Language Studies and Graduate School

In my continuing series on graduate school, I would like to talk today about one of the often-neglected areas of study for the graduate student:  foreign languages.  Though not often planned in advance, graduate students in history need to show the capacity to read foreign languages (if not speak them, necessarily) in order to read primary documents in the languages of the research topic they wish to study.

This sounds pretty straightforward, but the task required may be somewhat immense for those whose education in foreign languages is fairly limited.  For example, despite the fact that I can read, write, and speak Spanish fairly well, I have a very limited formal education in that language (from high school), and even less formal education in any other language.  One of the perks of being an engineering student is that the study of foreign languages is not considered essential to the field, but this lack of foreign language expertise is a bit of a drawback when one wishes to study history or other social sciences and humanities on the doctorate level.

If you wish to study a particular topic involving colonialism, such as the comparative developments of ethnic identity of a particular people who were under the colonial rule of several nations, one needs to develop a familiarity with the languages of those colonial powers.  That’s a lot of work that a graduate student might not particularly think of (thankfully I was warned and advised well about it, and am taking steps to deal with it), and must either involve formal study or informal study.  I am seeking to do an informal study myself, and if formal study is necessary later on, I will undertake that as well.

Why is it necessary and useful to learn foreign languages as a historian?  The ability of the researcher to be familiar with the diaries and reports of people with first-hand involvement in your research topic is key.  Those researchers who only know English would be unable to deal with the relevant historiography, and would therefore be limited to the research of secondary source materials.  Given the fact that few people in the United States are multilingual, those who are have a great advantage in exploring sources and in writing research that is new and relevant.  This is an advantage that helps one publish rather than perish as an academic, and is therefore very practical.

On a more aesthetic and not merely practical level, the learning of foreign languages is very useful also.  After all, for my given research topic it will be necessary to learn how to read both French and Italian, two languages I don’t happen to know very well (though I know Italian a little better than French).  However, the ability to read (and presumably write a little) in both of those languages offers other opportunities for practice.  As two of the most romantic languages in the world, French and Italian will not only be useful for reading dusty colonial reports in a library in between sneezes but also for pleasant correspondence and even flirtation.  E valere la pena studiare il parlar gentil.  Or, to translate, it is worth the trouble to study the gentle language (Italian).

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Language Studies and Graduate School

  1. Pingback: The Broadening Of The Mind | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Bridge Of Words | Edge Induced Cohesion

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