U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Foreign Language Requirement

Last week, while I was busy procrastinating revising my conference paper, I became tangentially involved in a minor kerfuffle on Twitter regarding the foreign language requirement for doctoral students in the humanities — specifically, for PhD students in U.S. history and/or English/American literature. 

The chief interlocutors in the debate were Rosemary Feal of the MLA, Rob Townsend of the AHA, and Erik Loomis, an environmental historian who writes for the blog “Lawyers, Guns & Money.”  (Loomis is an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island.)

Feal was touting the MLA’s latest recommendation calling for “advanced competence” in a single foreign language for students pursuing PhDs in English, and Townsend seemed to think the same requirement would be a good idea for U.S. history PhDs.  Loomis, on the other hand, decried any foreign language requirement for U.S. history PhDs as an unnecessary bit of academic gatekeeping that smacked of elitism and would alienate students from working-class backgrounds.  He suggested that it would be more useful and valuable for students to learn a programming language.  I will respond to (some of) Loomis’s ideas about the needs of working-class students below. 

First, though, I’d like to say a brief word about Twitter — what it is, and what it ain’t.  Twitter is a great medium for making quick synaptic connections — promoting links, bloggers, blogs, news articles, finding interesting people doing interesting work.  It’s a great place for starting conversations, but an infelicitous forum for carrying on a sustained argument.  Generally speaking, a Tweet is less a fully-articulated thought than a place-holder or pointer indicating that one has some Ideas Worth Discussing that Ought to Be Explored in More Depth Elsewhere.  Happily, Erik Loomis has elaborated his ideas on the language requirement in a blog post here

Loomis, Feal and Townsend are not the first academics to publicly disagree about the worth or utility of a foreign language requirement.  Indeed, this is a Very Worn Argument.  If you want to have a little fun with JSTOR, do a search for “foreign language requirement” (in quotes) and “history.”  Here are the search results, ranked by relevance, and here they are ranked by date (newest to oldest). As you can see, the earliest salvos in this debate are pretty dang old.

Doug Steward’s 2006 article, “The Foreign Language Requirement in English Doctoral Programs” (Profession: 203-218), is especially helpful in sketching out a historiography of the debate about the foreign language requirement for literature PhDs.  Steward’s assessment of the issue offers a far more nuanced and nicely argued version of the basic idea that informed my incredulous tweet accusing Erik Loomis of advocating provincialism.  Steward writes:

Our linguistic and research biases in the English profession are as “US-centric” as biases usually are in the United States, and that includes a kind of obeisance to the definition of science that obtains here.  Two consequences of such a deference to the scientific research model are narrow specialization…and the utilitarian devaluation of any skill, such as knowing a foreign language, that does not yield quickly tangible research benefits.  These biases also include an unconscionable, if unconscious, complicity in the English language’s global hegemony and in the views that language is a transparent medium of communication and that English is the language of the United States….Culturally, English monlingualism means national isolationism and a parochial self-regard.  If this is a problem in the United States English-language population at large, I can think of no good reason to condone such isolationism among the most educated Americans — those with research degrees… (213-214)

Now, Steward is talking about English (including, of course, American Literature).  Simply substituting “the U.S. history profession” for “the English profession” here would probably represent a wildly inappropriate conflation of one discipline’s history and character for another.  So I would be grateful if my colleagues and/or readers who are historians of higher education or have an especially good command of the history of the profession would offer some insights here on whether or not Steward’s assessment “in the abstract” might be aptly applied to the particular situation of U.S. history or U.S. historians.  Narrow specialization, complicity in the English language’s global hegemony, parochial self-regard — is this us?  Alternately, if someone can point us to an article that lays out the history of the foreign language requirement (or lack thereof) for U.S. history — something I was not able to find — that would be helpful.  Perhaps U.S. history has been less monolingual as a profession or discipline than English or American lit.  And perhaps not.

