotes rather than publishing them. I think it was a healthy turn–to keep the text focused on textual evidence rather than bothering our pages with chart junk. (And now, historians are putting their evidence and other information up on web sites too–so that’s another way to make numerical/statistical information available for scrutiny without making everyone wade through it in a book or journal article.)

    And, what Kathie said. Studying other languages is not just a window into other cultures, it’s also a way of gaining insight into one’s own langauge and grammar and peculiarities of expression. (Someone else made this point upthread, but I wanted to emphazise it again.)


  20. I’m interested to hear the different configurations of language requirements.

    When I arrived at my university (large, public in the South) about 7 years ago, it had just been decreed by the state board that all undergrad degrees had to reduce the number of required hours. I came in during the middle of this fight, so didn’t understand all the politics involved, but the upshot was that Foreign Languages took the hit and was essentially removed from the University core. In my college (Arts & Sciences) the core requirement was reduced to 2 semesters (the useless 6 hours that others have mentioned). We (English) were essentially the only major that continued to require 4 semesters (12 hours). Foreign Languages is one department here and includes Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Latin and maybe Russian (but with only one faculty member for the last three). The department has actually recently been hiring in classics, however, and will soon be renamed Modern and Classical Languages (or somesuch).

    We also require “competency” (defined as 4 semesters of study) in one language for our MA degree. Most students satisfy this requirement through their undergraduate coursework.


  21. Historiann: …Fortran, and BASIC are also now all dead languages, btw.

    This is incorrect. Fortran is very much alive and well in scientific computing. It has evolved, as languages do, to keep up with modern needs. If a person does high performance computing (for example in geophysical fluid dynamics or chemistry) she is more likely than not writing her code in Fortran.


  22. Oh–sorry. Thanks for the intel. I guess I should have said that they’re really dead to historians, whose computational needs are satisfied by most spreadsheets or relational databases.


  23. I was on a graduate committee which abolished our language requirement, and I was unsuccessful in my attempts to save it. My colleagues argued that unless we were willing to invest real time and money into mastering a foreign language, we were being hypocritical. They did have a point; most graduate students either tested out of a language they had already studied as undergraduates, or signed up for whatever “reading knowledge in …” course Modern Languages was offering that summer. I still felt that the gesture toward speaking another language was important, especially with the focus on transnationalism in American Studies. There are structural barriers to a meaningful language requirement, however, both in graduate funding and in the resources of language departments to offer courses. I was fortunate that my graduate program let me take undergraduate courses in Japanese to fulfill one of my language requirements, but I had to file a special petition and probably wouldn’t have gotten funding if I hadn’t had a university fellowship.


  24. I suspect that the sort of people who did cliometrics are now in sociology departments. Only modern topics have enough data to need serious analysis, and that’s more their bag.


  25. Another few data points: As a grad student in cultural studies, I was required to either translate a few pages from a foreign language to English in a set amount of time (a couple hours, I think) or pass an upper-division undergraduate language class with a B or better. (My understanding is that the translation test varied dramatically in page length and difficulty, even within the same language.) I’m an Americanist, but a foreign language requirement seemed entirely fair to me because, as GayProf points out, we’re not a monolingual nation. Now–does that mean I returned to Spanish, the first language I studied and the one that would likely be of most use to me? No–I took French because I had studied it more recently and it therefore was more expedient. Grad school had enough requirements, and I worried I’d have to take four quarters of Spanish to meet the same requirement I could meet in one quarter with French.

    In our history department, undergrads have to pass two semesters of language, and many of them find it to be really, really onerous. You know that saying that languages are easier to acquire when you’re younger? Our average undergrad is 26 years old, and many are in their 40s. They really, really struggle. I wish there was some kind of slower–maybe three-semester–course sequence that covered the same content, as Spanish 102 kicks their asses too often. That said, I think a year of language is entirely reasonable for undergrads. (My memory is that as an English major at an elite liberal arts college, I needed four semesters, but I may be misremembering.)

