Applying to Graduate Programs, (part iv): Language Study

Language study is unavoidable in these fields. I once heard Jerome Murphy O’Connor state that every Biblical scholar needed to know at least what he called the “seven basic languages- English, French, German, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic.” How should an undergrad choose his/her courses to prepare for graduate study in Religious/Biblical/ANE programs?

First, you need to know you can do language study. Not everyone can.
Two anecdotes- I had a friend who wanted desperately to do ANE studies. He started taking Greek and Arabic (which are admittedly difficult) and discovered that he just couldn’t get a handle on the languages at all. Now he’s a happy (or at least employed) lawyer in Vegas.

Second anecdote- I knew a kid at BYU who was a chemistry savant. He was graduating BYU at 18 and accepted to a prestigious PhD program elsewhere with barrels of money being thrown at him. Due to his brilliance, he was allowed to defer for two years to serve a mission, Spanish-speaking. As it turned out, he spent some time at home for medical reasons after being in the field for several months. He was being transferred to California, English-speaking, primarily for health reasons. However, the fact that he couldn’t learn Spanish at ALL probably contributed. “Spanish is IMPOSSIBLE,” he said.

Word to the wise. If you cannot pick up Spanish after multiple months of immersion and native companions, do not go for Biblical or ANE Studies. Even more general Religious Studies programs generally require a language or two, like French or German or something more relevant to your field. French is more difficult than Spanish, and German is downright painful, especially if you’ve never studied a language with cases.  More specialized religious studies programs will require specific languages because you’ll be expected to be at least minimally capable of reading the relevant texts in the original languages- Chinese and/or Japanese for Eastern Religions, Sanskrit for Hinduism and/or Buddhism, Arabic for Islamic Studies, etc.

Second, you need to know what field you’re trying to get in to. This can be a difficult decision (and I think we’re going to have a separate post about it.) The application to a program isn’t too different from a job application, in the sense that you’re trying to convince them that you are both capable and qualified of doing the work. From a language perspective, this means that regardless of your anticipated approach (MA/PhD, Div school/NELC, Bible/ANE/Religion)  you should probably take some courses in one of Murphy-O’Oconnor’s basic languages- French, German, Greek or Hebrew (or other, if you know you’re going for Eastern Religions, etc.) and get good grades. This will show the grad schools that you’re capable of handling whatever language work will be required. And if you served a German or French-speaking mission, so much the better for you. Italian, Russian, and Spanish can also sometimes be useful, depending on your program and focus.

Third, is it better to go deep or broad as an undergrad? Most undergrads won’t have the option of taking things like Aramaic or Syriac or Ugaritic. For those who do, though, it’s probably better to be deep than broad, to focus on one or two languages and learn them well than sampling multiple. That is, if you have 9 language courses you can take, I think it would be better to do, say, 8 Hebrew and 1 Aramaic, or 7 Greek and 2 Syriac than 2 each of Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Latin, etc.

Speaking from the experience of formal study of ten languages, you lose what you don’t use regularly. Several of my languages are no more than the dream of a night vision at this point. Even brilliant polymaths like Hugh Nibley have to read regularly in the languages and keep up like mad to maintain those skills. Studying five languages as an undergrad may sound good on an application, but I would worry about retention. I think focusing on one or two languages provides a strongest possible base for applying. Moreover, if other courses are even offered at your undergrad institution, you’ll probably find better or more experienced teachers in the secondary languages in your grad program (since they presumable teach/publish on them more regularly).

If, however, you have the intellectual capability to learn and maintain your primary language or two well, AND  the scholastic flexibility to sample a few others, more power to you. Quality is paramount, but if you can maintain quality and add quantity, even better for your application.

The best way to maintain language skills is to read in that language regularly. For modern languages, a Book of Mormon or Bible will at least keep the grammar in your head. For regular Hebrew and Greek reading, I recommend Zondervan’s Reader’s Edition of the Hebrew Bible and the UBS Reader’s Edition of the Greek NT (over Zondervan’s). See here for general comments and here for a comparison of the UBS vs. Zondervan Greek NT.

Fourth, Your Mileage May Vary.  Different programs, fields and schools have different requirements and ideals. I know that NYU’s PhD Hebrew Bible program, for example, offers language courses in Ugaritic, Akkadian, etc. However, their ideal PhD student comes in with a strong language background who can bypass language requirements and deal with religion and literature. An applicant there would do well to have a MA or significant undergraduate language study. At other schools, however, languages ARE the graduate program. This is my impression from talking to students at Brandeis, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Chicago, where they’re more concerned that you are capable of doing language study than with how much you have coming in.  Since YMMV, my cobloggers may have comments about their different experiences as well.

Fifth and last, languages are fun. Find something you love and run with it. I can’t say I “wooed” my wife by reading her Ugaritic poetry (since it’s not at all her thing) but I managed not to scare her off when we were dating in spite of it. “Do what you love. Know your own bone, gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it and gnaw it still.” -Thoreau

Previous posts in the series: Part I. Part II. Part III.

Spotlights: YDS.

11 Replies to “Applying to Graduate Programs, (part iv): Language Study”

  1. Some tips on language study that I find helpful.

    The first language you learn should be English, especially if you already speak it. It’s a crime that schools no longer teach grammar, because that means you have to do it on your own. If you learn how English grammar works, you will have much less of a difficult time learning foreign language grammar.

