The title of this post was a recent Google search that led to my blog (I’m proud to say I ranked number one in that search, above the American Historical Association.) Usually the search terms that lead people to my blog are really boring, really strange, or just repetitive (I never knew how many people were fascinated by the Google maps car!), but this one made me think. My undergraduate program did not offer any advice on language learning for historians, so I’m assuming that other programs may not, either.
The most important language to learn is the main language spoken in your area of interest. Obviously, that means Russianists should learn Russian, those studying Mexico Spanish, and so on. Some people don’t immediately know what their area of speciality is. I would advise trying to decide as soon as possible which country you want to research, even if you don’t know the era you wish to focus on.
If you are really unsure about what area to focus on, start learning French or German. Many graduate programs require one, if not both of these languages in order to read historical scholarship. Unfortunately for me, I do not know either of these languages right now, which means I will have to suffer through “German for Historians” or “Reading French” if I end up going to graduate school. No wonder people take forever to get their PhDs sometimes…
Finally, if you have the time and the inclination, learn a language spoken in an area that influenced your main field of study. For example, I plan to learn Ukrainian and hopefully some Polish (I really hope I can get that summer grant to study Polish in Poland). Someone doing American history should probably learn Spanish. You get the idea.
Questions? Comments? Let me know!