    Our M.A. history students have take at least a year of a foreign language, though they can use their undergraduate credits to satisfy that. I think they should have to demonstrate current reading proficiency, but whatever. (I remember having to translate poetry (lyrically, not literally) into English in my M.A. program–fun but not easy for me.) Our Master’s of Applied Historical Research students (basically public history students) have to take either a year of foreign language or some other kind of “language” or related skills course, like a programming language or GIS, though this requirement seems to be satisfied in myriad ways.


  26. Several Americanists–including the colonialist and the diplomatic historian–at my last university of employ led the charge against the language requirement. One told me that it was just easy to have students use a Google translator. This at the same time both were advocating a new transnational/global track for the graduate program.

    I guess I’m just too invested in the idea of the humanities as a comprehensive intellectual endeavor. I do not understand why language is considered merely as a tool in service to research, a means to an end, a pesky hoop through which to jump, rather than another way of conceptualizing experience and understanding culture.
    Ask folks who work in translation studies.

    Even proficiency exams may not be enough to ensure our students would get it right. Jaime is right: the system doesn’t work to allow grad students the means to acquire what they need. I paid cash I really didn’t have to brush up on French for my grad school requirement; I ended up not finishing the short course because it was intended for those who really didn’t have any training. And I passed the exam. And even in American Studies the French (and poor German) came in handy in my dissertation.

    As for the parochialism of U.S. historical studies: a cursory review of the Library of Congress’ newspaper program reveals that historians have yet to tap fully the hundreds of foreign-language newspapers published in the United States. (I especially like the “Ger-merican” newspapers of Chicago.) For example, in a project on early twentieth-century Cleveland I am tapping into Hungarian, German, Yiddish, and Italian newspapers.


  27. The foreign language requirements in my doctoral program changed (humanities, at Elite National University in the Midwest), as of last fall. When I entered the program, the requirements were basic reading abilit) in two foreign languages, or proficiency/fluency (ability to take a graduate course in that language) in one. Although you could challenge the language requirement by taking a test, most grad students fulfilled those requirements by taking summer reading comprehension courses (one course=competency). Due to crash-related budget cuts, though, the dean of the graduate school wanted to cut the summer courses. So the requirements were changed to one language only, with much stronger encouragement to challenge the language courses. The dean wants us to take the languages in courses offered throughout the regular school year, but so far I don’t know anyone who has taken him up on that offer. It’s mainly the modernists who complain about the language requirements as unnecessary, although there were also a couple of people who thought that the language requirements meant that they’d be given the opportunity to master a couple of foreign languages, and were pretty disappointed to discover that the 6-8 week summer courses were nowhere near that interesting. Most of the grad students come in with enough undergrad language skills to nail the basic test, anyway.

    I’ve never heard of computer or statistic courses being substituted for foreign language courses, and somewhat surprised to hear it–anywhere I’ve been, a language means a modern or ancient language (and there’s no way Middle English would have been a substitute, as it’s too close–I was barely taught to read it, it was just assumed you could). At my undergrad institution (in Canada), 2 years, or equivalent (the equivalent meant those who’d take the full 5 years of French in high school), of a language was required for the BA.


  28. Another data point: my PhD program required fluency in English and our primary language of study, in addition to reading knowledge of at least 2 other related languages.

    The institution still has an foreign-language requirement for undergraduate students, too.


  29. H’ann: Sorry, I really feel the need to take you to task on this one. The grad stats courses I took at our shared alma mater were probably some of the most valuable courses I ever took in the profession. Couldn’t have written my last book — which is hardly a quantitative tome– without them.

    I actually think that statistical knowledge and quantitative skills are woefully lacking in historians’ arsenal — and potentially as important as languages. I wager that the increasing interest in digital humanities will mean we need to understand even more about quantification — not that we necessarily need to program for ourselves, but have a working knowledge of how to quantify. We have all these digital resources: we need to have new and better ways to analyze what is in them than basic keyword searches!

    And as you know, people (like me!) do publish women’s histories with lots of charts and quantification. And I couldn’t do my current cultural history project (on the 18th century, not data-rich modernity!) without statistical training.

    So your comments diminishing the value of stats for historians definitely don’t map to my own experiences.

    (Anyone looking for a stat program: I highly recommend JMP over SAS or SPSS these days!)


