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How important is foreign language for math (graduate school)?

  1. Mar 19, 2012 #1
    hello everyone. i'm trying to plan my courses for next year, and I figured that I have room to take a foreign class (plus it's a requirement for me to graduate). now, i'm trying to decide to which one to take.

    i really want to learn mandarin, if nothing else matters, that is what I would take. however, i heard that (certain?) math graduate programs require students to have a mastery of either german or russian. to meet that requirement i would have to take either one, instead of mandarin.

    what would you recommend for me to do? should i go for mandarin or german/russian? or is it possible that i take an undergraduate foreign language sequence in grad school? so that i can take mandarin now, and just take german/russian at whatever school i end up at/
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 19, 2012 #2
    I've never heard of this before, I have however heard that some programs allow computer languages to count as foreign languages.
  4. Mar 20, 2012 #3
    If you like Mandarin, go for Mandarin. Aside from the fact that learning a language you're interested in is way more fun than learning one you're not, it seems to me Chinese is highly marketable these days. And usually if a program requires or looks highly on knowing a foreign language, which language you know isn't too important.

    Also, if I may make a suggestion, I'm a fan of this series, but it's not for everyone: https://www.amazon.com/Remembering-Traditional-Hanzi-Meaning-Characters/dp/0824833244
  5. Mar 20, 2012 #4


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    I have heard some universities in math departments have this requirement in the US. A quick google gave me these links:

    http://www.math.ucsc.edu/graduate/programs.html#flr [Broken]

    I'm sure there are more: I only chose three links out of the search.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  6. Mar 20, 2012 #5
    if you want to learn mandarin, then take some undergraduate courses in it if you wish.

    as for the foreign language requirement, you don't necessarily have to take a course in russian, german, or french. You can probably just use a dictionary and look online for the grammar points to get all you need. Try looking for some mathematical papers/books in the language you are testing for and practice translating them.
  7. Mar 20, 2012 #6
    I think Chicago requires math grad students to pass a foreign language exam in german, russian or french. But I might be wrong, it's been a while since I have looked, since, let's face it, I ain't goin' to Chicago.
  8. Mar 20, 2012 #7
    Princeton requires its graduate students to have the "ability to read ordinary mathematical texts in at least one of the following three languages: French, German, and Russian."
  9. Mar 20, 2012 #8


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    most papers are available in english or english translation, but i have found it useful to know some french, german, italian, spanish, and russian.
  10. Mar 20, 2012 #9
    so can I just take a foreign language class at whatever institution that accepts me? or do i have to take the class at my undergrad institution?
  11. Mar 21, 2012 #10


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    math grad schools accept proficiency in a language, demonstrated by a test. so you can learn it anywhere. most math research of interest to me and published over the period 1850-1950 was in french, italian and german, certainly not mandarin. not even all of riemann's works are translated into english still. are you talking just about satisfying a requirement, or actually learning something of use in reading math?
  12. Mar 21, 2012 #11
    Can anyone comment on how useful knowing mandarin is for reading mathematics/science papers?

    I've seen threads like these slowly growing. It seems like people are interested in learning mandarin and just hoping that it will also be useful in their mathematics/science studies.

    That said, if you want to learn mandarin, go for it! As a native english speaker, studying mandarin has taught me a lot about language itself.

    Keep in mind that for native european language speakers, mandarin will take about three times as long to learn as french, italian, or spanish. Unless you have a whole lot of free time, that very well could be a factor in selecting a language to learn.
  13. Mar 21, 2012 #12
    Have different countries specialized in different areas of mathematics throughout history? If so, what did Germany and France specialize in? I know Riemann was German and Fermat was French, but that's the extent of my knowledge on the topic.
  14. Mar 21, 2012 #13
    Every math program whose requirements I've specifically looked at require a foreign language or two. Usually they allow French, Russian, German and a few other human languages. Never something like C++. Often the form of the requirement just seems to be transcribing a research paper that was written in another language
  15. Mar 21, 2012 #14
    so i can take the test anytime during my graduate studies?
  16. Mar 21, 2012 #15


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    again you are making the mistake of asking a question not about how to learn, but how to satisfy local requirements. those questions must be asked of the local authorities at your school.
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