Absence of language study in humanities programs

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Tweet from Bryan Van Norden:

About 5 years ago, one of our best undergraduate students in Classics told me that she graduated without taking any Latin or Greek.  (A thought raced through my head:  a mathematics department without math?)  I was flabbergasted.  Then we all heard about Princeton doing away with Greek and Latin for classics majors.

"Princeton removes Greek and Latin for classics students to combat institutional racism", Reece Goodall, The Boar (6/11/21)

BTW, I was up at Princeton this past weekend and was astonished to find that all traces of Woodrow Wilson had vanished, even though he had served as the 13th President (1902-1910) of the University and the 28th president of the United States (1913-1921).

Seeking a reality check at Penn, I asked my colleagues in Classical Studies what the situation was like here.  Ralph Rosen responded thus:

Well, Princeton is really just catching up to what has become the norm in most places. Penn was a pioneer in this— we crafted a no-languages-required major almost 25 years ago, and it was one of the best things we did for a variety of reasons we can discuss some time if you’re interested. I might add that ‘despite’ having a major such as this, students can still get all the training they would like in Greek and Latin if they’re interested. There are fewer of these choosing this language path than the non-language Classical Studies major, but they all interact as one community dedicated to a common interest in the pre-modern Mediterranean and its reception. One shouldn’t forget, after all, that ‘Classical Studies’ comprises a lot of quite diverse fields (archaeology, history,  art history, reception studies, philosophy, in addition to Greek and Latin). Graduate study, of course, is another matter; but that article from Princeton was reporting changes only their undergraduate major, to align it better with disciplinary norms (and presumably to attract more students, who remain interested in the classical world, but for whatever reason, do not want to commit to language study).

I'm grateful to Ralph for sending that to me, but must admit that, when I read it, I almost felt as though the floor had dropped out from under me.  I'm sure that every single one of my colleagues in East Asian Languages and Civilizations would find it absolutely inconceivable that we could offer a major or minor without heavy language requirements (it's built right into the name of our department).  In our department, we wrangled over whether the language requirement should be six courses or eight courses.  Language study is at the heart of all that we do, and most practitioners of East Asian studies programs believe that you can't really understand East Asian civilization and culture if you don't know the languages.

Will EALC one day go the way of Classics at Penn and Princeton?


Selected readings


  1. Timothy George Rowe said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 4:57 am

    Wouldn't a focus on Greek and Latin imply that philosophy outside the Western tradition is worthless? Unless philosophers are going to learn all world languages, living and dead, they're going to have to deal with translations.

  2. maidhc said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 5:45 am

    When my father was studying for his PhD at an American university, back in the early 1960s, students had to satisfy a foreign language requirement. The reason given was that one had to be able to read technical literature from foreign countries. My father chose German. The exam was that they sat you down with a journal article in your chosen language, you were allowed to have a dictionary, and you had to translate it. I guess he must have passed, because he received his degree–in Economics, not anything to do with linguistics.

    I think that was not unusual at that time. American universities were under the spell of "Europeans are ahead of us in scholarship". But by the time I attended graduate school it was more like "Anything worth knowing is published in English anyway".

    If you're studying Philosophy, perhaps you might be looking at literature from China, Japan, India, the Islamic world, … as well as Europe. So requiring you to do all this in the original languages is more than could fit into a four-year curriculum.

    If you are majoring in Classical Studies, it's hard for me to imagine not being required to learn Latin and Greek. But I really don't know what these programs are intended to teach.

  3. James said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 5:50 am

    Van Norden actually specializes in Chinese (and maybe other East Asian?) philosophy. But, he doesn't know German, so apparently he thinks the Critique of Pure Reason is worthless.

  4. Ralph J Hickok said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 7:25 am

    I wonder what the situation is at Harvard? When I entered in the fall of 1955 , I planned to major in chemical engineering and I had to take either German or Russian. After passing the language requirement with one year of German, I decided to change my major to English and then I had to take either Greek or Latin.

  5. Misha Schutt said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 8:03 am

    I was a Russian major at Middlebury, 1968-72.
    Middlebury is famous for its summer language schools, but that period was when lots of requirements were being questioned (along with requirements like wearing a tie at dinner). Some of the language departments resisted the abolition of the language requirement, but the Russian department said they’d rather have students who wanted to be in their classes, as opposed to those who felt oppressed by having to take it. (This was also the moment when the Russian department exploded, with 40 freshmen majors where there had been 5-10 the precious year.