  30. We’ve toyed with a language requirement for our M.A. program. The problem is that we come up against institutional mandatory credit limits for students, after which their financial aid runs out. One ancient history student recently had to petition that, yes, all those extra credit hours in Greek and Latin were actually necessary for him to write his thesis and position himself to be a credible applicant to Ph.D. programs, and yes, that meant it took him a little longer to finish.

    Many of our M.A. students are in the program for a teaching credential. In an ideal world, the benefits to even these students would be obvious to all. In reality, it’s not.

    I won’t write a letter of rec for a student who doesn’t have the language chops (and I tell them that right up front, and continue pushing languages on them), but that’s the most I can do.


  31. There is a case for allowing Esperanto as an option. Esperanto presents the challenge of language learning and provides access to a widespread speaker population.


  32. Weighing in on the stats issue – I agree that it shouldn’t replace a language requirement, but isn’t there a good argument for compulsory quantitative training too? Surely being able to understand data and the ways in which it’s presented is a valuable life skill, as well as a potentially useful analytical tool?


  33. Faculty member here (history at UMass Amherst). Our graduate program has a foreign language requirement for both MA and PhD students, with a “research skills” alternative for Americanists. The latter usually involves archeological field research or quantitative research methods, though a couple students have taken GIS to satisfy the requirement.

    My impression is that by and large our students, who are largely Americanists, hate the requirement, because they see it as a needless hoop they have to jump through. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s the general sense I get.

    I have mixed feelings about the requirement. On the one hand, as someone whose sources are in six languages (and I really should master Greek and learn Hebrew), I’m committed to the value of foreign language study. On the other, if the requirement is to be meaningful to Americanists, it has to be integrated in their coursework and research. If my Americanist colleagues routinely assigned sources or articles in Spanish, German, French, etc. to their students who read those languages, the argument for keeping our language requirement might gain traction.

    But the problem goes deeper. Students in humanities at our university need two years of language study, but students in social sciences can get away with only one, plus a year of courses on culture and society taught in English. The two colleges are likely to merge, and I suspect the weaker requirement will prevail after the merger, though there will be some resistance. (In our Faculty Senate last year I voted against a similar weakening of language requirements for science students, but I and a handful of others were in the minority.)

    Unless we can convince high schools and undergraduate colleges to strengthen their commitment to language teaching, I’m not sure it makes sense to insist on mastery of foreign languages for graduate admissions to US history. I don’t think we can compensate at the MA admissions level for the systemic failure to teach languages seriously at earlier levels.

    What we can do at the graduate level, as programs and sometimes as individuals, is increase resources to help grad students who need languages to acquire or strengthen them. My wife and I have established a scholarship for intensive summer foreign language study for students in the program where we teach. We’re using some money we inherited from my dad–who, by the way, crammed French and German to pass his Ph.D. language exams (in biochemistry) and then promptly forgot them because he did not, in fact, have to use them for his research.


  34. Brian–you and others are making a strong point that faculty leadership is really critical here. If students see language as a hoop they must cynically leap through, that’s what the language requirement will be (whatever its rigor.) If students see faculty using other languages in their research and incorporating other language primary and secondary sources in coursework, then the language requirement will be better respected and more functional. (And, good for you for establishing the scholarship! That is awesome.)

    other side of the pond makes a great point–I guess I’ve fallen into the same trap here that I’m criticizing in others, which is that I’ve been dissing stats in order to raise the stature of language training. These things–along with archaeology, cultural studies courses, lit courses, etc.–should co-exist in a rich History Ph.D. curriculum. However, as many of you have pointed out, there are only so many courses one can reasonably take in 2 or 3 years, so in the end we must choose and prioritize.

    Finally: Shaz, I’m sorry! You are the big exception to the rule I’ve outlined here. We’ll have to talk more about this off-blog, but you have to admit–you’re really the only person out there in your fields who’s using data mining the way you are.


  35. Studying a foreign language is basic and essential, and if we don’t set our heads on straight and start not only requiring it but also getting ENTHUSIASTIC about it as a people, we are going to fall further and further behind, behind, behind in the world as thinkers and as an economic entity.

