Best Foreign Language for a History Major?

May 2010
I used to be fluent in Latin and as a result found that learning Spanish, Italian, and French was remarkably easy to learn. I've also looked at Portuguese and can see the linguistic roots of Latin in that language. Once in Italy, I inadvertantly lapsed into Latin and although it caused a bit of hilarity, the Italians I was speaking to understood what I was trying to say. Latin is highly underrated in my view as it can help open doors to about 25 living languages.
Yes - Latin is central. For my thesis I had to spend a lot of time reading back copies of the Corriere della Sera. My Italian is a matter largely of 'dove la toilette? (sp?), but with Latin and French I was able to pick out the relevant bits and copy them for discussion with someone who spoke it better. Even for non-Romance languages the number of borrowings is great, as we find in my own Cymraeg.
Aug 2010
Wouldn't it be fair to say that many of the "important" historical documents written in Latin are already translated into modern languages? Is that false?

You would be surprised...very surprised at how little has actually been translated.

Whn I did my BA in History I could get away without having to do any translation work for source materials. While doing my MA it became neccessary to do some translation work, as a goodly amount of what I wanted to use had not been translated, so it was quite neccessary. Now doing a PhD it is utterly crucial, especially since one is expected to work with the original texts and not translated issues.

Latin and French were a must. If I had the time to learn German and Arabic, that too would have been great.

You say you are interested in Classical Civilisation and Medieval Europe. Latin would be the obvious choice to cover both. Failing that French (old French anyway) can see you through a goodly amount of medieval texts.

Yet it also depends on what you want the language for, if its just for historical work then something like Latin or French would do. But if for other purposes and the historical element is simply an aside then dont treat it as a major factor.
russian I think is by far the best.

since you have no clear part of hisotry your interested in, russian will give you the best opportunity. Not only is it super relavent in the history of the 20th century, it's grammatical structure, puts you in the best position to learn other languages, such as greek, latin, sanskrit, old english, or german.

German similiarily would be useful due to it's importance in world war 2, it's connection to european jews in the form of yiddish, and again because of it's grammatical structure.

French would be ranked third, it's very important between 1700-1900. However it offers very little carry over for learning other languages. It's grammatical structure is very simple in terms of cases which would be useless for learning other languages. While at the same time, it's grammatical hardships are only found in french therefore giving you very little bang for your buck. sure it's a latin based language but english speakers already have a closeness to latin.
More importantly, speaking a romance language will give you a very backwards understanding of latin. you'll be very good at guessing words like vista mean something to do with vision, however you'll be exceptionally poor at being able to get the context.
Last edited:


Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
Actually, Russian is pretty useless for learning Yiddish. German is the ticket.:)

And how French is supposed to not be useful for getting a running start at things like Spanish and Italian, I'm really not sure? It's not my experience at least.
Dec 2011
Mountains and Jungles of Southern China
It depends on which regional history you want to study. For example, if you want to learn ancient or medieval European history, then you should probably learn some Latin; however, if you want to learn ancient East Asian history, then you should probably study Chinese.
Dec 2010
If you do a second language, make sure you don't pass up on whatever programs they have to send you away to practice it. Or else your listening skills will fall behind the rest of the students, you will feel stupid, and you will give up.
Aug 2012
If you were planning to live and work in the Philippines I would recommend Spanish. Seems that 80% of the Philippines history is written is Spanish. When the Philippines declared Independent in 1897 and then in 1898 it seems Spanish was going to be the main language since the constitution was even written in Spanish. With the US invasion that ended. So the Philippines is full of old Spanish government documents and historical information in Spanish that are collecting dust since there are few people who can translate them. Spanish is being introduced once again in the Philippines. Works by the famous Filipino writer and patriot Rizal were originally written in Spanish but most Filipinos must read them in Tagalog or English. Some say the passion of his and others writers is lost in the translation.

So pick a language which will be in demand in the nation you will be seeking employment.

Similar History Discussions