  6. Mark P said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 8:30 am

    Georgia Tech used to require a language test for their PhD program. In the early 1980’s I was there and just starting to think about what I would do when they dropped the requirement.

  7. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 8:46 am

    Comprehensive treatment: https://www.fgbueno.es/ing/index.htm

  8. languagehat said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 9:01 am

    Antonio L. Banderas: Did you mean to link to something else? You've linked to the main Fundación Gustavo Bueno page, which doesn't seem to have anything to do with this topic.

  9. Jenny Chu said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 9:06 am

    @Ralph J Hickok I wonder too! When I studied at Harvard in the early 1990s, there was a language requirement for all students (1 year of a language, or pass a test), and a more stringent language requirement for the linguistics concentrators (2 years of a language). The irony was that the one language course actually offered by the Linguistics department, ASL, did not meet either of these requirements.

    Reader, I took the ASL courses anyway.

  10. Rodger C said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 9:43 am

    Long ago I had a fantasy where all philosophy majors, or maybe even all humanities majors, would have to be able to read Greek, Arabic, Sanskrit and Old Chinese. Note, I've only studied one of these.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 10:04 am

    It is annoyingly hard to google up good data quickly, but my impression, bolstered with some recollections of having looked at decent data a few years ago, is that the percentage of US high school graduates that have studied some foreign language before graduation (and thus before entering college) is significantly higher these days than it was in most former times (in really former times the percentage was higher but that's when most Americans didn't finish high school). That said, the overwhelming majority of those kids have a few not-very-rigorous years of instruction in Spanish, and Spanish was never considered a respectable "scholarly" language that Ph.D. candidates ought to have reading knowledge of, outside of a few narrow specialties where it would be particularly salient.

    My undergraduate linguistics major (in the '80's) required two years worth of study in the non-English language(s) of your choice and first-year/intro courses didn't count. I can't recall if you could do it all in one language or you had to split it up. I think I used two semesters of German and two of ancient Greek. It would have been better IMHO but maybe not practically feasible to require some study of a non-IE language.

    I don't recall what the department required for Ph.D. back then, but I'm skeptical they were still taking the position that any linguistics Ph.D. needed to be able to read scholarly journal articles in the traditional "scientific" languages as well as knowing whatever language(s) were relevant to their own research. E.g., one grad student I remember being in a seminar or two with eventually did his dissertation on "History & development of nominal predication in 8th century Japanese," so I'm sure he had good reading knowledge of archaic (and probably more modern) varieties of Japanese, but I don't know if he could read scholarly articles in French or German relevant to the topic. Outside of linguistics, my brother had to pass a Latin reading proficiency exam when he was getting a humanities Ph.D. in the 1990's. Don't know if the same university would require the same (for someone in his department and with his research focus) today.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 10:30 am

    To Van Norden's discipline-specific point, I think there are two unspoken premises here: (1) virtually all significant philosophical works written in languages other than English are these days available in good English translation; and (2) if a particular author can't be understood perfectly well in translation that just proves that the author in question is unrigorous and unscientific and not to be taken seriously as a philosopher. #1 is largely an empirical claim; #2 involves some contestable presuppositions about what philosophy is and isn't. But no one says you have to learn ancient Greek and read Euclid in the original in order to properly learn Euclidian geometry, right?

  13. DJL said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 2:03 pm

    @Timothy George Rowe No, it wouldn't, but that has nothing to with the Van Norden tweet anyway (in that chain, someone actually talks about translating a French text). The point regarding Greek and/or Latin was brought up by Victor Mair in this post in the context of a degree in Classical Studies, quite a separate issue.

  14. Natasha Warner said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 2:10 pm

    My father had a language requirement for his PhD in metallurgy in the '70's. He memorized a list of French prepositions and was able to pass the French written translation test by using cognates/borrowings, those prepositions, and guesswork. He had never studied French. Did that requirement achieve anything useful except a story for him to tell ever since? At my own university now, the Anthropology PhD has a language requirement while Linguistics does not, because we find our Ling students go out and learn all the languages they need without a requirement, and the Anthro requirement is written in a way that doesn't necessarily improve anyone's education. On your side note, I'm very glad that Princeton is getting rid of memorials to Wilson. Despite what most of us were taught in high school history class, Wilson was no hero, and the more I learn about him, the less I want to see him honored. As for undergrad Classics, maybe Classics is a special case because the languages associated with it are not spoken. Learning Latin and ancient Greek won't help you talk with local people while on an archaeology dig in Italy.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 2:11 pm


    1) This is about doctorates in actual philosophy and not any PhD, right? Because the term PhD implies that the study of nature is philosophy of nature – as was the case 200 years ago, but not since then. Other countries have caught up with the development of science as independent* of philosophy; I'm not a Dr. phil., I'm a Dr. rer. nat. (rerum naturalium, "of the natural things").

