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?