For any historian not studying U.S. history (and not a few who do), being able to read foreign languages is an essential skill. The reason is simple: our job is to read, and the more languages we can read, the broader the range of materials available to us. The question of which languages to learn and how can be the source of some anxiety, though. I happen to work in a total of five languages on a week-to-week basis.
So what are these languages and why do I bother studying them? First, there’s English. That one’s pretty obvious. Then there’s Chinese, which makes sense considering I study Chinese history. But it’s worth pointing out: at the PhD level historians are absolutely expected to know the language of their primary field of research. Every PhD program I know of requires passing at least one language exam that tests reading ability before advancing to candidacy, which means in practice that a considerable degree of proficiency must be gained before entering the program. (If you’re an undergraduate considering a PhD in the future, I can’t stress this enough.) Chinese is tricky, though, both because it’s a difficult language but also because I have to read several forms of it: contemporary and older literary styles, traditional and simplified characters. At this point, I mostly practice Chinese by using it for research, although I do want to spend more time increasing the number of characters I know from memory.
Next is Japanese. There are two main reasons for me to study Japanese. First, Japanese historians have produced some excellent scholarship about China, but, unfortunately, little of it is translated into English. Reading this scholarship, then, requires being able to read Japanese. Second, there are a variety of Japanese-language primary sources relevant to Chinese history. This is especially important for my project because I work on a geographic region (Shandong) that was within Japan’s sphere of influence in the early twentieth century. I am currently taking second year Japanese at UofC with the support of a FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) fellowship. It’s definitely a grind: class meets 8:30-9:20, Monday through Friday, and I usually spend an additional hour to an hour and a half each day on homework and studying.
The other two languages are French and German. I took French in high school, so it seemed like a good idea to take a reading course my first summer at UofC to get back up to speed a little. I also took a German reading course the same summer. However, I didn’t have any background in German and the grammar and vocabulary is more difficult, so I’m still considerably slower. Compared to French, German is more relevant to my research since Shandong was also the site of German concessions (before they were transferred to Japan after World War I). Since I don’t have time for classes in either language at the moment, I practice by translating bits of secondary works that are relevant to my research interests. I feel like I’m mostly running in place, but I think I’ve noticed some small improvements.
The next language on my to-learn list would probably be Manchu, the language used by the rulers of China’s last dynasty, the Qing (the period I focus on). It’s not necessary for my current project, but having it in my toolbox could open up a broader range of possibilities for future research, including some topics I’ve been mulling recently.
When I was considering applying to graduate schools, a professor told me that some people undertake PhD studies as a kind of excuse to continue their love affair with language studies. From this blog post, you might think this is me, but it’s really not. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy learning or working in foreign languages, but that’s not what gets me out of bed most mornings (besides needing to get to 8:30 Japanese class). I’d like to think that I’ll feel differently some day, but it’s hard to imagine a point in time when language study won’t be a source of frustration, anxiety, and insecurity. And if I ever happen to get there…well, there are always more languages to study.