    2) If so, how much history of philosophy do you need to know to be able to contribute to philosophy? I ask because you need to know very little history of science to be able to contribute to science. (Basically, as soon as you understand it's not a linear story of uninterrupted progress and that every celebrated genius has been wrong on occasion, you're golden.) History of science is an interesting field of study in its own right, and it is generally studied as a field of its own.

    * Science is an application of philosophy (specifically science theory) in just the same way that medicine and engineering are applications of science.

  16. Bob Moore said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 2:52 pm

    When I was in grad school at MIT in the 1970s, the general requirement to pass a foreign language exam to get a PhD was in the process of going away. In the MIT AI Lab, some students were in the Math department and others were in EECS. The Math department abolished the language requirement before EECS did, so that was an extra burden for the EECS students. I was one of a handful of EECS students in the AI Lab under a special interdisciplinary PhD committee that did not impose the language requirement, which is how I got out of it. A year after I graduated, another student, Henry Baker, went all the way to the end, getting his dissertation approved, without passing a language exam, daring the EECS department to withhold his degree. The department blinked, and that was the end of the language requirement for a PhD in EECS at MIT.

    A degree in the study of another culture, without learning the language of that culture, seems like another matter altogether, however. I, too, am taken aback by granting degrees in Classics without any knowledge of classical languages.

  17. Y said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 2:57 pm

    My natural tendency is to be sympathetic—yay, languages—but I can see their point. An archaeologist, I imagine, could be satisfied with the available translations of the works of classical antiquity, and leave the rare inscription or papyrus to the specialists. This is very unlike Chinese or Japanese studies, where most of the primary sources are untranslated, as is the vast body of secondary literature, which is still being generated.

  18. Rose Eneri said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 5:03 pm

    "If you are majoring in Classical Studies, it's hard for me to imagine not being required to learn Latin and Greek. But I really don't know what these programs are intended to teach."

    Does anybody?

    "Classics majors at Princeton University will no longer be required to learn Greek or Latin in order to combat institutional racism."

    Clearly Princeton wants to eliminate the language requirement as other institutions have and has conveniently invoked wokeism to justify it. Do they really think anybody is fooled?

  19. Bloix said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 5:19 pm

    If this is a recognition of anything, it’s that if true mastery of Greek and Latin is required, there will be very few grad students in philosophy.

  20. Rich said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 5:21 pm

    This is short-sighted. It's not simply about preference for the texts of one language over another. Truly learning Latin or Greek, or Sanskrit or Russian or what have you changes everything you think about any text in any language.

  21. AntC said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 5:24 pm

    The van Norden tweet is about Philosophy, not Classics. 'East Asian Languages and Civilizations' might study Philosophy(s) in passing, but it is not 'doing' Philosophy.

    All philosophy degrees should include at least one exercise of translating a philosophical text, even if it's just a paragraph.


    The study of Philosophy is not the study of languages. I have a degree in Philosophy (and Politics, Economics) obtained in 1977. There were no language requirements. Why would there be?

    I of course studied the Greek Philosophers in translation, and Descartes, Kant, Schopenaur, Kierkegaard, Marx, Sartre, Lenin, Trotsky, … in translation.

    To understand the nuances of that thought, it was sometimes necessary to consider competing translations of key terms. (Wittgenstein was a bugger for that, despite him publishing in what he thought was English. Come to that, Hume, Hobbes and Locke used terms in other than their modern sense.) That investigation went on in English, quoting the term in original language.

    Might there have been something lost in translation? Possibly; but less lost than trying to cram so many different schools of thought in so many diverse languages, which I couldn't possibly have mastered to sufficient depth.

  22. Brett said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 6:44 pm

    @Bob Moore: I think your are mistaken about the abolition of the foreign language requirement for math Ph.D. students at MIT. There was still a language requirement when I got my doctorate in applied math less than twenty years ago.