In the meantime, though, I would like to address one aspect of Loomis’s argument.  He writes:

History should be a tool for work. It should be a tool for the work of many of us. And our students are in fact leaving the history major because they don’t see it as valuable for their future. Holding onto the belief that people should major in humanities because they will be smart has its own value, but it’s also not enough to compete in the reality of the 21st century university marketplace, particularly among students with working-class backgrounds. We need to show our students that history does have concrete value for their future, including BUT NOT ONLY, that it will make them more educated and interesting.

It is not clear what Loomis means here by the “reality of the 21st century university marketplace,” but I assume he means the academic job market, since he concludes his post with a discussion of the difficulties of finding a tenure-track job.  However — and regrettably — the “marketplace” has come to the university in a multitude of ways that reach well beyond the “job market.”  I suppose a resigned acknowledgment that the market has triumphed once and for all, that only those skills that are easily instrumentalized and obviously and immediately lucrative are worth the time and money it takes to teach them or learn them, is a sensible and even defensible position.  But it is a presentism with no future — no future for the academy, and no future for the working-class students about whom Loomis is rightly concerned.

Whatever the degree requirements for getting a PhD in history, the profession of U.S. history as a whole — I mean the whole field, broadly construed — requires that there be scholars who are conversant in languages other than English, not only for archival research but also to critically engage with current scholarship.  If the hegemony of “the market” has done anything, it has helped to undermine the paradigm of the singular nation-state with discrete geographic, economic, cultural and epistemic borders.  The field of U.S. history extends far beyond the borders of the United States, and the contours of the field for practitioners within the U.S. seem to be bending towards something like a transnational turn, if that’s not already in our rearview mirror.  So the profession will continue to need trained historians who are skilled in languages other than English, and those scholars who do have such language skills might have a competitive edge in “the market.”

Besides, if “the market,” rather than the profession, is to dictate the skill set that makes for well-trained historians, how are working-class students served by the suggestion that they forgo language training?  It is hard enough to compete for a tenure-track job against star applicants from top-tier programs that will probably not waive the language requirement.  Why make it harder by choosing to further diminish the kind of training offered to PhD students at non-elite institutions?  You do working-class students no favors by telling them to aspire to be less skilled and less prepared than the top tier of their cohort.  If anything, language training should receive more emphasis and support at non-elite schools.  Instead of clamoring to have this requirement waived, PhD students in U.S. history should clamor for more and better language training for undergraduates at their institutions, and more support for intensive language tutoring in their graduate programs.

As a profession, we don’t have to stand by and let “the market” decide that a less skilled, less well-trained academic workforce is beneficial.  It’s not beneficial to society, and it’s not beneficial to the discipline of history.  It’s only beneficial to those who seek to deliver education on the cheap.  Working-class students — and I have been one, and I guess I still am one — have been shortchanged in so many ways already.  They don’t need to be complicit in the further narrowing of their own horizons.  Instead, they — we — ought to collaborate with the other disciplines in the humanities — and especially with the beleaguered foreign language departments — to contend for a more robust, more rigorous graduate education for all of us.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Some departments require their US history Ph.D. students to demonstrate competency in a foreign language, some don’t. In between are those that let their students show competency in a “tool” (sometimes more than one), be it statistics or a foreign language.

    You can track the decline of fluency in foreign languages and the changes in educational standards by seeing how quotations in foreign languages are handled in books. Time was nothing in Greek or Latin was translated because it was assumed the audience knew Greek and Latin. The same with modern languages, or at least French and German, and perhaps Italian.

    Nowadays? Nowadays you don’t even have to do your own translations, and that’s perfectly acceptable. Look at the “note on translations” or “list of abbreviations” in many books, and you’ll see a standard disclaimer that “Where available I have used standard scholarly translations.” Take my field, the Enlightenment. SVEC (the former Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century) still requires quotations from French sources to appear in French. But if you published the same article in, say, Journal of the History of Ideas or Modern Intellectual History it is perfectly acceptable for you to cite an English translation, say the Cambridge versions of Rousseau and Montesquieu. Maybe you’ll include citations to the standard French versions, but really that’s just lip service, and everyone knows it.

