Academic Guidance Research Languages

Sep 2012
1,058
Taiwan
#1
Hey folks, long time no see. Just thought I'd drop in with some questions and thoughts about picking up research languages at postgrad level. I'm just finishing my MA, having picked up a basic understanding of my second research language (Russian). Given my schedule, I found it pretty difficult just to keep up with this one class language wise. I have another year before I apply for PhDs, and I'm hoping to work towards what will be my third research language in this interim period - including English, that will take me up to four languages total (or five, if you include a classical variation of one of them). I'm not particularly worried at this junction about the amount of languages I can read vis a vis getting on to a PhD program, but there are two more that I am going to need eventually for my PhD and eventual (hopeful) early career research.

I must admit, this is quite daunting for me. Learning three new languages over the course of the next five years seems like it should be doable, but given that I have to continually work to improve my existing languages, as well as all the teaching, admin and - god forbid - research that I will be doing, I worry about attaining competency in any of them. I've never been particularly great at learning languages, and the only one I read at an 'advanced' level has come from my doing six years of intensive study (and even then I can't read fluently or without a dictionary). The problem is compounded by the fact that the languages I need to learn either: don't have any textbooks or teaching materials, given that they are particularly niche dead languages; have no formal classes to audit at the institution(s) I attend to apply for at PhD level; or aren't of use to many other people in my field, so there's slim chance of putting together a reading group. This essentially means long hours of self-study, which is obviously what a lot of postgraduate work is, but in terms of picking up languages from scratch, it can be real tough going. Thankfully they are all Asiatic languages, which are certainly in my wheelhouse (learning another European one would be the death of me I'm sure), so I do have that going for me at least. But my attempts in the past to learn more than one language at a time have always been particularly miserable, and my brain has trouble switching gears between them.

How do other postgrads here cope with learning research languages? I've met some people who seem to always have four or five on the go, which bewilders me. And I've also met some who only read English, which is certainly worrying as well. Given that historians are essentially glorified linguists, how do you tackle these problems? How to balance language learning with the rest of your work? How to learn languages with little to no formal support?
 
Likes: Futurist
Mar 2013
957
Breakdancing on the Moon.
#2
Classicist, which means I generally had to use 5-6 languages. Admittedly, this is made easier by the fact that Latin is the direct ancestor or heavily influential on some of them, but still.

1) You can't really on lessons tbh. We had a first year "German for Classicists" at Oxford, and it was kind of pointlessly slow.
2) Pareto principal! Go by frequency. In most languages 1000-1500 words will allow you to start reading. It's really not hard to brute force memorise.
3) Grammar is important. A lot of people claim this isn't the case, but they're illiterate. Revise grammar frequently.
4) Look for targeted textbooks e.g "French for Reading".
5) Just keep trying. Effort is always rewarded with languages.
 
Likes: Futurist

Linschoten

Ad Honoris
Aug 2010
16,038
Welsh Marches
#3
Similar; for a classicist knowledge of French and German is essential in addition to the ancient languages, and preferably Italian too. If one knows a Romance language and a continental Germanic language, it is not in fact difficult to pick up a reading knowledge of others simply by reading them with a dictionary at hand. I learned French and German at school, and then picked up the rest in the latter way. For my present work I need all the west European languages in those groups (apart from Portuguese, which is no problem, and Swedish, which I find by far the most difficult of the Scandinavian languages). If one is learning a language that is not related to one that one already knows, one obviously has to be much more methodical, and tuition may be needed. Don't try to learn too many at once, unless they're closely related and one needs only to read them rather than speak them (when it comes to speaking, learning two closely related languages at once can of course lead to trouble!). Don't be in too much of a hurry or worry too much about how you are progressing, that is a sure way to become frustrated: festina lente, make haste slowly, should be the motto - regular effort but too much all at once, or else one's memory gets clogged up. Regard it as an adventure too rather than a chore - every new language that you learn really does open up a new world.
 
Last edited:
Jan 2016
583
United States, MO
#4
if you can try to make you third research language related to a language you already know. That will help more than anything else. Trying to learn a completely unfamiliar language would be very difficult on your own. What are all your languages and which ones are you considering? You research Parhae right?
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,702
Blachernai
#5
Hi F0ma! I missed you! Not too much to add here, since World Focker gave all the really important advice.

Byzantinist here, so in a similar, impossible situation. There are more languages (both ancient and modern) that apply to the field than can be learned well, and a number of them have very poor materials to learn them from. I'm trying to teach myself classical Armenian, with mixed results. Part of it is just discipline, but there's also terror: with no expert to check what I'm doing, how do I know that I'm doing it correctly?

