Learning A New Language

This week we explore learning a new language. Beyond meeting the language requirement for a program of study, learning a new language has a lot of benefits, but how do you know which one to choose?

Clayton: Depending on your specific area of study in a Graduate Program, the language requirements can either seem like a major asset to your studies or a necessary evil to meet graduation requirements. In some cases it can be both at the same time. While every program will be a little different, most will require you to take some form of a language test during your time within the program. In most cases these courses will relate directly to what field of history you are focusing on, since often the language will be a necessity to work in that field, such as knowing German to study German history. However, the decision on what major language to focus on will not always be so clear cut.

In my major field, American history, since the vast majority of the records are in English, deciding on what language to take becomes a lot more open ended. Again, however, this comes down to your particular areas of studies and interests. Different eras and events in American history have links to different countries (or often many different countries) which can make it difficult to narrow it down to only one language. Personally, I took French for Reading while I was in graduate school. I made this decision based on the areas that I focused on, the 19th century and the time period around World War I, since France was heavily involved in those eras. French was one of the top choices, but not the only one. There are many other options I could have taken. Knowing that there are actually many options when it comes to deciding on a language requirement can hopefully make it feel less like a chore and more like an asset.   

Kiri: Many graduate programs require their students to learn at least one additional language, sometimes more, to complete the program. Since much of my research focuses on Britain, my second language wasn’t set in stone. I had taken a few years of Spanish during my AA, so I wanted to broaden my horizons to a language I hadn’t studied yet. I was between either Italian or German, and it was hard to make a choice in any one direction. I studied abroad in Italy during my undergrad, and I was using Duolingo, but my studies were steadily moving away from Italy, and I wasn’t sure if Italian would ultimately fit my research needs. Then, Dragana, Chelsi, and I had the opportunity to study abroad in Germany and I thought that this would be the perfect place to start working on learning German. 

The biggest difference between learning a language for communication versus learning a language for academia is that there is a bigger emphasis on how to read the language than actually speaking it. While in Germany, we took German I and we learned the fundamentals of the German language. Once we were back, we (along with Stephen) asked one of our professors from our German trip to help us with a German for Reading DIS. In this class, rather than focusing on vocabulary, we leaned more into figuring out what a sentence meant and how to get the general sense of what a piece was saying. This was a fantastic way to think about language for understanding primary sources, especially because not all older sources are going to follow strict grammar rules or even adhere to the most modern version of the language. Though my speaking German has rusted, the skills I learned from a language reading class help me to still know how to translate German pieces (with the help of a dictionary). I hope to continue expanding my language skills as I continue my career, and I think language reading classes are one of the best ways to do so.

Dragana: As Clayton and Kiri have already stated, learning a language is fundamental to being a good scholar. Choosing which language to focus on is not as simple as saying ‘I will study French because I am focusing on the French Revolution.’ Sometimes, you have to think about where your sources are going to be–meaning which archives are you going to visit. Take for example me. I focus on 17th-18th century Southeastern Europe. Knowing BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian) is a must, but I also have to think about my time period. During the 17th and 18th centuries most of Southeastern Europe was under the Ottoman Empire. If I were to look at any official state documents, I might need to know Turkish since that was the primary language of the empire in addition to BCS. Perhaps I’m looking at relationships between Serbia and the Hapsburg Empire. In this case Hungarian, French, Italian, and other languages might be helpful. 

Learning a language is so specific to what you are studying. While there are languages such as German, French, and Italian which might work for a majority of people, they are not the only options. Personally, I enjoy learning new languages because each word has its own story. I think that languages are a great tool to get to understand different peoples and cultures. Languages should not be seen as another obstacle in your journey, but a new lens through which you can better understand what you are studying.

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