    All of which is to say that when it comes to foreign languages, even those historians you’d expect to have to put them to use aren’t necessarily doing so, and it’s just fine for them not to. In which case it’s hardly fair to single out historians of the US for not meeting standards no one else is, either. It’s not only in US history that the foreign language requirement is honored more in the breach, etc.

    • “if you published the same article in, say, Journal of the History of Ideas or Modern Intellectual History it is perfectly acceptable for you to cite an English translation, say the Cambridge versions of Rousseau and Montesquieu. Maybe you’ll include citations to the standard French versions, but really that’s just lip service, and everyone knows it.”

      I want to disagree strenuously with this. Citing from standard English-language versions of major texts is in no way a suggestion that you think it’s OK to work from these translations. It is, rather, to acknowledge that these journals have readers who are interested in very diverse subjects, and the language shouldn’t be required, if possible, to appreciate work done. In a globalizing profession, there is, although the phrase is unfortunate, no alternative but at least a few common languages.

      Similarly, I think it’s verging on the elitist to make heavy use of latin tags in academic writing today. To give up latin or greek tags is not to give up on cosmopolitanism, only on a certain version of it.

  2. This post seems to be assuming that “elite” US history PhD programs do generally require a foreign language. Is this the case? It’s only one data point, but I’m a US history candidate at Stanford, and we aren’t required to have a foreign language. If anyone wanted to research this, PhD handbooks are often posted on departmental websites.

  3. (I should clarify that there are of course Stanford US history grad students who know and work in languages other than English, but it’s not a curricular requirement.)

  4. This is a great post, and I generally agree with the conclusion (I myself work extensively in German-language sources, and my graduate program, Duke, requires all U.S. historians to pass a foreign language exam). But I think one point was left out of the article that is crucial to the whole discussion: whether or not graduate students who will likely not use a second-language in their own work can really afford the time it takes to acquire reading knowledge of a foreign language. With most programs only guaranteeing five years of funding, does it really make sense to spend 1-2 years worth of class time and summer work to learn French, if you’ll never use it?

    Maybe it does (although I don’t think the arguments provided above really make that case. As I understood it, L.D. argued that one should learn a foreign language because doing so is cosmopolitan and could possibly lead to an increase in one’s job market prospects. I don’t think this is necessarily true, and, unfortunately, I doubt there have been studies of this issue.) But if the profession does decide that learning a foreign language is necessary, then it is incumbent upon departments to make funding available for students to attend foreign language programs, such as those available at Middlebury, Indiana, Columbia, etc. I don’t think in any of these discussions one can afford to elide the issue of funding; it appears central to them all.

  5. I’ve heard rumors that we’re going to allow historian phds to use a programming class to fulfill the foreign language requirement (python == french). I think this is brilliant actually, exactly for the purposes of crossing epistemic boundaries that are not geopolitical ones. Historians and literature scholars armed with natural language processing tools are going to be a force to be reckoned with. So don’t get rid of the FL requirement, but allow broader sets of skills to be deemed “essential” to academic work.

  6. As I dislike threading as much as LD does, I’m replying to Eric Brandom’s response to my comment here . . .

    After noting it has become standard practice to cite English translations alongside the original French versions in Rousseau articles in journals like JHI and MIH, I found myself wondering what is done in political science/theory journals for articles on Rousseau. There practices were even more divergent. I have articles which cite English translations and give the French without any citations of the source of the latter. Then there are articles which cite English versions of one text and French versions of another, but not both simultaneously. And I’ve encountered a few which make no reference to the French at all.

    “Citing from standard English-language versions of major texts is in no way a suggestion that you think it’s OK to work from these translations.”

