PhD Languages: Thoughts on Finishing

The bane of many a PhD in humanities (and perhaps other categories) existence is often not the endless research and papers to write for seminars, those are indeed difficult, but it is the requirement of two research languages that is attached to their degree. While many PhD candidates are fine intellectuals there is something about a foreign language that is indeed difficult.

If you’ve been around a PhD candidate for very long you’ll inevitably hear laments about their program requirements. Generally, most humanities PhDs (of which biblical studies, theology, and history are part of this larger category) require each candidate to demonstrate sufficient reading ability for two research languages that is appropriate for their degree. Often, for theological students, these languages can be taken from French, German, and Latin. Given the amount of primary and secondary source literature in the fields of theological studies, being able to engage with these works will round out one’s studies. (I’ve written previously on this here.)

My own experience has been no different.

Since January I set out to learn and pass reading exams for two research languages for the PhD candidacy. My two languages were German and French. Having already done some preliminary studies (about twenty fifteen years ago…yes that’s it) in high school, and after forgetting most of it, I began with German.

However, for both my method was similar. I set out how long I had to finish my language with an exam and the developed a study plan.

1. Chose an appropriate primary textbook and secondary support material. For German, I already had Modern Theological German: A Reader and Dictionary by Helmut Ziefle. I supplemented this with German Quickly by April Wilson. For French, since I primarily did my study through an online program, I was assigned Reading French for the Arts and Sciences by Edward Stack. To this I added Reading French: A Guide for Students of Religion and Theology by K Janet Ritch.

2. After laying out my calendar (and noting times when my ministry responsibilities would call for more time than studying) I noted when I would work on a chapter in the primary texts and corresponding assignments.

3. Since one of the best lessons I was taught by my Greek professor in seminary was that “a language is caught not taught” I made sure that every day something was done in the particular language. As a result I also began translating specific biblical passages that would help in getting a sense of the nature and vocabulary of the language. So every day, depending on the language, I would make sure to translate something from an assignment and Scripture.

4. During my translations and exercises I used the dictionary that I had purchased for use during the exam. This helped with getting to know the dictionary.

5. For the assignments, and this is just the way I learn, I wrote out, by hand, the entire lesson and went back over it several times, reciting aloud what the author had written. This helped in getting the sense of what was being required.

6. As I neared the exam date I began sitting down and translating fresh passages (usually from one of the readers I was using, not Scripture) to see how I was doing in assimilating the language.

7. Once I had some initial lessons under my belt, I began going to German and French newspaper sites to read stories with as little help from my dictionaries as possible. For German I used Der Spiegel and for French Le Monde. This helped with learning basic vocabulary.

Learn the languages so you can read this guy...again, and again, and again...

Learn the languages so you can read this guy…again, and again, and again…

By the time I got to my exam, for German it was in March and for French it was August, I was comfortable with the language and able to work through the exams. While I make no illusions that I can produce highly readable translations right now, I do rejoice in passing my two exams.

One of the larger challenges for English speaking students is getting the sense of an inflected language and how they are different from English. Since I had much of the basics for German already in place, it simply became about re-familiarizing myself with the basics and then building on that foundation. French was more difficult since I had no ideas about the language.

So, for PhD candidates worried about the languages, perhaps this above rubric for learning and preparing will help.

My own experience might not be helpful, but it worked for me. I still recommend that PhD candidates be required to show reading knowledge of one research language halfway through their seminars. While my program did not require this, the languages are required prior to dissertation work, it is beneficial and for the students.

I’m still working on my languages since several primary source texts for my dissertation are in either French or German.

So how do you learn languages? What are some ways you’ve found to confidently grow in reading another language? What are some pitfalls to this approach?

Sep 2013



Why the Languages are Important for a PhD

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been devoting myself to learning theological French in order to satisfy my second research language requirement prior to my comprehensive examinations.

There is often a push and pull in a PhD program about any number of the requirements. As I’ve seen in my evaluations of different programs before actually entering one, the requirements are often the same across the board. Particularly for those of us pursuing PhDs in a humanities subject (such as theology, history, etc) one of the requirements are two research languages. On my degree completion plan, I have the option of any of two of three research languages: German, French, and Latin.

Not too long ago there was a bit of a dust up about whether or not PhDs in New Testament needed to know Greek for their final examinations. It resulted in a good conversation around the blogosphere. Why a PhD in New Testament should be able to graduate without reading knowledge of Greek is a mystery to me. A PhD, more than any other degree in the university curriculum, should demonstrate mastery of a field of research. So, along those lines, I have no problem stating:

Research languages (i.e. foreign) are important and should continue to be required for those pursuing PhDs in humanities subjects.

Part of proper scholarship is the engagement with a broad array of thinkers and scholars. To best do this, being able to get outside of the box that one’s primary language creates allows access to some who will stretch a student/scholar’s abilities and thought processes. Even today, when we have more access to translated scholarship, there still remains a substantial body of literature outside the English language that should be engaged. Online translating tools, such as Google Translate, remain unreliable and often give incorrect translations of texts as they lack the ability to distinguish nuance.

In my own studies, in historical ecclesiology, I’ve encountered a number of works that meet this classification. For my dissertation, one of the key works that I am using is by a German scholar of the late 1800s, Rudolph Sohm. In writing Kirchenrecht, Sohm argues that the earliest churches had no ecclesiastical constitution but were ruled by a charisma (understood differently than the charismatics of today) which provided leadership for those who were seen as gifted by God. This is an essential point for my work on the role of local church autonomy in the early churches. However, Sohm’s work has never been translated into English. (A challenge I might take up…after my dissertation.)

Other examples abound.

Having competency in two research languages allows one to engage in this kind of broader research and fill out the views that would be other otherwise unavailable to the student.

Along these lines it is important to note this: a PhD isn’t a gimme degree.

Too many students believe that just because they pay tuition and submit assignment they deserve a degree. Our entire higher education system has become a secondary entitlement program where students demand degrees and passable grades for shoddy work.

Because a PhD is a rigorous degree it should also have requirements that are equally rigorous.

To be honest, over the past month I’ve been staying up until about 2 AM most mornings working on my French so I might pass a competency exam. This isn’t fun, but it is absolutely worth it. There are certainly other things I could be doing, but because I’m enrolled in a PhD program I have purposely set aside these things to pursue a higher calling. Languages are difficult and add an important step of rigor to a PhD.

PhDs are important degrees for those who desire the highest levels of intellectual engagement and academic accomplishment. If you cannot learn two research languages that might be a good indication that you aren’t cut out for a PhD. This likely will sound like a kind of elitist, and it certainly is. We should have no illusions that a PhD is as simple to achieve as an undergraduate degree. The language requirements of a PhD are an effective vetting mechanism to ensure that the highest qualified students (note, this is intellectual qualification not monetary) are obtaining these degrees.

Finally, the language requirements of a PhD provide an important tool for a lifetime of scholarship that awaits. Though I am not entirely convinced that Latin, German, and French should be the only research languages, this harkens of colonialism, a student should have the ability to add in an appropriate language. By having two research languages in their research tool chest, academics are prepared to provide quality research and engagement with works that have yet to be written.

Perhaps, in summation, the language requirements for a PhD are important for these three reasons:

  • The ability to engage in a broad discipline of research and scholarship
  • A reasonable vetting step for the most rigorous of academic degrees
  • Developing tools for a lifetime of scholarship


So what do you think? How have you engaged with research languages? Are there other reasons for requiring languages for a PhD?

Aug 2013