  23. Josh R said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 7:42 pm

    I seriously doubt that EALL programs will be doing away with language requirements in any way, inasmuch as unlike Latin and Ancient Greek, they are dealing with living languages very much in use in the modern world. EALL thus has access to student pools that classical humanities does not, e.g., students fulfilling language requirements or taking a minor in a language.

    (From the futurist perspective, AI translation is a threat to all language programs. As it gets better and better, there will be less practical need and interest in learning a foreign language, which will lead to those programs being marginalized in the quest for funds.)

    From a practical standpoint, if student enrollment is the lifeblood of a program, and ancient language requirements are a drag on enrollment, AND a certain level of attainment can be achieved without learning those languages, then it makes sense to remove that requirement.

    But there are philosophical questions about the wisdom of doing so, that have been in debate for decades. In his 1925 application to the Rawlinson chair, JRR Tolkien wrote about striving to close the chasm between "Lang." and "Litt." in the field of English studies. By the time of his valedictory address in 1959, he had become entirely cynical of the possibility of doing so.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 8:55 pm

    In reputable East Asian programs such as Penn's, not only do candidates in Chinese have to have a good command of Japanese (more than two years worth), they need to command a European language aside from English. Ditto for Japanese candidates having to know Chinese and another European language beside English. Sometimes, another Asian or other relevant language may be substituted for the second European language.

  25. Tom Dawkes said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 2:02 am

    On 'institutional racism' as a bar to classics, contrast https://www.facebook.com/christshospitalschool/photos/amber-dansoh-in-year-9-le-has-come-fourth-distinction-in-the-prestigious-jowett-/1141918695952476/

  26. Bathrobe said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 3:47 am

    The ditching of foreign languages as a requirement for study at the tertiary level is the culmination of long-term changes in social attitudes, especially in Anglophone countries, and especially in the 'commonsense' classes, i.e., those with no pretensions or aspirations to anything different from their own ordinary lives.

    The first trend is the victory of 'modern languages', leading to contempt for 'dead languages' like Latin and Greek. Why would you want to study those? They are of no earthly use for anything, unless you're an airy-fairy intellectual.

    The second is the attitude to 'modern languages', partly a result of poor teaching. 'I studied French for five years at high school and I still can't hold a conversation in French'. 'You need to go the country to learn a language; learning it at high school is a waste of time'. Languages are seen as giving a poor return for the large investment of time needed. Anyway, if you find yourself in a foreign country and need to communicate in a foreign language, just hire an interpreter.

    As a result, ordinary people leading ordinary Anglocentric lives (most people) are not particularly interested in learning foreign languages. People setting curriculums are responsive to such concerns. 'Useless' subjects like languages are the first to be dropped from the curriculum to make more time for more 'useful' subjects.

    Universities are the downstream victims of such changes. If a department insists on dead languages like Latin or Greek, it will find itself bereft of students. Students who might have been interested in the classics have already been denied the possibility of studying Latin or Greek at high school because of lowest-common-denominator attitudes in society and the educational system. If you want the students, you have to drop the requirement. Similarly for departments where a modern language might once have been required.

    Initially such a department might try to teach its unschooled students the required language as part of its courses, but eventually the same logic of just hiring an interpreter prevails. All you need is someone's translation. Why look at the original?

    In the end, you just need to read translations and learn a few semantic distinctions. You are then able to hold a candle to anyone who slaved away learning the language. The devaluation of the ability to speak and/or read a foreign language is then complete. Why would anyone want to strive for more?

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 5:48 am

    Whilst I have considerable agreement with most of your immediately preceding points, Bathrobe (as, in general, I tend to agree with most of what you write) I would query your "ordinary people leading ordinary Anglocentric lives (most people)". On what basis do you assert that most people lead ordinary Anglo-centric lives ?

  28. Bathrobe said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 6:08 am

    @ Philip Taylor

    I was probably generalising too much. What I meant was the bloke (or woman) down the street, the one that's working in a blue-collar profession, the welder or butcher or farmer… The monoglot, the man or woman who hasn't thought to step outside his or her culture or society…

    But of course, there are far more different types of people in the world than can be summed up as the 'average Joe'. It's snobbish (or insulting) to take such an undifferentiated view of people, as though they all somehow belong to the Great Unwashed.

    Still, as a generalisation, my feeling is that most people in English-speaking societies are basically monolingual and don't feel much need to step out of that mould.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 7:16 am

    Fair enough. If you are speaking of "English-speaking societies", then I would not seek to disagree. But I somehow gained the impression that you were speaking of the world in general, where (I am sure you would agree), the majority of the population, statistically speaking, are not Anglo-centric.

