in SHARP languages Gaelic German French ~ read.
Should all PhD students learn a second language?

Should all PhD students learn a second language?

Photo by Judy van der Velden via Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.

This week I want to ask whether all PhD students should learn a second language? Should this just be a core part of our PhD training or is it yet another thing to try to fit into what is already a very busy and challenging three years?

There are a couple of reasons for asking this, some of which I've been interested in for a while and other more recent happenings!

A Bilingual Conference

This summer I attended the SHARP conference in Montreal. (I've blogged about that here.) This conference was unusual in that it was the first bilingual (English/French) conference I've attended. The keynote and roundtable presentations were in French and English with simultaneous translation for the other language and there were a number of bilingual panels (including the one I presented on) for which there was no simultaneous translation.

I thought this added a really interesting and exciting element to the whole conference and made it feel a lot more inclusive. However, I have to say that my high school French meant that I could follow the gist of the French papers but missed a lot of the detail.

This made me realise what a real advantage it would have been to have a high level of French for this conference, with many other attendees saying the same thing. Having an additional language would have allowed for even more interesting discussions to take place between academics and would certainly have given me more insight into the research taking place in French.

With next year's SHARP taking place in Paris, and also as a bilingual French/English affair, I'm determined to have improved my French by then!

Languages 1+2 - A second (and third!) language for every child

Here in Scotland, over the past few years, the Scottish Government have overhauled our national curriculum. With the introduction of 'Curriculum for Excellence' came the Languages 1+2 initiative which stipulates that every child should have the opportunity to learn an additional language from Primary 1, with a third language introduced later in Primary 5.

This means that, in theory, in fifteen to twenty years time, PhD students who have been educated in Scotland should have two additional languages and be in a good place to undertake research in a transnational context.

It also seems indicative of a growing focus on the importance of language skills in society in general, and probably in employability specifically. So is this something universities should also be focusing on?

Foreign Languages and PhD Research

I did learn two additional languages at school (French and German) and I even went to a Dutch primary school for a number of my formative years (not long enough to cement the language in my head as an adult unfortunately though I can understand a good deal and can speak it at a basic, conversational level).

What I do lack though is the training to take these language skills and apply them to my research. Is this what is missing in today's PhD education? (Speaking, of course, from a British perspective, as I know many PhD programmes in North America require training in an additional language.)

It is certainly something I feel would benefit my research and I've blogged about that here.

This year, thanks to the SGSAH Student Development Fund I will be taking a beginner's course in Scottish Gaelic with the aim that this will eventually feed into my research on reading practices and education across Eighteenth-Century Scotland (my research currently focuses on Lowland Scotland).

I've also been attending 'YaketyYak' Language Cafes, which are little informal meetups hosted by experienced native language tutors and my German has definitely improved with these. More importantly, perhaps, I really enjoy them! They're a great opportunity to speak to people from across the world (my group includes people from Germany, Poland and New Zealand) and I hope that some day these language skills will feed into my research.

But where do languages fit into a PhD?

However, As PhD students it often seems as though we are inundated with long lists of things to do and advice on how to complete our PhD. So how do we decide what's important and what isn't? Should we just follow our interests?

I've always loved learning languages and so this is a natural thing for me to spend my time and energy on. This skill has clear benefits for my research but that may not be the case for everyone.

So should all PhD students be required to learn an additional language, or should it just be something we pick up if and when we have the time?

What additional skills are you passionate about learning in your PhD? Do languages fit in for you?

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