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Foreign language requirements for math grad programs?

  1. Jul 7, 2008 #1
    In my current undergrad BS program, I need two semesters of any foreign language. I've been looking into graduate programs in math, and quite a few of them seem to require some knowledge of French, German, and/or Russian. How prevalent is this requirement in the United States, and would it be to my advantage to take these courses now rather than later?
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  3. Jul 7, 2008 #2


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    When you do these two semesters really does not matter; first year of a foreign language are not very difficult (but this may depend of quality of instruction). Easy A grade if you give reasonable effort. Just do not separate the two semesters between other semesters. Take second semester part directly after the first semester term of the course, otherwise you could forget some previously learned material. Whichever language you choose, maybe one more semester could be helpful in strengthening your proficiency and comfort with it in case you plan on using the language, either for reading research articles, or for travel to where the language is spoken. My guess is that most of the important articles you would want would be written in English - but I'm not absolutely sure.
  4. Jul 7, 2008 #3


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    The only requirement in the US, as far as I know, is just two years of a Foreign Language for a Bachelors degree. Graduate degrees don't generally require Foreign Languages as part of their curriculum.

  5. Jul 8, 2008 #4
    Yes they do. Check out the requirements for a phd in math from an upper level school. it will most likely require proficiency in one of French, German, or Russian. How proficient, I don't know.

    So in my opinion, if you really think you will go to Graduate School in Mathematics, you might as well learn one of those three.
  6. Jul 8, 2008 #5


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    I think that depends on the school and/or degree. When I was in grad school, there were language requirements for PhD's at the university where I started. At another school, undergrads were required to have at least one year of foreign language. Of course that was 25+ years ago, and requirements might have been relaxed.

    I strongly recommend study a foreign languange, even if it is not required, and personally I feel one should take advantage of an undergrad program and study 2 or 3 foreign languages. I found it useful to know German, Spanish, French, Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Japanese and a few others, simply because I've interacted with colleagues whose primary language is one of these, and I've been throughout Europe and parts of Japan many times, and encountered people who do not speak English.

    I studied Spanish in elementary and junior high school, German in high school and university, Russian through auditing a university course, and the others on my own time. I'd really like to have the time to learn French, and relearn/improve/expand my knowledge of the other languages.
  7. Jul 8, 2008 #6


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    All of the graduate programs I've looked into did not require any additional foreign language courses other than what was already taken at the undergraduate level.

    Graduate programs are specialized and focused on a particular discipline/area of research. So unless the area of research is foreign language, then most graduate programs won't have any required foreign language courses.

    There may be some exceptions to this, but generally speaking I would say they don't require them - at least now a days.

  8. Jul 8, 2008 #7
    You are wrong.

    I looked at the US News top mathematics graduate programs, and went to each website:

    Harvard: Mathematics is an international subject in which the principal languages are English, French, German, and Russian. Almost all important work is published in one of these four languages, although much Russian work is translated into English. Accordingly, every student is advised to acquire an ability to read mathematics in French, German, and Russian, as soon as possible, and is required to demonstrate it by passing a two-hour, written examination in each of two of these three languages.

    MIT: While there is no Institute Language Requirement, doctoral candidates in the Department of Mathematics (both Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics) have to demonstrate a mathematical reading knowledge in at least one of the following languages: French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish or Chinese.

    Chicago: Each student is also required to pass an exam in a scholarly language other than English (usually in French, German, or Russian).

    UC Berkeley: Pass one language examination in French, German, or Russian.

    Princeton: The student satisfies the language requirement by demonstrating to a member of the mathematics faculty a reasonable ability to read ordinary mathematical texts in at least two of the following three languages: French, German, and Russian. One language test must be passed before the end of the first year, and the second before completing the general examination.

    Stanford: None

    Caltech: None

    Yale: All students are required to: (1) complete eight term courses at the graduate level, at least two with Honors grades; (2) demonstrate a reading knowledge of two of the following languages: French, German, or Russian;

    Columbia: Also required is a reading knowledge of one language, chosen from French, German, and Russian.

    NYU: None

    Michigan: To ensure that, during their careers, students have access to mathematics written in languages other than English, all students are required to demonstrate a reading knowledge of mathematics in one of the remaining major scientific languages; French, German, and Russian.

    UCLA: Prior to taking the oral qualifying examination for advancement to candidacy, students in the pure program must fulfill the foreign language requirement. Students must pass one written departmental language examination in either French, German, or Russian. These foreign language examinations, offered Fall and Spring quarters, require the translation of material in some basic field of mathematics. The examinations may be taken any number of times until passed.

    Maybe I should check out some of the lower ranked schools. So I went to page 4, and in order:

    KSU: In addition to the QE and SE, each Ph.D. candidate will be required to pass a language examination in French, German or Russian. No substitute foreign languages will be allowed. The requirement must be completed at least seven months prior to the final examination and may be met in one of two ways:

    Syracuse: All students seeking the Ph.D. in Mathematics must demonstrate proficiency in one of French, German, or Russian.

