This exploratory study surveys graduate students in History (n=25) and Political
Science (n=25) on their ability to use foreign languages in research, and compares them
to a group of graduate students (n=25) from 10 other Humanities and Social Science
departments who reported having the ability to use multiple languages in their research.
Respondents were asked how important knowledge of languages is to their field, what
foreign languages they know well enough to carry out research tasks, and what
advantages the language ability gives them in their work.
The study found that:
•Nearly two-thirds of respondents in History and 44% of the respondents in
Political Science asserted that languages were “crucial” or “very important” to their field
• A third of the graduate students in History expressed frustration with
departmental and university support for learning languages, while three of the graduate
students in Political Science (12%) stated that they would like more support from the
department and the university.
•The median student in History and Political Science had learned one language
well enough to discuss, while at the level of deciphering a text, the median History
student was able to handle three languages and the median student of Political Science
could handle two languages—compared to the median graduate student from the group
with multiple research languages, who reported having learned five languages well
enough to decipher a text.
•The graduate students were exploiting related languages to increase the number
of languages they could cover (History, 76%; Political Science, 44%), although to a
lesser extent than the multilingual graduate students, of whom 92% knew two or more
languages from a language family.
•Most respondents said that the major advantages to their foreign language
knowledge were access to otherwise inaccessible primary and secondary sources, and
independence from possibly inaccurate translations.
Based on respondents’ comments about departmental and university support of
language learning, the study recommends more use of foreign language source materials
in coursework, more courses in the home department and/or language departments
devoted to developing relevant advanced language proficiency, and greater flexibility and financial support on the part of department and university to accommodate students
developing language proficiency.
1 online resource (PDF, 71 pages). Submitted May, 2009 as a Plan B paper in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a master's degree in English as a Second Language from the University of Minnesota.
Graber, David Scott.
"Scholars-in-training" in history and political science and their ability to use foreign languages in research.
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