    I am a private Spanish language coach who teaches mainly adults, some college age people, and a good number of professional groups. I prefer to teach adults because I prefer to teach those who come willingly rather than prisoners. Here’s a few things I know.

    You write “You can improve your language skills even in middle age.” This is true. Let me state is more emphatically: “You not only can learn a whole new language in middle age, or later age, you SHOULD!” The idea that “I am too old to learn a new language” (that whine starts in some people’s 20s) is simply untrue and is founded on an interior dialogue that was developed unconsciously as a culture to support America’s lazy attitude toward its relationships with the rest of the world. It is natural among people who don’t live here (I mean the rest of the world) speak at least two languages and often more. Hell, taxi driver’s from Somalia usually speak about four languages, and the entire continent of India speaks at least three!

    Learning languages is possible at any age. What it requires is excellent teaching, the kind that we unfortunately find in academic environments. I often have to “renovate” 20 somethings who are in a Spanish class with 120 other people. They don’t know how to study, their textbooks are dull (and sometimes just plain WRONG), digital media is not used to its capacity for training (or sometimes even at all), and they don’t know how to study language. I dare say that Language is not the right topic for a freaking survey course. If that is all the university offers as a means to fulfill a requirement, I say get rid of that sacred cow. It would be more useful to require PhD candidates to spend 6 months in another country where they speak the target language.

    The problem is that the academic world has not been creative or far-thinking in developing real quality language courses that really teach people the language and get them excited about exploring it further. I have been offered jobs at three community colleges and I turned them all down and not just because the money was crappy: 90% of the reason was that I simply couldn’t swallow the lousy curriculum I would have been forced to teach.

    My older student is in his 70s somewhere. He is a former professor of biology at Princeton who I met teaching at Princeton Adult School (a great place to find interesting adult minds, by the way). He continues studying with me privately because it helps him maintain a supple mind and because he loves Spanish. I have several senior students who have this motiviation. In the two years I have known him, he has learned to speak. Is his Spanish perfect? No. Can he carry on a conversation, discuss a short story, tell me about his day in Spanish? Yes.

    Yes, the state of language teaching in this country is horrific at every level. Yes, the university does have a very obnoxioius attitude toward language acquisition. Yes, people can learn languages at any age (and even more than one!). But beyond that, I think it is important to note that learning a language is not just a “tool” to do further primary research or sell more car parts in Mexico: Second (and 3rd and 4th) language acquisition is a process that makes actual physiological changes the mind and greatly enhances its ability to make connections, retain information and understand the world. I often say to my student “Spanish is NOT English in translation.” Syntax has depth, sound has meaning, and learning a language helps us not just gather data, but also lets us in on the spiritual and emotional truths of other cultures.


  36. It’s complicated here. Despite being in a bilingual university and a bilingual department, we don’t have a language requirement because the university offers no support at all for language education besides two vastly unsuitable paths: regular undergraduate classes (which can occasionally work but are offered rarely due to faculty cuts and often conflict with their graduate classes) or faculty/staff seminars (which are entirely for oral fluency).

    Practically all of our francophone students are fluently bilingual in speaking and reading English. Many are also comfortable in writing English. A few of our anglophone students have competency in French beyond simple reading. Some are intimidated and a bit non-plussed to hear we expect them to be able to function passably in both and that a lack of French is a marked detriment both at our M.A. and any future doctoral studies.

    A very few of our students add a third or even a fourth language to their abilities. Some few have had Latin, Finnish, Spanish, Italian, Ojibway or German in various combinations. Almost all of these students have been able to pursue far more interesting research subjects for their M.A. studies than those who are effectively unilingual. Languages open doors for historians. If I could, I would require all of our undergraduates to have two years of second language study or demonstrate similar competency, but this is a broader curriculum and national concern than I alone can address.


  37. Interestingly, we’ve just decided to substitute a gun safety class for our language requirement.

    Ok, seriously… the vast majority of our graduate students are in (Anglophone North) American history, and we have only the most minimal language requirements. For M.A.s on the designated “pre-doctoral path” they must demonstrate intermediate proficiency in one foreign language. Most students satisfy this with undergraduate transcripts; those who don’t can take courses (usually 3 semesters are required … you have to get to the 200-level) or test out, but most just switch to a different path within the M.A. to avoid the requirement.