    Temple Univ: The foreign language requirement for the Ph.D. degree is that each student shall have the reading knowledge in two of the following five languages: Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Russian.

    Tufts: Also, the student is required to pass a brief language examination, consisting of translating a few pages of mathematical text from French, German or Russian to English.

    Tulane: None

    UC Santa Cruz: Graduate students in the Ph.D. program are required to demonstrate a knowledge of French, German or Russian sufficient to read the mathematical literature in the language. A foreign language examination may be administered by any member of the Mathematics faulty. The examination can be either oral or written. The foreign language requirement must be satisfied before advancement to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree.
    I think you get my point.

    U Kentucky: Students should satisfy the Foreign Language Requirement described
    under “General Requirements for all Masterʹs Degrees” in the Graduate School
    Bulletin (pg. 22 of the Spring 2005 edition). Acceptable languages are ordinarily Chinese, French, German, and Russian.

    I think that will do for now.
  9. Jul 8, 2008 #8


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    No you are wrong - and proved my point.

    All of those links and the embedded text indicate that one must only demonstrate a certain amount of knowledge in a foreign language. They do not REQUIRE one to take more foreign language courses. They presume you have PREVIOUSLY taken them at the undergrad level.

    You might want to read what you wrote.

  10. Jul 8, 2008 #9
    Your earlier post was a little ambiguous, especially in the context of the post you were contradicting, and this later one does a good job of clarifying it. I think that he may have interpreted it differently, and you might want to lay off the hostility a bit when the guy is largely agreeing with what you meant.

    Math grad programs will almost certainly have some language proficiency requirement, but it is generally by examination with no specific course requirement.
  11. Jul 8, 2008 #10


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    Perhaps it was a bit ambigous to others...not to me obviously.

    However, I wasn't being hostile, merely equally sarcastic.

  12. Jul 9, 2008 #11
    And, at least from grad students I know at my university(University of Texas at Austin), you just have to be able to translate mathematical journal-articles/texts using the assistance of a dictionary... they don't exactly expect you to be fluent or even have a conversational ability. A guy who was an undergrad here is at Princeton, and he said it is pretty similar there also.

    Alas, the days of having to be fluent in Latin, French, and German to be a Mathematician are over, if they even existed in the first place.
  13. Jul 11, 2008 #12
    damn, so if i'm about to enter my 4th year of undergrad and my only knowledge of foreign language if 3 years of high school spanish, should i spend my last year taking classes in either german, russian, or french? or can i wait until grad school?
  14. Jul 11, 2008 #13


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    Are you kidding? Why wait? Start any one of those as soon as you can.
  15. Jul 11, 2008 #14


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    your question has many answers.
    1) yes most math programs require foreign languages, at least a reading capability, so you should acquire them as soon as possible.

    2) yes, although most math articles are available now in english, not all are. e.g. galois's works, which do interest mathematicians, or should, are still not translated into english, and riemann only became available a couple years ago. any important works fro the nineteenth century will likely be in french or german.

    3) the most useful part of having a foreign language is being able to converse with foreign mathematicians in their language, and/or in their home countries when visiting them. it is still a very useful and courteous social skill to speak the other persons language, and americans have too long put that burden on others. having been invited in my day to italy, mexico, france, holland, germany, and russia, i would have liked to have all those languages at least.
  16. Jul 11, 2008 #15
    well what if i'm still not sure whether i want to pursue math or physics? should i learn one of those asap anyways?
  17. Jul 11, 2008 #16
    This can often mean "I can muddle my way through a paper well enough to understand what the equations are about when I have a dictionary out"...at least it does at my school. I don't know how widespread that interpretation is.

    Yes, this is something you need to take into account, and it's much better if you do it earlier. But you don't necessarily need to be fluent - like he says, you need "reading capability" (however they choose to define and test it). Even 101 in the various languages might give you a more than ample basis to get through it.

    Have you heard the analogy about Physics & Math? :biggrin:
  18. Jul 11, 2008 #17


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    Proton, you just told us that you are in your 4th year and need to decide about taking a foreign language. You need to make your decision fast, like NOW. At the 4th year, you must have at least your choice made on Mathematics or Physics or Mathematics AND Physics. If you expect to graduate late, then you have some time to decide which language to try also. You will need to choose at least one of them - depends how much extra money you want to spend while you still attend the extra semesters.
  19. Jul 12, 2008 #18
    yes, i do expect to graduate late, like in .5 - 1 year extra.
  20. Jul 13, 2008 #19
    Reading math in german is easy and takes little work to be able to do, but to read Kant, Hegel, or Heidegger in German is extremely hard. We have it quite easy compared to the humanities.
  21. Jul 13, 2008 #20
    You could take any foreign language. Taking a year of those languages will be way beyond the ability you will need in order to translate a piece of mathematics into english with the use of a dictionary. So, you could take chinese if you like. But, if you like the idea of getting a head start anyway, I would recommend taking french or german. I say this because some grad programs, like mine, requires two foreign languages. English has been influenced not only by German but also by french (and well English and French have both been influenced by Latin). These languages are closer to your own than Russian.
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