Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Requirement File: Language Exams

Let me begin today by stating the obvious: graduate programs have a lot of requirements. To put it simply, you have to do a lot of stuff before you can get a degree. And rightly so. But more requirements = more stress, which = more demand for me to find ways to make these things palatable, if not hilarious.

Other graduate students are often shocked to find out that many history graduate programs require proficiency in a language other than English. I once deployed this knowledge bomb on a pretentious freak who tried to tell me that by studying American history I was making myself more narrow-minded. He was then forced to eat his shoe when it was revealed that he could only read English and OH OH OH the history graduate student habla EspaƱol! Who's narrow-minded now?

...and, I'm back. Anyway, the way departments test this proficiency varies, but usually is accomplished through a little thing called The Language Exam, where you have to translate somewhere between a hundred and a bajillion words into English. Now when I think of the language exam, this comes to mind:

On any given day I remember the weirdest words in Portuguese ("lagarto" means lizard!) but not the words particularly useful for historical endeavors like, say, "century" or "old". This is the reason The Language Exam drums up such fear: because as children we spent years learning how to ask for a red tee-shirt or "where is the discoteque", but never did we learn what "the history of the fur trade is especially challenging due to the lack of preserved documents" might look like in French.

Nonetheless, languages are important to the study of history, and so we make new flash cards. No longer interested in the word for duck (pato!), we instead turn our attention to what I like to call "history words" -- author, argument, sources, American Revolution, demonstrate, and 'flesh out'.

So here's to everyone going through The Language Exam! Frankly, as long as you don't write "pregnant" when you mean "embarrassed", you're doing okay!

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