The Language Question

LanguagesWhat is the current state of early American language training, what is its future, and why aren’t we more concerned?

A quick survey of more than a dozen graduate programs (all known for their strengths in colonial and early American history) reveals that three quarters of these departments require only one foreign language for early Americanists. To put this into context, the guidelines for European historians at all but one of these same institutions—guidelines often broken down by Early Modern, Western, and British subfields—require at least two foreign languages (yes, even in British history). Yet the issue is not simply the number of languages required of Americanists, but rather what constitutes proficiency. While language guidelines surely vary some from school to school, if the “proficiency” exams and reading courses across History programs even vaguely resemble ones that I’ve encountered, then even these lenient requirements themselves mean very little.

I suspect the numbers and realities of language training surprise very few. But even if we’re not surprised, maybe we should be a little worried.

If, as a field, we have made the scholarly migration out of New England to all the edges of the British colonies, and still further into French, Spanish, native, and other grounds, shouldn’t our language requirements and training reflect that shift? Early American history is no longer the history of British colonialism hugging the eastern seaboard. It’s the history of various European, indigenous, and African peoples and societies and structures, a dynamic field increasingly concerned with the connections and interactions of diverse—notably linguistically diverse—people across the breadth of the continent and the Atlantic world. If any subfield should be concerned with language skill development, it should be early America.

A cursory glance over recent issues of the William and Mary Quarterly, newly published monographs, and freshly submitted dissertations reveals how far our field has come in incorporating non-Anglophone histories. Yet graduate program guidelines have not changed alongside us to reflect this shift. Perhaps one language, easily satisfied, is appropriate for some nineteenth and twentieth-century U.S. historians who need only to go through the motions (though the popularity of transnational, global, borderland, and minority histories seem to belie even that assumption). It isn’t, however, appropriate for colonial historians anymore.

So here comes my (sure to be ignored, but nonetheless impassioned) call for a language re-evaluation:

First, distinguish between colonial American and U.S. historians (arguably for many more reasons than simply language requirements). If departments recognize the need for different requirements for early modern and modern Europeanists, they should also recognize a similar need for North Americanists. The realities of sources and archives are not the same for students working on the seventeenth-century as they are for others working on the twentieth. Part of the reason that graduate program requirements have not evolved alongside our field is because they have been designed with nineteenth and twentieth-century Americanists in mind. Give us our own requirements.

Second, require two languages. And make the requirements more difficult to satisfy. Is taking one 5-week summer course and passing an exam chock full of cognates truly proof that someone can read Spanish? Graduate school is about a lot more than slaving away on languages, but there has to be something between learning a few verbs and a couple tenses (that one promptly forgets) and devoting your life to the poetry of the Castilian tongue. Find that middle ground and make languages more than mere formalities.

Third—and I expect this might be met with less enthusiasm—make Spanish a required language. Colonial North Americanists have a great deal to gain from our Latin American colleagues, scholars grappling with many of the same issues of colonialism, cross-cultural interaction, imperial governance, and social development. So long as much of their literature remains without translations, Spanish will be necessary to prop open the historiographical window.

Fourth, allow indigenous languages to substitute for European languages. Indigenous languages are difficult to learn and sources even harder to navigate. But when historians—such as Brett Rushforth—put in the time to make use of them, the results are tremendous. If we hope to continue pushing American Indian history to the core of early American history, linguistic training seems the new way forward.

Fifth, for any required research language, make beginner language immersion courses mandatory. Or, at the very least, offer tuition remission or partial funding for summer immersion courses. Reading ability is, and should be, the foremost concern of graduate programs, but reading ability won’t matter when a student arrives in Paris or Seville and can only converse with archive staff through gestures and hackneyed phrases. To betray my own experiences, even the shortest immersion course can help one finally pronounce names, places, and terms without irreparably offending everyone else in the room.

Bear with me. No one wants to make graduate school, particularly the coursework years, even longer. But if Europeanists, Medievalists, Africanists, Asianists, and Latin Americanists can master languages, so can we. Moreover, increased language skills may not only be advantageous, but necessary to maintain an edge in the current academic climate.

