Foreign Languages and the Historian

If you don’t have any foreign languages as a historian you’re stuffed. This is not just true for those of us who decide to undertake research on a foreign country or do any sort of comparative or transnational study. My own work on a seventeenth-century English republican thinker took on its very own dynamics when I found out he had been on his Grand Tour as a young man in the 1640s as well as spending considerable time in exile in Italy after the Restoration and continued a regular correspondence with his Italian friends and acquaintances throughout his life.

Luckily, I had done some basic Italian at school and found Italian friends and colleagues who helped me with some essential translations when I was doing my PhD. I still continue lessons now with an archaeologist friend of mine, who is not only a native speaker but also knows her way around the archives. I’m eternally grateful that people like her exist, because historical research needs support from able linguists.

Yet, our research culture is not equipped for language learning. With many universities closing down their language departments over a lack of student demand, the few people still interested in learning a foreign language have to go elsewhere for support, and it is by no means clear who is going to pay for the extra expense of private tutors, grammar books and dictionaries or even an intensive course abroad.

Worst of all, research that involves language learning, the acquisition of new palaeography skills for the reading of foreign hands, and travelling to foreign archives is extremely time and resource intensive in a way that militates against our current research and funding culture, not least the demands of the Research Excellent Framework (REF).

If you are working on exiles, émigrés, ethnic minorities, diplomatic history, or correspondence networks in the Republic of Letters, your research is bound to take longer than that of your colleagues who look at a discrete set of documents in the local record office or at best make the occasional trip to London. Yet, a research culture that expects a monograph every five to seven years does not recognise this.

Things are even worse for PhD students who, like me, might find out over the course of their research that they might need to acquire additional skills, while also being under pressure to finish their thesis within the three years of their course, lest their university might get penalised for late completions.

My ideal UG History degree course would be one that had complementary language classes attached to it, so that a student of French, Spanish, Italian, Russian or German history could learn the relevant language alongside and be trained to read primary sources in that language. With undergraduates so well equipped, they would be able to come up with many new and interesting subjects for their Masters and PhD degrees, while also gaining additional skills and confidence to compete for jobs on an increasingly globalised academic market. As it stands now, I’m not even sure I can advise my PhD students in good conscience to take up a language.

But it’s not just about competition. It’s about reassessing our aims and values and the purpose of historical research. If our purpose is not to churn out book after book and article after article to satisfy the demands of the REF by achieving a certain number and a star that will then determine our rank on a dubiously compiled league table, but to produce meaningful work that will advance the understanding of who we are and where we are going, then our thinking has to change.

Most of all, the government, research councils and higher education institutions need to acknowledge one thing: quality research takes its time.



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


  1. I agree with you. It applies for knowledge of ancient languages too. My GCSE Latin, which I brushed up, was invaluable for my PhD research, but it would have been so useful to have some basic Greek as well. I put that I wanted to learn the language alongside my research on my application form, but was advised not to mention that and sort it out for myself when I started the course. On modern languages, when I was applying for an UG place, many of the courses included a compulsory language module.

  2. I agree but should your final line not include universities in that list too. Surely they have a responsibility to train PhD students in language skills as part of their PhD training. They could include it as part of skills for those who don’t want to work in academia either. As university departments themselves often tailer their training to their own departments, then they are more responsible than some of the others for making sure students are equipped with these skills (although there others are important, for example, where language departments are not present in universities etc).

  3. I misread the final line re. higher education institutions – you do mention universities. I do feel though that they should get their own house in order first.

  4. I agree, we should provide language training both at UG and PG(R) level. But we also need to make sure that people taking up a language are not penalised by the system, e.g. for late completion.

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