This might be a bit presumptuous since I don't know the specifics of your work, but things get messy in research. What I mean by this is that while at the outset I told myself that it would be great if I could look at the Latin, Greek, Old French, Syriac, and Armenian materials, in reality I barely have time to do justice to the Greek. It's hard to know early on which languages might be the most important and the degree to which you need to know them. For example, I did some Syriac and got okay at it. But I also discovered that the level of Syriac knowledge that I actually need is pretty low, since the very few things that I actually read in Syriac are completely straight-forward and without much nuance. Are you reading tax documents or works of high literature?

Language skills are great, but you also have to know the cultural context. This is one of the reasons I shied away from Arabic - I simply don't have the easy familiarity with Islam that I would need to read those texts well. This is especially problematic when good editions are lacking - something might seem to be one thing, but really be a quote from a hadith tradition you're not familiar with.

To reiterate World Focker, grammar is key. Grammar is everything.

Finally, we now live in the age in which you can cheat. Google has gotten quite good at German and Russian, and Adobe's OCR software can render even old texts machine-readable. This doesn't mean that one shouldn't attain the knowledge to read the original, but it does help with skimming through stuff.
 
Likes: Futurist
Sep 2012
1,058
Taiwan
#6
Thank you all for the replies! Nice to see the community is as thriving and helpful as I remember!

1) I certainly agree to a point, especially when it gets to the point where you need to learn the specialised vocab for your research area, but to get a good grounding in an unknown language I find introductory classes really useful. I had a similar class to yours for Russian, and those contact hours were by far and away my most valuable.
2) A great point; 'brute forcing' languages is typically my MO, but...
3) I find brute forcing vocab and revising grammar very alien to eachother. When I learnt Chinese, I focussed on vocab and eventually the grammar just came to make sense. When I studied Russian, I learnt grammar without touching most vocab. Obviously doing both is optimal, but its another one of those gears I find hard to switch.
4) Unfortunately, the languages I would like to learn don't have many of these, but there are a few I have picked up. I haven't had much chance to look over them, but from what I've heard they can be very hit or miss; some people seem to swear by them, others found them useless. I will endeavour to see for myself I suppose.
5) Will do!

Cheers! Making haste slowly is a nice motto and I'll try to follow it, but I must confess to feeling a bit of concern when I see other graduate students doing so much more, so much faster than I. I guess I will have have to try and ignore that. As I mentioned, most of the languages I need are Asian, and whilst there aren't as many linguistic overlaps as between Latin and its descendants, there are plenty of stylistic and grammatical similarities which makes going from one to another relatively simple. I don't have to learn how speak any others (other than for pleasure, if I so desire), so just reading languages for me at the moment.

My languages are currently, English, Chinese, Classical Chinese and Russian. On my list are Jurchen, Japanese and Korean. That's research language wise at least. There are one or two others I may have opportunity and motivation to study in the future, but none strictly relevant to my work. Research wise, I'm largely based in the Jurchen Jin dynasty, although more widely I look at medieval NE Asia, so Parhae falls under that umbrella. Naturally, Japanese is useful for anything and everything, but Korean is also important for looking at this region.

Hey bud! Missed you too! Hope all is well in the wacky world of Byzantine Studies! I can't move for Byzantinists at my current university, so I trust the field is doing well :lol:

Ah, I think there is a bit of a difference between our areas and the types of languages required. To read 99% of the primary sources in my area, Classical Chinese is the only language I really need. I don't go much further than the early thirteenth century in my work, and its only after that primary source languages begin to diverge more sharply, as Koreans and Japanese stop writing in Chinese, and the Mongol Empire brings Persian, Arabic and, naturally, Mongolian into the fray (followed up by things like Chaghatay, Uyghur, Tibetan and Manchu as the centuries push on). An awful headache, and thankfully one I don't have to deal with. The only other primary languages of note in my period are Tangut, Khitan and Jurchen. Tangut (otherwise known as the most godawfully difficult language to have ever been invented) is, thankfully, outside the scope of my studies, and Khitan is a minefield with little practical payoff. That just leaves Jurchen, which is assuredly the least useful of the three (in terms of having actual material to read and incorporate into any research), but also the easiest to learn. It's largely deciphered and we only know around 1300 actual words in Jurchen, so its certainly something that I can - as World Focker suggests - brute force. It has some albeit limited uses though, and most career Jin scholars pick it up, so it's something I'd like to work on next year. Manchu would certainly be an aid to learning it (since Manchu descends from Jurchen), but it's of no practical use to my actual research, so I'm not particularly inclined to invest in it.