    A little bit everyday is better than huge bursts every now and then. It’s much better to study a foreign language 15 minutes everyday rather than 2 hours once a week. It’s hard to “cram” a language.

    Read, speak, write, and listen. There is a tendency to just read biblical languages. The problem is that your brain works better when you combine all language skills. Hebrew, Latin, and Greek are most definitely not dead languages, don’t treat them like they are.

    This may be controversial, but to facilitate the previous point, learn the contemporary pronunciations of these languages if they exist, unless your teacher insists otherwise. If you are learning on your own, just learn the contemporary pronunciations. This isn’t so you can strike up a conversation with someone in ancient Greek or Latin, but so that your brain can process the information better. You can find tons of recordings on the internet for Greek, Latin, and Hebrew which use the contemporary pronunciations (by the way, for Latin this means ecclesiastical pronunciation).

  2. Good points David.

    Further, for those who don’t have a good grasp on grammatical concepts in general, check out the Grammatical Concepts 101 books by Gary Long, one for Hebrew and one for Greek.

    They walk you through English grammar as a stepping stone to understanding what’s going on in these other languages.

    I’ve heard it said that you don’t know English well until you really study a second language, and you don’t really understand grammatical concepts thoroughly until your third. But after that it gets easy 🙂

  3. Nitsav – I enjoy these posts so much! Thank you for all your hard work.

    I would also like to point out that there is a significant difference between spoken and read languages. I learned an exeptionally difficult language on my mission and thought learning Latin would be easy after that. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. I’ve really struggled learning languages I can’t speak (though it’s been worth it!), so I would first caution anyone who gauges their success learning an ancient language (hebrew, greek, latin) by their experience with a modern language.

    Second I would echo David Clark’s encouragement to find a way to vocalize the language you’re studying. Furthermore, I would recommend even memorizing and composing in the language. This will help your brain immeasurably to think in whatever language you’re studying.

  4. Proficiency in language skills, and I am speaking particularly ‘dead’ languages, is also a rite of passage. Someone who professes to know Greek but who has only had a year or two of Koine and can’t read Plato does not garner the respect of one who has read various authors in various eras, genres, and dialects. This is not just snobbery (although there is plenty of that too) but a real issue: limited language skills means limited work with primary sources, which means limited arguments with limited scope. Simple as that.

    Also, my advice to undergrads would be to not worry about French or German and spend all of their available time on the ancient languages. The language exams for PhD programs are not too difficult for modern languages but they can be down right brutal for the ancient ones. Also, I have heard it said and I have found it to be true for me that it takes a good 5-7 years of study to really get an ancient language. So if one starts an ancient language in one’s freshman or sophomore year, s/he will be well on her/his way to that target time span sometime during the MA or early PhD years.

    Once admitted into a PhD program which centers around ancient languages it becomes evident what the pecking order is: those who are the most proficient at languages usually rise to the top of their cohort while those who are still using pony-translations and struggling with basic grammar lag behind. This is not to say what those who lack the language skills can’t be successful students, it simply means that they have more work to do to catch up with their peers.

    After the mystery of decoding Greek or Hebrew or Latin wears off (sometime around the aorist passive subjunctive in Greek and long before the Hiphil in Hebrew) you realize that these languages are your tools to the trade. Like a carpenter’s lathe or a doctor’s scalpel, these tools are the means by which you ply your trade. Low grade quality or shoddily maintained tools make for messy work.

  5. jondh is right on about composition. If composition courses are offered, buck up and take them. They can be humiliating and self-esteem shattering but they are priceless.

  6. David Clark,

    “It’s a crime that schools no longer teach grammar,”

    Come on, that is my favorite part of living in a postmodern society. Plus, it makes grading even more tedious.

  7. On not knowing English, my ACT score for the English portion was by far the lowest of the four, and it was something I could have easily remedied if I had only known things like the difference between a subject and an object, basic stuff like that. I was clueless at the time.

    I didn’t learn English grammar until I took Latin in college. It was a brutal experience at first, but I rolled up my sleeves and worked my way through it.

    For me, Latin provided a good foundation for learning Greek, so if you’ve got to learn both anyway I’d broach the Latin first.

    FWIW, I studied classical Greek and only incidentally Koine, which I would recommend to anyone who really is going to need Greek in a serious way. By the time I got to Koine it seemed easy, but if all you ever read is the NT it’s always going to seem really hard.

    After a year of college Latin I went on to second year Latin courses and beginning Greek and Hebrew, all at the same time. In a strange sort of way, having survived the Latin, doing all of that language at once seemed to make it easier for me, as I could compare and contrast the languages as I went.

    As for maintenance, Nibley’s method was to rotate languages each week. My languges are all fairly rusty, but at least I manage to use the Greek and Hebrew rather often for biblical stuff. The Coptic is so rusty I probably couldn’t even open the door.

    Although I studied ancient languages as an undergrad at the Y, I always lamented the fact that I never learned a modern language. (A German or French mission would have been great!) I took a beginning German class at the local community college and taught myself some Russian, but that’s about it. To this day I consider this lack one of the biggest holes in my education.

  8. Thanks for this. I’m not planning on going into religious studies — or anything that requires more education. But I have been fretting about my atrophying German and Romanian skills. I do have a commute that gives me 30 minutes of solid reading time. Time to find some free foreign language content that I can load on my old-school PDA.

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