  30. David Marjanović said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 7:52 am

    …but we're nonetheless increasingly anglocentric in the sense that English is seen as the only foreign language anyone (and everyone) needs to know.

    For the younger generations, the common language of Belgium, and of Switzerland, is English.

  31. Stephen said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 8:43 am

    "For the younger generations, the common language of Belgium, and of Switzerland, is English"

    Earlier this week, I was talking to a friend who has been retired for at least 15 years, and he mentioned a work conference call when he was in HK that included people from two places in mainland China.

    At the end of the call he thanked everyone for keeping to English on his behalf, and someone said that they would have done that anyway as it was the only common language.

  32. John J Chew said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 9:49 am

    I remember learning to read Russian in the 1980s in anticipation of a requirement for graduate studies in mathematics, but by the time I was enrolled it was no longer required.

  33. Vanya said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 10:21 am

    He memorized a list of French prepositions and was able to pass the French written translation test by using cognates/borrowings, those prepositions, and guesswork. He had never studied French. Did that requirement achieve anything useful except a story for him to tell ever since?

    Well, yes. It sounds like the requirement was that your father understand enough French to read a text about metallurgy in French and understand it. Your father met the requirement. Check. Seems like that requirement would weed out people less intelligent and lazier than your father, while rewarding people less intelligent than your father but who possessed the industriousness to learn French the normal way. So the requirement served its purpose and the point of your father's story is not what he thinks.

  34. Ralph J Hickok said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 10:46 am

    @Jenny Chu:
    Here's our answer :(

  35. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 12:24 pm

    Ralph Hickok's link reminds me that one of the mythologized claims about the founding of Yale is that it was driven by a perception that Harvard (65 years older) had subsequent to her founding become unrigorous. Well, unrigorous when it came to strict Calvinist theology, from which Yale herself likewise eventually lapsed. But I am pleased to see that Yale's current minimum language-other-than-English requirement for getting a bachelor's degree requires a not-very-rigorous three semesters rather than Harvard's even less rigorous two semesters (in both cases if you're starting the language from scratch and can't test out). I think Yale still required four semesters back in '83-'84 when I formally fulfilled the requirement with two semesters of intermediate German, my three years of high school German plus a summer in West Germany having been deemed to add up to the equivalent of two semesters of intro college German. I probably subsequently took enough Greek to fulfill it all over again, although I never needed to confirm that with the relevant bureaucrats. (One advantage of dead languages of course is that you don't have to spend an additional X hours a week practicing your speaking/listening skills on top of reading/writing skills.)

  36. KevinM said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 2:15 pm

    @JW Brewer, Ralph J Hickok

    Speaking of myths, it was said in my day, decades ago, that one could satisfy the Yale requirement with a computer language–e.g., by being "fluent" in COBOL. I suspect this was an academic folk tale, as I don't remember anyone actually doing it.
    BTW, I assume that those who favor dropping language requirements trust that there will still be enough people voluntarily studying multiple languages to ensure a steady supply of those translated philosophical, scientific, and literary texts. (I wouldn't want them translated by folks who barely fulfilled a language requirement anyway!)

  37. Bob Moore said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 3:17 pm

    @Brett: Perhaps I misremembered the situation in the Math department, but I am quite certain about what happened in EECS.

    On further reflection, I believe that anyone with two years of French or German (and perhaps other modern foreign languages) in high school automatically satisfied the language requirement. It was an issue for me because I took Latin in high school, which did not qualify.

    One thing I do remember about the Math department is that in the early 1970s, for one PhD student who went on to become quite famous in AI, Seymour Papert simply wrote in his file that he had met the language requirement, without him ever taking any foreign language courses or passing a test.

  38. Terry K. said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 3:39 pm

    I wonder how many of these students had foreign languages (or tested out) as an undergraduate. I know for my university (a number of years ago, but I checked and this still applies), foreign language was required for a BA degree, but not a BS degree.

  39. Peter Taylor said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 5:33 pm

    @maidhc, in the early 1960s Oxbridge had only just dropped Latin as a requirement to matriculate. By the time I was up, the old college silverware which was once filled with ale to be downed as a punishment for grammatical errors in Latin or Greek (the only languages permitted at mealtimes) were displayed empty on special occasions.

