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Programs Math PhD foreign language requirement

  1. Aug 17, 2005 #1
    Could someone explain this to me. Why do a large number of schools require that a math PhD have knowledge of 1, or more, foreign languages? I talked to my Math professor about this last semester and he said it was a joke in that he never really used it. However, he did not have to take a proficiency exam for the language, he just needed 3 semesters to get accepted into the PhD program. But at UC Berkeley, for example, you are required to take 2 exams in your choice of French, German, or Russian.

    So for those Math PhDs here, how was your foreign language requirement? Was it something serious? Can you learn the language while in grad school? How many semesters did you take to become proficient in the language?

    I guess I am thinking that it would be silly to take foreign language classes while in grad school, so I may have to change my schedule a bit :grumpy:

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 17, 2005 #2
    It used to be the way for any Ph.D.- that you were expected to learn a foriegn language. It was understood that if you had a Ph.D., that you had studied another language and were comfortable with it. It has fallen by the wayside in many of the hard sciences due to the prolification of English as the standard for scientific standard. (I am not sure if the humanities still require it at a majority of universities...) I actually had a long discussion with one of my professors about this. He was of the mind that, in this day and age, knowing English is enough. The need to know another language on top of it is without a lot of use, since all (at least most) of the papers and journals are in English. Even though he speaks fluent German. By the way I work in physics and the professor is a physics professor.

    Hope that helps.
  4. Aug 17, 2005 #3


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    This is probably a lingering requirement from when ALL PhD programs had a foreign language requirement. The idea is that you should be more scholarly with some appreciation of academics as a whole, not just approaching grad school as a trade school to get you a job in your field.
  5. Aug 17, 2005 #4
    So is this requirement usually met while actually working on a PhD, or during Undergrad?
  6. Aug 18, 2005 #5


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    guys I cant believe I'm hearing this

    First of all, knowledge of several languages expands your intellectual capabilities, and secondly in Mathematics the leading research is done in Russian, French, and German. You should know at least one of those languages in order to read the foreign journals
  7. Aug 18, 2005 #6
    Yeah If you are smart enough to get PhD in math you can probably learn one foreign languange.
  8. Aug 18, 2005 #7


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    Why do people settle on PhD as if its the last barrier? PhD is only a beginning. You must be commited to a lifetime of learning or otherwise you might as well go into a business school and climber that corporate ladder all the way to the moon.

    Whats the point of just getting a PhD and not really pushing the envelope with it? Rip that envelope apart! Violate the fabric of common sense and expand the boundaries of science! Do you think its worth just being a PhD who occasionally writes papers on some verification of the obvious? Whats the point of even spending time in grad school if you arent in it to make a difference
  9. Mar 18, 2011 #8
    Hello P.F.

    This is an old post but i have a relevant question.

    I am an undergraduate seeking a BS, physics or mathematical science. I was considering pursuing a second language for the same logic as @ " cronxeh - 'to expand my intellectually capabilities' " .

    i am interested in Arabic (or) urdu,. so i ask

    Is there a pious effort by any government, private, or cultural interest to advance the Physical sciences and mathematics in these languages?
    ( ' Is there renown scientific research happening in the middle east or within India and Pakistan ?
    ' What sort of work or scholarly opportunities could realistically arise from a relationship with India, Pakistan or any Arabic speaking nation? ')

  10. Mar 18, 2011 #9
    Friend of mine was refused to enter Cambridge as he did not have a qualification in a language. He studied at Durham instead did a PhD at Cambridge on the thermodynamics of ice flows, and then years later ended up working as an Associate Lecturer at Cambridge so I guess you could say he had the last laugh. He now works at ICL as a Theoretical Mathematician focusing particularly on fluid dynamics.

    In some places they do or should I say they did enforce it which is laughable as he passed his A' levels with the highest scores in the colleges history. Dumb asses. :smile:
  11. Mar 18, 2011 #10
    Because a PhD and common sense are not mutually inclusive. :wink:
  12. Mar 18, 2011 #11
    Really? What about in the U.S.?
  13. Mar 18, 2011 #12


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    Think positive. When I was a student in the UK, passing a Latin exam was a compulsory requirement for every degree course at Oxford and Cambridge.

    The have dumbed down and dropped that requirement now, though.

    I don't think learning French and Latiin from age 12 to 16 did us any more permanent harm than the rest of the school timetable. :smile:
  14. Mar 18, 2011 #13
    ? Wow when was that 1374? :tongue:
  15. Mar 18, 2011 #14
    Dumbed down how? By not requiring their students to study archaic languages? Oh, the horrors!
  16. Mar 18, 2011 #15
    Oh, the nostalgia!

    Well said.
  17. Mar 19, 2011 #16
    Ugh, I'm so glad my school doesn't have this requirement. I already speak another language, but when put in a testing environment, I find it difficult because of course they're testing academic knowledge of the language, not the ability to actually function in a society that speaks that language. Very annoying.
  18. May 25, 2011 #17
    May I ask when this was? It was certainly not a requirement for me in the late 1980's at one of the above-mentioned Universities.

    I think languages are very much worth studying but I think it should be out of interest rather than a procrustean requirement. Out of curiosity, how many PhD programs around the world still have formal 2nd language requirements (other than English)?
  19. May 25, 2011 #18


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    Most math departments don't expect you to be fluent in the language, just enough to be able to translate a page of written mathematics from the foreign language to English, with a dictionary in hand, given an hour or so. Unless you have some sort of language phobia, it's by far the easiest requirement to satisfy on the road to a Ph.D.
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