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Graduate students (at least in the US) often have to take foreign language competency exams, particularly if they are in the humanities. In things like classics or Biblical studies, I might expect a higher standard. But what is the standard generally required of students outside of such areas (but still within the humanities) in the US?

Since these are PhD programmes, I would normally expect a high standard (e.g. at least beyond the second year level in a good undergraduate programme). But purely anecdotally, I've reason to doubt this:

  • I know one person who was a native Japanese speaker and who used Japanese and German (or possibly English, via some exemption for foreign ESL speakers) to meet her language requirements, but who claims that her German isn't very good.

  • I know of a first-year student in art history who is using Italian and Chinese to meet such requirements. His comments about his Italian revision and experience suggested that he was at a fairly low level,1 and his attempts to write or converse in Chinese were, speaking as a native Chinese speaker, not particularly competent. Apparently he had to take his Italian exam shortly upon entering grad school.

While perhaps I'm just being too presumptuous of other people, this seems to suggest that the idea I have of language competency exams requiring people to comfortably read something like untranslated Foucault easily is wrong.


1. From his comments, it seemed that I know at least as much French as he does Italian, yet I have trouble reading French scholarly texts with confidence.

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    It seems likely that this would vary significantly by discipline and individual department. In my discipline (mathematics), most commonly the student has to translate a page or two of mathematics from the language into English. Sometimes they are given dictionaries and/or a lot of time to do so. Speaking from experience on both sides, this is not too stringent. If you are asking how much language proficiency is guaranteed by passing such a requirement, I would say: not much. – Pete L. Clark May 5 '15 at 20:35
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    Note also that the examinations may well not be billed as "foreign language competency exams". In my PhD program for instance, it was called a "foreign language reading exam". – Pete L. Clark May 5 '15 at 20:37
  • Maybe retitle the question to ask about exams in humanities, so it gets read by the right people. In STEM fields, reading technical papers, at least is languages closely related to ones you know, is much easier than being good at conversation or reading fiction. – Kimball May 7 '15 at 1:40
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I'll give a sketch of an answer, from the perspective of someone at a top 10 university in the U.S.

Recently, I had a consultation about potentially doing German coursework. It was also suggested I take a course for learning to read German that was intended for graduate students who needed to meet their reading competency requirements, particularly since I had placed (however accurately) into second-year German. The reading course presumes no initial German knowledge of its students. Moreover, the course only takes up the time of a single term. I would be thus inclined to say that the reading exams cannot be possibly so difficult, but I have a lot of trouble reading samples for the German one without more knowledge.

Since the quality of my French is less suspect, I'll use that as an example. Looking at old reading exams for French at my university, I would probably be able to pass (or at least not fail abysmally), and I probably have at least the knowledge of almost two year's of college-level French. But what really helps is that I have a good chunk of knowledge about grammatical forms (so I can look at a verb and guess its infinitive easily and more experience with vocabulary than I do in German.

So perhaps the language competency exams, at least when based on more humanities-oriented texts, really aren't that difficult, but only in the sense that a student who knows a lot of grammar and has some good experience of vocabulary should be able to survive.

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I have a comment, not an answer, but I don't think it will fit in the little bitty space very well.

I'm not qualified to write an answer because I never studied humanities.

I know one person who was a native Japanese speaker and who used Japanese and German (or possibly English, via some exemption for foreign ESL speakers) to meet her language requirements, but who claims that her German isn't very good.

There are a couple of possible explanations of this. Perhaps her humility makes her say her German isn't very good. Perhaps she is comparing her German with her English, and her German is not as strong as her English.

If she were doing a PhD in Germany, do you think her English is strong enough that she could use it to pass a foreign language competency exam? If so, then I think her department did the right thing by declaring her competent.

I know of a first-year student in art history who is using Italian and Chinese to meet such requirements. His comments about his Italian revision and experience suggested that he was at a fairly low level, and his attempts to write or converse in Chinese were, speaking as a native Chinese speaker, not particularly competent. Apparently he had to take his Italian exam shortly upon entering grad school.... From his comments, it seemed that I know at least as much French as he does Italian, yet I have trouble reading French scholarly texts with confidence.

I don't speak Italian, but I speak Spanish and French. I have noticed that Spanish is often more straightforward than French. I suspect that Italian is pretty straightforward too.

Keep in mind the context -- the U.S. is such an overwhelmingly unilingual place and culture.

seems to suggest that the idea I have of language competency exams requiring people to comfortably read something like untranslated Foucault easily is wrong

My guess is that your idea is wrong. (I wish it weren't.)

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