Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reading vs. Speaking

 Jannach's German for Reading Knowledge
I am taking a German class for graduate students this summer (starting Monday) in order to prepare me for graduate school. Any graduate program in classics will require translation exams in (usually two) modern languages. Much classical scholarship appears in Greek and French. I need this not only to pass the exam but to also look like a serious candidate for a department. On Stanford's website they say: "Modern languages are needed, too--as part of your professional development, you will have to pass a German translation exam plus one in French, Italian or modern Greek, and there is very little time in graduate school to learn these languages from scratch" (Classics department website).

I had five years of what I might call "tourist French" over the course of middle school and high school. It was basically useless. I can mostly understand basic French when it is spoken to me at a moderate pace and read very very basic short pieces (with a dictionary), but I can neither write nor speak with any skill whatsoever (other than asking for directions to the nearest bakery or similar). I have spent a little bit of time over the past week attempting to revive my French. It is going to be a hard slog, but it appears that learning Latin has made French a little easier.

My class this summer will take me through the process of learning how to read and translate German, with little to no emphasis on speaking. In general, I'm pretty excited. Even the practice sentences in the textbook are more interesting than any modern language textbook I have ever seen (mostly basic assertions of fact about famous physicists and philosophers). But I do have that nagging feeling: what if I actually need or want to talk to someone in German at some point? Have I chosen the wrong path?

The rational answer is probably not. I can always learn to speak (at least to people in my own field) once I build a technical vocabulary and I will far prefer reading scholarly texts than anything else I might read in a basic introduction. Plus, it's what I need for graduate school. I think I made the right choice.


  1. I think you made the right choice. Molly is taking a course next year that's basically a German translation course for non-German speakers. Go figure. But you're right, the ability to read in different languages is so necessary for you advanced scholars. Good luck with it.

  2. I had my first class yesterday and I think I made the right choice, too. The teacher just finished her PhD in German and she's energetic, cheery, and both well-qualified to teach and excited about the language. The class is small (9 students) and the teacher told us that at the end of the class she would help us work through work in each of our fields to help with translation exams.

    Tell Molly good luck in the class. It should be fun if it's similar to the class I am taking.