The popularity of global and imperial histories has brought more early modern Europeanists to North American shores. What once may have distinguished a colonial American PhD student from a British imperial PhD student, for example, is suddenly harder to define when they’re both working on New York political culture in the 1730s. And if our Europeanist colleagues have the upper hand in languages, they’re going to have a far easier time reading the non-English historiography, engaging in comparative research, and utilizing non-English-language sources. And the imperial turn pulls us too. Early Americanists are more likely to end up in European archives than graduate students of the couple decades past. Even the most eager reader of French is going to struggle in the Archives nationales if the language ability stops there. (Also: if imperial history is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, then so too is comparative or entangled history—making languages all the more valuable.)

Languages are not only for those “out-there” historians, the ones working on non-English spaces like the pays d’en haut, Louisiana, or Spanish Florida. Too often we gloss over the multiplicity of tongues within the British Empire and its colonies. Shouldn’t students working on, say, mid-eighteenth-century Pennsylvania have at least rudimentary German? We need to consider: does language ability (or lack thereof) preordain how we approach a topic? Did some earlier historians previously look to Philadelphia rather than to Lancaster or the western frontier because of language limitations rather than the realities of historical action? Foreign languages allow early Americanists to not only look more carefully at frontier, borderland, and “peripheral” histories, but to gain a more holistic view of the early American experience.

The communications turn is similarly bringing language—cross-cultural language and interpretation, in particular—to the forefront of historical scholarship. Does increased language training better attune early Americanists to the multilingual and pidgin early modern North American and Atlantic worlds? And can we consider the benefit not simply for documentary research? How does language training shape the way we think? Can we better appreciate the colonial encounter as a universal problem of communication—to borrow from Edward Gray and Norman Fiering—if we can draw upon our own linguistic  struggles and development? Especially in the case of indigenous languages, what new avenues and entire new worlds might be opened up if we begin to take language training more seriously?

I don’t ultimately expect any major overhauls of language requirements—at least not anytime in the near future—especially at a moment when many programs are revamping their curriculums in the hopes of accelerating students through the PhD. But perhaps we can impose the guidelines that we want to see on ourselves. I know there are many others out there with very different opinions on and very different experiences with department requirements, and I’d be curious to hear what they think. Particularly coming from a colonial background, I know that my perspective may also not fit the early republic. (I’m especially interested in what, if programs were to ever make a distinction between “modern” and “early modern” America, the cut-off might be. Do these concerns and suggestions better fit the colonial period?)

Nonetheless, I do stand by my overarching sentiment: If Early America is a field characterized by the meeting and collision and transformation of cultures and languages, then maybe our training should better reflect that.

9 responses

  1. Hi Alyssa,

    Two quick thoughts.

    1) I’d push for a very specific type of language exam that mimics what historians have to do in the archives. Rather than having to translate a page of Spanish or French full of cognates (which seems impractical because we’re all warned NOT to translate in the archive), I’d suggest that we need to give students taking the exam a 50-page document and have them have to find a particular passage or event.

    2) More rigorous language training seems important (though I admit that I, like many others, squeaked by with just Spanish). Having watched my Middle Easternist colleagues, though–some of whom learned Arabic and Persian from scratch upon starting the program–I’d argue that it’s essential to build in more years of funding for students who will require more time to learn languages.

  2. Thanks for the post, Alyssa. I really like what you outline here:

    We need to consider: does language ability (or lack thereof) preordain how we approach a topic? Did some earlier historians previously look to Philadelphia rather than to Lancaster or the western frontier because of language limitations rather than the realities of historical action? Foreign languages allow early Americanists to not only look more carefully at frontier, borderland, and “peripheral” histories, but to gain a more holistic view of the early American experience.

    The field is and will be better because of expanded linguistic abilities, and I’m continually impressed by scholars working with sources in multiple languages (and there have been several times over the course of my own research where I’ve desperately wished that I could read Dutch and/or Danish, even if it’s just been an isolated document or two I’ve need translated).

