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

Applying to Graduate Programs, (part iv): Language Study December 4, 2008

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.


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