Against Foreign Language Requirements

An orange and black globe with a green book superimposed over it, with a red ribbon over it that reads 'Languages'

 Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

John McMillian

Psychologists estimate that between 2 and 8 percent of adults suffer from recurring nightmares, and I’m one of them. One of my unsettling dreams goes like this:

I’m finally about to graduate from my Ph.D. program in American history, and so naturally, I’m feeling very pleased with myself. All those years of self-denying, strenuous hard work are about to pay off! I’ve finished my coursework, passed my comprehensive exams, and with my dissertation, I’ve made a substantial and original contribution to my field. Everyone agreed it had been a success.

Then at the last minute, I’m bushwhacked by the terrible news. “There has been a mistake,” someone informs me. “You won’t be graduating after all. You haven’t satisfied the department’s foreign language requirement.”

I continue to periodically have that nightmare in spite of the fact that I earned my Ph.D. at Columbia almost ten years ago. Before I could get too far in the program, however, I had to show that I could “read” a foreign language. After numerous attempts, I finally passed the exam in French, but I can’t say I gained much from the experience. At the time, I was preparing to specialize in post–World War II American history, and like all of my cohorts, I had a lot to work on. I needed practice reading, writing, and refining my thinking. Big gaps in my knowledge demanded to be filled. I’ve never been busier, or worked harder, in my life. And yet many mornings, I was waking up while it was still dark in order to conjugate French verbs, and memorize vocab cards. Even in my most optimistic moments, I couldn’t see how that was supposed to help me in my career.

Turns out, I was right to be skeptical. Since then, I’ve not needed to translate anything from a foreign language in order to do my work. Now more than ever, I can look back and say that from a professional standpoint, the language requirement was a hideous nuisance.

Neither the American Historical Association nor the Organization of American Historians keep tabs on which graduate programs make their Americanists pass a translation exam, but a quick search on the Web shows that it’s a standard requirement at most schools. Some programs even require their Ph.D. candidates to demonstrate proficiency in two foreign languages. Why?

I asked the graduate directors at a handful of highly regarded departments, as well as a few senior professors that I know. By far the most frequent answer that I received—which one professor said was “obvious”—is that American historians should be able to read secondary materials, as well as primary sources, in languages other than English.

But this seems a flimsy rationale for upholding what is often an onerous requirement, particularly considering the current crisis in graduate education. The barriers to enter the professoriate have never been higher. About half of those who begin Ph.D. programs in the humanities will not finish, and graduate school takes longer to complete than ever before. A person can become a lawyer after three years of study, or a medical doctor after four, but nowadays the median time it takes to earn a doctoral degree in history is about nine years. Among those who do finish, only the most fortunate will land jobs that reward independent research. Most of the rest, if they choose to remain in academia, will become supremely overqualified contingent laborers. Their work lives will be devoted to teaching and grading.

Besides, if it’s true that language requirements exist in order to ensure that graduates can read historical materials in languages other than English, then most departmental exams are an ineffectual farce. Typically, these exams give students an allotted amount of time (say, two hours) to translate a short passage (sometimes just a paragraph) with the help of a dictionary. But students who labor to decipher a short piece of foreign writing are unlikely to ever wade through an entire book or article in that language. In other words, graduate students routinely satisfy their language requirements without ever acquiring a practical skill. They still have not learned, in any meaningful or practical sense of the word, how to “read” another language. No wonder students tend to regard these exams as hoops to jump through, and nothing more.

It was also frequently said that foreign language skills are essential for anyone who desires to be considered cultivated, broad-minded, or well rounded. “No person with a Ph.D. should be so parochial as to only know the native language,” one historian said flatly.

This was perhaps the least satisfying type of reply I received, because it’s not even an argument; it’s a value judgment, or an article of faith. And it’s belied by the fact that plenty of outstanding scholars—people who do great work, who collect prizes, who occupy professional offices, and who hold endowed chairs—are essentially monolingual. Moreover, American history doctoral programs are not in the business of producing “well-rounded individuals.” They’re not meant to educate polymaths. In fact, since the modern university system was created about a hundred years ago, history departments have encouraged high degrees of specialization. Most dissertations are the product of narrowly focused research on esoteric topics.

And while it’s true that language skills can broaden a person’s horizons, so too can plenty of other things, including expertise in philosophy, math, and science. Get a dozen humanists together, and you’re likely to hear a dozen competing, idiosyncratic thoughts about just what it is that every educated person “needs to know.” A historian could study the Complete Works of Shakespeare in far less time than it takes to learn a language, and he or she would likely come away with deep and profound insights into the human condition. Who knows, that knowledge might even have a salutary effect upon a person’s historical writing. But no one’s suggesting we make Shakespeare a requirement for American history graduate students.

Finally, it was said that English speaking grad students should get a foreign language education because that’s what people do elsewhere. “To drop the requirement would suggest that ‘everyone’ in the world speaks English, a typical example of American parochialism,” one well-known scholar told me.

There’s no gainsaying that Americans don’t emphasize foreign language educations as much as other countries. Then again, there may be a very good reason for that. From a practical point of view, English is by far the most important language for scholars to know. It has become the global language of commerce, science, and the educated class. I realize that some people don’t like hearing that, perhaps because they think it reeks of hubris, or linguistic nativism. But it’s a fact nonetheless.

This is not the place to explore the reasons why academic departments, like other bureaucracies, tend to replicate themselves. But it’s hard to escape the thought that language requirements persist in American history grad programs as a result of a virus-like phenomenon known as autopoiesis. That is to say, they’re based on assumptions, or mind-sets, that became entrenched a very long time ago, and since then have been handed down so frequently as to become the conventional wisdom. Alas, conventional wisdom often elides critical scrutiny—even among history professors.

Let me finish with a few clarifications. This is not a treatise against foreign languages. This is not a defense of philistinism. I am not arguing, the way some economists have argued, that given various opportunity costs and the likely returns-on-investment, native English-speakers who devote themselves to foreign languages are usually behaving irrationally. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who wishes to explore foreign languages should go ahead and do so. I will not object.

And of course I realize that for a fairly small subset of American historians, foreign language expertise may in fact be necessary. In recent years, the study of the United States in the world has been a big topic. Furthermore, if someone wants to study Creoles in Louisiana, or migrant workers on the Central Pacific Railroad, or turn-of-the-century anarchists in New York City, it would likely be helpful for them to know French, Chinese, or Italian. That is hardly a rationale, however, for making foreign languages a requirement for all aspiring American historians.

Here’s a much better idea: Let’s have graduate students focus on developing the skills they’ll need in order to pursue their careers. Every American history graduate student needs practice teaching, thinking critically, and writing gracefully. But hardly any of them need to know a foreign language in order to do the work they wish to do. The point is simple and obvious, yet also quite remarkable in its capacity for starting arguments with other history professors. If we are serious, however, about educating our students efficiently, then it’s an argument that is well worth having.

John McMillian is assistant professor of history at Georgia State University, in Atlanta. He is the author of Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America (2011) and Beatles vs. Stones (2013).