    But I think Rachel’s second point is especially important. Increased funding and time is crucial if what you propose here is to be a viable option.

  3. ¡Sí! Es una idea muy buena. El español es muy importante.

    Lo siento – I mean, I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist. Anyway, I want to add the (probably unnecessary) warning that basic Spanish or French is only a starting point – though an important one. I couldn’t have gotten through some articles in Canadian journals that I needed a while back without the basic French I took – but I struggled because français québécois is different from what they teach in French classes, and academic language in any language doesn’t always line up well with “everyday” speech.

    My point is, it’s even harder than it looks at first glance. Are there actually any resources on, for example, the differences between seventeenth and twentieth century Castilian Spanish? Is it possible to learn Galician in the U.S.? And what about all those German dialects?

    I think it needs more than a curriculum revamp, it needs an “Institute in Language Studies for Early Americanists” or something.

  4. I sympathize with the desire to require more languages, especially since I began as a British historian and had to do two. My concern has to do with class… becoming truly proficient requires years of study. Something that can be difficult for people who went to crappy, underfunded high schools and may not have the means to pay for summer immersion programs. If American history is going to require more languages, I’d like to see it also provide additional support for people to learn them.

  5. This is a pleasantly provocative post. It’s hard to argue with the idea that Early Americanists would benefit from a mastery of more than one language. But, to nitpick, your proposals go too far and not far enough at the same time.

    Are requirements the answer? Language acquisition, as you recognize, is a difficult and time consuming endeavour. Graduate school is unfortunately not a particularly conductive environment to learn a new language when compared to those of undergraduate, secondary, or primary schooling, or of community and family life for that matter. With the exigencies of coursework, comprehensive exams, teaching, and the researching and writing not only of the dissertation but also of articles and conference papers that have become necessary to be competitive on the job market, and with universities doing their best to accelerate doctoral programs in the meanwhile, making time to slave away at the rote memorization and of enjoying immersive experiences is often out of the question. And age makes a difference, as studies show. I guess I’m making a pessimistic case for the old dog/new trick argument here. If our Europeanist, Medievalist, Africanist, and Asianist colleagues are learning new languages, it’s because they’re forced to. Not by some formal program requirement or by the lofty desire to gain comparative insights, but by the very concrete need to understand their _core_ sources. For your average Early Americanist, learning languages other than English is not a need in this sense, but merely a luxury.

    And what do I mean when I say that your proposals do not go far enough? Your emphasis is on the consumption of primary and secondary source material. Why not extend the case to our scholarly production, and encourage publication and presentation not only in English-language forums, but in Spanish, French, Dutch, German, etc., and why not Anishinaabemowin while we’re at it?

    (While we’re at it, actually, a caveat may be in order as far as indigenous languages are concerned. Brett Rushforth and any number of us can muck around with indigenous dictionaries and grammars, and in the process gain tremendously valuable insights into very different worldviews, but this hardly qualifies as language acquisition.)

    In passing, I would be foolish not to take this opportunity to shamelessly plug an Early American multilingual effort that is dear to my heart “Charlevoix: A Blog About New France” (


  6. Great post!

    I would argue that we should do away with language ‘requirements’ altogether. The decision to study languages should be entirely individual (based on discussions with supervisors) and dependent on what sources might be required for each individual project.

  7. Back in the late 60s, I “discovered” Frederick Haldimand and his papers at the Public Archives of Canada. He had a long and interesting career but has not, to my knowledge, been studied in depth. Why? Because the 206 reels of microfilm are in 18th c. French, his native tongue! I struggled mightily just to read 8 of his letters pertaining to the NY Tea Party that differ from the newspaper accounts of the event. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
    Anyone looking for a topic in “old fashioned” history could start there but you’d better know French well!

  8. Brava Alyssa! I could not agree more! As a fluent Francophone, I know I would have never ventured into Quebec and transnational borderlands history without that skill. I hope you publish this more widely.

  9. Pingback: Interviews with Historians: Brett Rushforth « The Junto

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