    Maybe the real question is, when did it become acceptable to use English translations? When did disclaimers like “Standard translations have been used whenever possible” become par for the course? They weren’t always there. It’s one thing to cite both an English translation and the original. But even that is not a uniform procedure and perhaps not even a majority one.

  7. Honestly, when it came to European history, I always assumed that people worked in the original, and that any citation to an English-language text was primarily a reference for non-experts. If historians don’t know the language of a text, they shouldn’t be trying to contribute new knowledge about it. Varad, are you stating that this is not the case, and that European historians are using primarily translated texts? It would be very interesting if this were the case.

  8. Thanks to everyone for these great comments. Not sure I’m equal to the task of providing great answers, but I’ll do my best to hold up my end of the conversation…

    I tried not to make any historical/comparative claims about language requirements, because I just don’t know the history for U.S. history — was hoping one of our education historians would fill me in there. (It’s an interest of mine, but not [yet] one of my fields.) My general sense of “the way things are” lines up with Varad’s description — some programs require languages, some don’t. But I don’t know how long that has been the status quo, or whether it is part of a decline, never mind a narrative of declension. So I tried to just assume the terms of the debate as it shaped up on Twitter — some argue “the requirement” should be dropped, and others that it should be kept.

    I didn’t mean to make the claim that all top-tier programs have a language requirement, though Sara is correct that it’s an implicit assumption of the post as written. I was trying to concede to Loomis the privileged / working-class divide that he sees lined up (way too tidily!) with language competency / lack thereof, and show how his argument would effectively increase the gap he assumes, rather than lessen it.

    On a personal note, though, I was mightily amused to see that Stanford is one of those top-tier programs that doesn’t require a second language for U.S. history PhDs. I’d be interested to know the history of the requirement — if it was ever in place, if/when it was dropped. I’m guessing it was never a requirement, but when it comes to the history of the curriculum at Stanford, absolutely nothing would surprise me. Seriously.

    The issues of time and cost are foregrounded in Loomis’s post, and they do indeed lurk behind everything I wrote here. I wanted to disconnect cost and value, so I purposely did not address Loomis’s arguments about time/cost (partly because I have another blog post up my sleeve). So I have talked about epistemic value, and market value, but I haven’t talked about cost directly.

    However, I tried to get at the time/cost issue indirectly, when I suggested that “what must be done” is to advocate for better/more language instruction at the undergrad level, and better support for intensive (i.e., quick and dirty) instruction at the graduate level.

    In one sense, “the market” came to the university thanks to dear old Charles William Eliot and the elective system, and it is probably the case that most American university students elect not to pursue foreign language studies beyond any minimal requirement that may exist at their school. So a case ought to be made (I’m pointedly using the passive voice there) for language study generally — for supporting it, for requiring it, for rewarding it at the undergraduate level — a case beyond “you might need it for grad school.”

    But I think one should need it for grad school. And I think if language competency is something that we value as a profession enough to require it, then we absolutely need to address the issue of cost.

  9. “Varad, are you stating that this is not the case, and that European historians are using primarily translated texts? It would be very interesting if this were the case.”

    I have no idea. But let’s think about it some more. Who’s reading these Rousseau articles if not us Rousseau experts (I use the term “expert” loosely to include myself)? Yes, some non-experts (e.g. paper-writing students) will consult them, but surely the primary audience is other experts in the field. In which case it would be fine to cite only the French version. Yet as I’ve pointed out even that’s not done all the time. The convention is to cite at least a standard English version, and the original is optional. Yes, you can use the original when you’re doing your research and then switch to a translation when you write, but that is cumbersome to say the least (I speak from experience).

    It’s a lot more convenient to do it the other way, and it’s this convenience, I think, that has led to the new convention. English versions are more accessible. Not to mention it’s a lot more efficient not to keep re-inventing the wheel. There are plenty of good scholarly translations out there. If someone’s already done that labor, why repeat it? I do think the shift from citing/using originals to translations owes something to this division of labor. You can do your own translations when necessary, but when not, don’t. This is pure speculation on my part, of course, but there’s no denying that somewhere along the way it became standard practice to cite English translations in conjunction with, and sometimes even in preference to, the originals. At least that’s the case in a fair bit of the the literature I’ve had to use.