    @Natasha Warner, learning Latin might help you talk with a few specific local people on a dig in Italy. My grandad recounted that as his unit moved from Normandy across northern France and into the Ardennes in 1944/1945, he would seek out the priest in each new village and ask him to interpret using Latin as a common language.

  40. Phil H said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 7:59 pm

    I’m kinda with JW Brewer and AntC above. The problem with a language requirement is that languages are *really hard*. The idea that you could say, “We’re going to study Descartes, so could all you 20 year olds quickly learn French up to the level where you’re competent to wrestle with a world-class thinker in the language… yeah, it’s fine, we’ll give you a couple of semesters to get there…”
    I’ve been learning Chinese for 20 years and live in China, and I still make loads of mistakes, particularly in the difficult, culturally-mediated areas like humour.
    The counter argument to this would be: learning the language is training in how this subject is done. Philosophy is usually done by reading original texts, after all. But in terms of getting the meaning, I don’t think the “abolitionists” are necessarily wrong.

  41. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 9:12 pm

    Let me offer this analogy in favor of what Phil H calls the "counter argument.". We generally make chemistry students, in high school or as university undergraduates, do "labs," where they stumble through and write up various experiments, even though the teachers know in advance what the results of the experiments ought to be and the sum total of humanity's reliable knowledge about chemical phenomena is no different than if the students just sat in the lecture hall and were told what the results of the same experiments as previously conducted by competent researchers had been.

    So here's the analogy. Students in their teens or early twenties being compelled in a classroom setting to look at a few verses of Homer or the New Testament and render them from Greek into English while their instructor and classmates stare at them are highly unlikely to come up with a translation that is equal or superior to any of the multiplicity of translations of the same texts by more qualified translators that are already on the market. Yet the lived experience of being forced to go through that process will (or so I assert!) make those students, in later life, more sophisticated and intelligent consumers of English translations of Greek texts than they would be if they had never been forced to try to do it themselves, and this will be true even if they never reach the level of fluency in reading Greek where they can make sense of the Greek text without stopping three times a sentence to look up a word or get stuck for thirty seconds trying to remember from the inflectional ending where in the verb-conjugation chart this particular form of the lemma falls.

  42. AntC said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 11:32 pm

    @J.W.B. So here's the analogy. … Yet the lived experience of being forced to go through that process will (or so I assert!) make those students, in later life, more sophisticated and intelligent consumers of English translations of Greek texts than they would be if they had never been forced to try to do it themselves,

    I think Philosophy is a discipline like mathematics; there's thought experiments not lab experiments. Will learning to translate Euclid make you a better Geometer? Specifically in Western Philosophy, there's original texts in a myriad of languages. If J.W.B.'s argument holds for Greek, it must also hold for Classical Latin, Medieval Latin, Italian, French, German, Danish, …; and why should a Philosophy course be biased to any one of those languages/Philosophers originally writing in those Languages. Then how many languages are needed before you can study Philosophy? And how long would it take for an undergraduate to master those to sufficient depth?

    As to 'more sophisticated consumers of translations', I think the claim is just straight false that needs actually learning the original language. I think reading and comparing multiple translations of one work gives sufficient sophistication, at undergraduate level.

    van Norden has hijacked S-O Napkin's thread to a) talk about doctoral programs; b) talk about some other sense of philosophy = Cultural Studies AFAICT. It demonstrates van Norden is neither a sophisticated nor intelligent consumer of plain English.

  43. Bathrobe said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 2:00 am

    If we follow AntC's line of thought, perhaps we need a new discipline or set of disciplines, something like "Foreign Language Arts". People could take a major or minor in this discipline if they needed it as a complement to their Real Studies.

    So a minor in "Foreign Language Arts: French" might be a good complement to a major in "French Literature", which would otherwise be based on the reading of translations. A minor in "Foreign Language Arts: Ancient Greek" might be a good complement to a major in philosophy. A minor in "Foreign Language Arts: Linguistic Patterns" might be a good complement to a major in Code Breaking. A minor in "Foreign Language Arts: Translation" would be a good complement to "Machine Translation". A minor in "Foreign Language Arts: Culture of Language" might be a good complement to "Intercultural Studies", etc.

    A major in "Foreign Language Arts: Translation" would be essential for people wanting to translate the texts relied on by AntC and others studying philosophy, or by specialists in French Literature.

    Traditionally, something like "Foreign Language Arts: Linguistics" was needed to understand the nature of language, but perhaps it would better treated as a minor complementing "Cognitive Sciences" or "Biology of the Mind".