Instead, given the sheer volume of secondary material written in Japan and - to a lesser extent - Korea, these languages are much more useful to me, and Japanese is essentially mandatory for any Sinologist these days. Korean is a bit more of a luxury language, but for better or worse its these kind of things that set you out in my field; when everyone reads Chinese and Japanese, people tend to ask: 'well then, what makes you special?'. Thankfully, Russian ticks this box for me already, as relatively few Sinologists pick it up, but given the specifics of my work Korean would be very valuable as well.

You make some good points though, vis a vis knowing enough to read sources and engage with the cultural contexts. In regards to the first point, I was definitely taught a 'skip to the end' approach for Russian that prioritised getting me to just be able to tackle literature in my area and my area alone. Given the majority of the Russian material I work with is archaeological, it has a specific vocabulary I can (hopefully) nail down quite easily, without needing a more comprehensive understanding. The same holds true for Korean and Japanese, although given I already read Chinese, there should be enough overlap that I can eventually tackle as broad a range of sources in Japanese as I can Chinese.

I sympathise with you though about not having experts around to help out; at the institution(s) I'm applying for for my PhD, Japanese is the only language really covered by anyone, so I'm out of my todd for the rest of them. What's your process for Armenian, if I might ask? Are you learning from things like dictionaries and translated texts, or are you lucky enough to get a textbook? I'd be interested to know what materials you work with and how you work through them, as classical or dead languages always present particular problems.

I would also be the first to admit, perhaps a little shamefacedly, how much I rely on things like Google Translate and online dictionaries for much of my language work. But as you say of course, it's no substitute, and you can hardly rely on Google Translate without the knowledge to check if the translation is actually correct! It certainly helps reduce the learning curve by quite a degree though.
 
Aug 2010
16,038
Welsh Marches
#7
" Making haste slowly is a nice motto and I'll try to follow it, but I must confess to feeling a bit of concern when I see other graduate students doing so much more, so much faster than I. I guess I will have have to try and ignore that." I really do urge you take it at your own pace, there is nothing more discouraging than to push yourself too hard and finding that you are not retaining what you have been trying to learn, and worst of all, finding that you are ceasing to enjoy the process of learning and discovery. I speak from experience, that is why I made a mess of things when I tried to learn ancient Greek at school!
 
Likes: f0ma
Jan 2016
583
United States, MO
#8
Thank you all for the replies! Nice to see the community is as thriving and helpful as I remember!

My languages are currently, English, Chinese, Classical Chinese and Russian. On my list are Jurchen, Japanese and Korean. That's research language wise at least. There are one or two others I may have opportunity and motivation to study in the future, but none strictly relevant to my work. Research wise, I'm largely based in the Jurchen Jin dynasty, although more widely I look at medieval NE Asia, so Parhae falls under that umbrella. Naturally, Japanese is useful for anything and everything, but Korean is also important for looking at this region.

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That sounds great. My languages are English, Chinese, Classical Chinese, and I have been learning Mongolian for just over a year now. I plan to learn Japanese eventually since it is a requirement across the field, and I may dip into Khitan if I am feeling up to the task. Since Japanese, Korean, and Jurchen are all agglutinating languages you will want to make sure that you put effort into the grammar. Since you already know Russian, learning cases should not be too difficult. But for me coming from English and Chinese grammar to Mongolian had a rather steep learning curve. My advice would be to focus on either Japanese or Korean for a good solid year and then the next one to come should be much easier due to the similarity of the languages.
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,702
Blachernai
#9
I sympathise with you though about not having experts around to help out; at the institution(s) I'm applying for for my PhD, Japanese is the only language really covered by anyone, so I'm out of my todd for the rest of them. What's your process for Armenian, if I might ask? Are you learning from things like dictionaries and translated texts, or are you lucky enough to get a textbook? I'd be interested to know what materials you work with and how you work through them, as classical or dead languages always present particular problems.
I am lucky enough to have a textbook, but it's from the 1970s and uses a slightly different font than most printed texts, which can be confusing when your letters look really similar: Վռամշապուհ (Vramshapowh, in this case, the name of a king). The University of Texas has some good materials online, and I created a Memrise course for vocab and grammar drills. Wiktionary is surprisingly useful as well.

I would also be the first to admit, perhaps a little shamefacedly, how much I rely on things like Google Translate and online dictionaries for much of my language work. But as you say of course, it's no substitute, and you can hardly rely on Google Translate without the knowledge to check if the translation is actually correct! It certainly helps reduce the learning curve by quite a degree though.
No point being ashamed. There's an older generation of scholars who like to whine about the language skills of grad students these days. They are the ones who trained us, so it's on their heads. We have to do what we can do, and if that means more time for research because a machine is reading stuff in German so I don't have to, so be it.
 

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