    I’m not implying that these people haven’t mastered the original language. My point is that it’s no longer incumbent upon them to prove that they have. As I suggested in the previous paragraph, a kind of division of labor has taken hold. You do your own translations when you must (no translation exists, your argument depends on a particular textual reading, you don’t like the translations that exist), but when a good one is available that is accepted by all, use it. There’s no need to do that work again, not when there’s so much other work to do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sparing yourself a labor someone else has already done, especially when that labor isn’t essential to your own.

  10. do colleges no longer require foreign language in high school for entrance? I needed three years of a language to get into the UCLA. took one quarter my first year and was done. 4 years later I got 2 hours a dictionary and a passage of 8th grade level French to translate as my “foreign language” requirement. I could have passed it easier my first year of college. Compltely pro forma. I do translate more than I expected

  11. Here are the current UC admissions requirements/recommendations for the State of California, from the California Department of Education:

    Courses required for high school graduation and university admission

    Two years of a foreign language are still required for admission; three years are recommended.

    I found this handy info page on the University of California website, listing the various foreign language graduation requirements by campus and department. I have pointed the link to the UCLA reqs, but the sidebar lets you check for any school. Graduation requirements – Language – UCLA

    FWIW by way of comparison, Stanford also recommends three years of a foreign language for admission, and requires one year of foreign language study at Stanford.

    Undergraduate Program: Stanford

    However, a score of 4 or 5 on an AP language exam exempts undergrads from the language study requirement.

    Advanced Placement: Stanford

    So in terms of figuring out the inequalities in language preparation, a better point of comparison is not between the language requirements for the PhD at “top tier” institutions and other institutions, but the language requirements at the undergrad level. In the UC system, that requirement varies by campus/program. As you can see, UCLA students in the College of Letters and Science must complete an additional year of study — the “same” requirement as that for Stanford students. However, students at UCLA can be exempted from that requirement with a score of 3 on the AP test or passing a departmental proficiency exam — that’s a broader exemption than is available to Stanford students. Basically, you can test out of a foreign language more easily at UCLA than you can at Stanford.

    Pretend for a utopian moment that California taxpayers wake up and realize that their great public university system, once the envy of the entire world, deserves a full commitment of resources to restore it to its former magnificence. Pretend that the Regents voted to raise foreign language requirements for graduation across the board so that they were as “stringent” as those at Stanford.

    Would that be a fair thing to do, or a good thing to do? I think that question is tied to the question of cost. The relationship between diminished state support, increased costs of delivering education, and increased fees is a point of heated dispute in California right now. The cost to a student/family of going to a UC has outstripped the rise of inflation — the burden of paying for an education is being shifted from a public good to a private/individual matter.

    So I would argue that “making students more competitive” and “making public higher education more affordable” have to go hand in hand.

    This was basically going to be the heart of my next blog post, though framed historically — but there’s no reason not to discuss it now if people are interested.

  12. At a recent meeting of the American Historical Association, I attended a very enlightening session on the practice of comparative history. None of the panelists said anything about language acquisition, so I asked what challenges the field of comparative history faced now that universities are slashing funds for foreign language training. One panelist responded that U.S. scholars should befriend scholars in other countries so that they could take care of the foreign “half” of the research agenda. I’m not sure if this answer was a resigned one in the face of the reality of such cuts or was genuinely seen as preferable to having to master the language.

    Attempting to project while in graduate school the skills one will need for the next four decades as a professional is a difficult task. This is true whether one hunkers down to learn German or XML … and then finds one’s scholarly interests shifting a decade later in a way that makes these skills less “relevant.” Nevertheless, enough of the rest of the world is sufficiently multilingual that U.S. academics should be up to the challenge. Time to dust off the Duden and refresh my German!

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