    No doubt this would relegate the study of language to the status of an ancillary "tool" for doing Really Important Work (although this has already happened; translating a major work doesn't appear to be regarded as Academically Respectable Work any more), but it might also open the way to good careers once it's realised that there actually is a need for people who are expert at foreign languages to support the work of people doing Real Research.

    And every so often one of those poor drudges might even be able to do a brilliant demolition job on the work of people who do Real Research but don't know any foreign languages.

  44. Bathrobe said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 2:08 am

    @ Philip Taylor

    I somehow gained the impression that you were speaking of the world in general

    My mistake, caused by sloppy wording when I wrote "the culmination of long-term changes in social attitudes, especially in Anglophone countries, and especially in the 'commonsense' classes". That should have read "the culmination of long-term changes in social attitudes in Anglophone countries, especially in the 'commonsense' classes".

  45. Peter Grubtal said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 2:35 am

    Bathrobe has a point that the problems start upstream.

    It used to be thought that young people should enjoy a rounded education before going up to college, and this would include a certain standard in a foreign or classical language. It was often reflected in entry or matriculation requirements in the UK. And it was achievable, even alongside a specialisation in maths and science, by children of good academic ability.
    I think it's still reflected on the continent in the Abitur (Germany) or baccalaureate (France).

    What works against it nowadays, I think, is the trend for school classes to contain children of all academic abilities and motivation. This leads to a tragic underfulfillment for many kids, and at the age when they are most able to assimilate challenging stuff

    If this is Kulturpessimismus, I plead guilty.

  46. Phil H said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 5:10 am

    Yes to all the discussion above, and following on from Peter Grubtal, to some extent it must depend on how you view a college education or a higher degree: is it something that you learn and obtain as an instrument to some further goal (a job, or the next step along the academic road); or is it training of the mind? Those two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, but they tend to suggest rather different approaches to learning and to curriculum design. “What do they need for…?” Vs “What could we teach that would make the biggest difference in the way they understand…?”

  47. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 8:46 am

    @AntC: We are talking past each other, because I was addressing what classics departments ought to do (one theme of the original post), while you are focused on what philosophy departments ought to do (another theme of the original post).

    That said, it strikes me that attentive Anglophone students of both Homer and the New Testament (the examples I gave) are often aware that there is considerable variation among translations and sometimes find it helpful to look at multiple translations of the same passage, to see the range of possibilities and maybe thereby sort of triangulate in on the likely import of the underlying Greek even if they can't read it for themselves. My impression (which may of course be limited or distorted by inadequate personal experience) is that by contrast it is significantly less common for Anglophone philosophy students to spread out three or four different English translations of a work by Frege or Spinoza or whoever on their desk in order to see how much variation there is in the handling of a particular passage. With more recent non-Anglophone philosophers, of course, copyright law may mean that there is only a single English translation available, so everyone w/o knowledge of the original language is at the mercy of whatever contingent or disputable choices that particular translator made.

    Obviously some philosophers (Frege, for example) have tried to promote a pseudo-mathematical notation that would allow certain propositions to be expressed free of the limitations of any particular natural language or at least not need "translation," because you could learn to read that notation regardless of what language(s) you could or couldn't read. But you can't write a whole article in that notation, and it strikes me as perhaps not a coincidence that Frege was making up his notation roughly contemporaneously with the invention of more quixotic yet analogous projects like Esperanto.

  48. Chris Button said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 8:59 am

    @ Victor Mair

    Regarding your comment about gaining a decent command of another European language other than English (to supplement the basic Chinese and Japanese requirements), how is that language chosen? Do students consult with their advisors on what other language is/was most commonly used by other academics working in the field?

  49. Brian Ogilvie said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 10:04 am

    My discipline is History, and I've been thinking a lot about the place of language study in the contemporary American university. At my university, there's an undergraduate language requirement of 4 semesters or equivalent mastery for students in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts (English, History, Philosophy, etc., as well as performing and creative arts), but not in the other colleges, including social and natural sciences. We have seen the effects of the differential requirement in a decline in primary majors in our departments. If a student chooses a double major–e.g., Political Science and History–with the primary major in another college, they don't have to meet our language requirement. So we've also seen a rise in double majors, but not enough to compensate for the overall decline.