    At the Ph.D. level, we’ve gone whole hog into the substituting skills for languages mode — all students are required to take a two course sequence in history and new media; the only actual language requirement on the books is that students must have the languages and proficiencies required to do their dissertation research, which is in practice judged by their advisor.

    I agree that languages are important, often in unexpected ways, but the new media classes make a big long-term difference in the employability of our graduates and have at least as much to do with the future of the field as transnational research approaches do. It would be nice to do everything, but the obstacles in terms of course load, funding, and other logistics are substantial (how do students pay for those language classes, which are above and beyond the coursework required for their degree? how do they make time for them when all of our grad classes are at night because we have so many working students, while the language classes are nearly all in the early morning?). It’s a loss, but I’m not sure I would change anything.


  38. I am not sure what they mean when they talk about preparing students for a globalized world, but I’m quite sure they assume the language of that world is English. And English, it seems, works in the boardrooms of Mex DF and Shanghai. Yes, this makes us provincial in the end but we’re counting on a few more decades as top language, it seems.


  39. That’s a great point: if students are being asked to “globalize” but not speak a language, then they’re condemned to pallid translations in which all the complexities and undertones and roughnesses of the native language (and culture)are lost.

    But what am I talking about? They’re probably not even required to read the great books of their own language….


  40. In the UK, its relatively unusual to ask for a language requirement (other thana proficiency in the language you want to study), unless you are a medievalist, where they need latin, plus whatever language you want to study. However, quants is now compulsary for many funding bodies, so is increasingly common as a requirement. I think its only a good thing, despite never doing anything more mathematically complicated in my own work than working out an average age. But, I do use it when reading social science articles, which can be statistics heavy, so I see it as a fluency in the language of statistics that helps me access a wide field of work. And, of course, this is another reason to have a second language- access to secondary literature in other languages.


  41. Upfront, I think everyone should be proficient in a second language. But practically speaking, before a measure like that is instituted, it might be wise to investigate how fully the institution is willing to go to support it. At my own grad institution, I could not take intro language courses in any useful language, because they filled so quickly, and all language classes were taught with undergraduates, which was awkward for graduate students who TA or taught their own classes. A friend of mine dropped french, because 2 of her students would be her peers in the class – too awkward.

    Before it becomes required, it might be worth it to make sure the language departments are willing to staff the classes necessary, and to open them to graduate students, or to create courses sufficient for the need. It is a great requirement, but what is the benefit to the other departments who will actually be doing the work of teaching those classes?


  42. Forgive me if my comment is well below the university level. I am remarried and living in Paris. My 12 year old son spends his school year in a monolingual environment in California (quite a comment on linguistic segregation right there) and summers with me. This year I obliged him to take a 4 week intensive French program, partly for a daytime activity (I work during the day), partly to meet other kids and go around town with them and partly to learn some français.

    It was tricky to get him to go along without touching off a colossal power struggle. I had to tell him that immersion is hard, and that in the program no one gets graded or fails. I also said that in Paris French is plenty useful and that if nothing else the study of foreign languages makes us better speakers of our own language. Lastly I intrigued him by buying comic books like Titeuf and translating the contents.

    I got some loud complaints about going to summer school and not understanding what’s going on but at the end of four weeks he could negotiate a transaction in a bakery, order ice cream in a restaurant, makes the sounds correctly and can say merci and s’il vous plaît like nobody’s business. So he learned something and still seems to have an open mind about French.


  43. My graduate degree institution dropped from two to one language for Americanists. And they never offered the Spanish grad class so I used computer software to bone up on my translating since I hadn’t taken Spanish since HS (got a three on the AP). I was glad they dropped the requirement, though. I have no idea how I would have taken an exam in Navajo, much less who would have examined me or when that could have taken place. (I did get up to about a 500 word vocabulary with at least a basic knowledge of key stems used in place names – a key part of my dissertation – never mastered verbs though or pronunciation).


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