    In 2018-19, I was a member of an ad hoc committee to examine other models. We were exploring the idea of a more basic, campus-wide requirement that would introduce students to the basics of languages, and then a couple levels of certificates for students who could demonstrate basic proficiency and intermediate mastery of one or more languages. We hoped that by reframing a requirement as an additional credential, we might generate a more positive response from students. The committee started work on a more detailed proposal along those lines in 2019-20, but the pandemic disrupted that. I hope there's still the will and momentum to return to it next year.

    Our Ph.D. program requires passing a reading proficiency test in an appropriate foreign language, except for students who are native speakers of a non-English language that's appropriate for their research. (E.g., a Russian student studying Russian history wouldn't need to pass an exam, but they would if their focus was Argentinian history.) However, we do allow students whose area is US history to replace the foreign language with a graduate course on statistical methods, historical GIS, or some other specialized research tool that will aid their research. Many of this aren't happy about that exception, but my take is that a Ph.D. program is not the place to address the poor place that foreign languages have in American education, and requiring competence in a foreign language for admission would be too much of a barrier to otherwise interesting students. Instead, my wife and I created a grant for our Ph.D. students to take intensive summer language courses, so that students who have a genuine need to work in another language but lack adequate preparation can get up to speed between their first and second years.

  50. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 11:26 am

    @Prof. Ogilvie:

    1. Did your colleagues in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences undermine you in the comparatively recent past by eliminating a comparable language requirement for undergraduate majors that they had previously imposed, or had they long lacked such a requirement, but the impact of the differential is being felt more by your department in recent years? (I assume there is less undermining from the College of Natural Sciences because the decision to major in a STEM field or not is less likely to be affected at the margin by the presence/absence of a language requirement.)

    2. I am amused to see that your university sticks its linguistics department into "Humanities and Fine Arts" rather than "Social and Behavioral Sciences," which might offend the self-image of many Sprachwissenschaft scholars but I guess has the benefit of keeping them in pro-language-requirement territory.

  51. David Marjanović said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 6:59 am

    @Natasha Warner, learning Latin might help you talk with a few specific local people on a dig in Italy. My grandad recounted that as his unit moved from Normandy across northern France and into the Ardennes in 1944/1945, he would seek out the priest in each new village and ask him to interpret using Latin as a common language.

    I think that stopped working reliably pretty soon after the Second Vatican Council.

    I think it's still reflected on the continent in the Abitur (Germany) or baccalaureate (France).

    Yes, but I think that's a 19th-century innovation (I'll namedrop A. v. Humboldt, though that must be an oversimplification) over the medieval idea, conserved in the US, that you're supposed to get your all-round higher education in the first few years of "college".

  52. K said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 7:44 pm

    I had a language requirement in my 2008 PhD in mathematics in the US. I understand that math was the only dept which still supported there being a language requirement at that time. This is one way in which math is unlike science; papers have a long life and decades old papers are still very relevant in many subfields, but unlike philosophy or some of the other examples discussed above, the fine details of the wording are not the point, so a translation really is fine for essentially all purposes as long as the translator understood the proof and so wrote down a correct proof themselves.

  53. H Stephen Straight said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 8:31 pm

    Undergraduate and graduate language requirements make no sense unless they are justified by a requirement that students' language skills are meaningfully deployed in their non-language curricular subjects. The growing Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum Consortium (clacconsortium.org) has emphasized that the use of multiple languages, and exploration of multicultural points of view, can serve the widespread, perhaps universal, commitment to the goal of turning out "global citizens".

  54. Bill Benzon said,

    July 19, 2021 @ 7:19 am

    I did an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Johns Hopkins in the late 60s. Two years of German satisfied the language requirement. About all I can manage these days is "Ich bin ein Berliner," "Ich habe genug," and Der Hölle Hache." Not particularly proud of it, but it's a fact.

    I got my PhD in English at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-1970s. They were strong on interdisciplinary work in that program and allowed you to substitute a MA or MS level degree of competence in some other discipline for the foreign language department. So I offered psycholinguistics which I satisfied by joining David Hays's computational linguistics research group in the Linguistics Department. That's been far more useful to me than any standard foreign language requirement would have been.

    Still, let's imagine that, with the snap of a finger, I could acquire competence in any three areas of my choosing, where those areas have to be suitably limited. "Physics" is too broad. I'd have trouble, because they're four I'd like: 1) enough calculus to understand the complex dynamics that Walter Freeman used in his work on neurodynamics, 2) enough linear algebra to give my a better understanding of the inner workings of artificial neural networks, 3) Japanese, and it now looks like 4) Korean.

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