Language courses for humanities PhD

I’m starting college in the fall with hopes of going on to get a PhD in early Christianity and the New Testament; I’ll be doing a major in Religion and the equivalent of a double minor in political science and Greek.

I’ll be minoring in Greek so I’ll have that langauge covered, but I’m also planning on doing two semesters each of Latin, biblical Hebrew, German, and French, and possibly a semester of Syriac.

My question was, excluding my primary research language, is two semesters of the other four languages enough or should I try and up to three? If I did that I’d have 0 elective throughout my entire college career so I really would like to stick to do, but I’d do three if it meant getting into a strong PhD program that’s perfect for my area of study. Do you think I should try and include Aramaic as well? At my school, three semesters of biblical Hebrew is required to do Aramaic.

This is what Harvard’s website for a PhD in Early Christianity and the New Testament says:
Languages: Doctoral candidates are required to demonstrate competence in Greek at an advanced level by passing the department’s Greek qualifying examination, and intermediate to advanced competency in at least one additional ancient language appropriate to their plan of study (usually Latin, Hebrew, Coptic, or Syriac), as well as reading facility in two modern research languages relevant to their area of study (usually French and German). Prior language preparation is a significant factor in doctoral admissions. Once students have passed the advanced Greek examination, they will pursue a Greek reading course offered by the department, or, in rare cases, upon consultation with their advisors, can be exempted from this course for an alternative Greek course (e.g., in Classics) or a course in another ancient language relevant for their research. The above are only minimum requirements, since candidates will find they will need to use all of these languages currently in their studies and research; furthermore, each candidate’s interests will usually dictate familiarity with several additional languages, ancient and modern.

This is what UNC’s website for a PhD in Ancient Mediterranean Religion (Early Christianity including New Testament) says:
Students will be examined on two ancient languages, one (the primary research language) in a Doctoral Examination as specified in the following section and the other (the secondary language) prior to taking the Doctoral Examinations. It is expected that most students will acquire at least a third ancient language (e.g., Latin, Coptic, Aramaic, Syriac) in the course of their program.
A solid competency in both French and German is required of all doctoral students in this field prior to their Doctoral Examinations.
Doctoral Examinations
Doctoral candidates will normally be required to pass five written Doctoral Examinations subsequent to the completion of coursework. The examinations will typically cover the following areas:
Language: A translation examination in the language of primary research (Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic).

What do you guys think?

I was a Classics major and did not end up applying to PhD programs (although most of my classmates in either ancient religions or classics did end up in grad school) and I’d urge you to consider dropping the poli sci and Greek minors. You don’t need them. Without a minor you will be free to take whatever courses you are interested in, and which will make your application stronger, AND make your college years less of a slog. And since you haven’t started yet- you really don’t know that you’ll end up wanting to do the doctorate.

What languages are starting with? I began with Greek 1 (which moved MUCH faster than foreign language study in HS) and had passed the French pre-req for undergrad language based on my HS prep.

Kick the can on Aramaic and Syriac until you are further along. If you’ve had three semesters of Biblical Hebrew Aramaic will be easy. If you haven’t- or can’t schedule them- Hebrew is more important than Aramaic since you can pick that up in grad school.

Remember you need a LOT of content courses in addition to the languages, so don’t pack your schedule so tightly that you don’t have time for them. Art, architecture, literature of the ancient world, philosophy- all of these are important and you don’t want to be so clogged trying to do two minors (or even one) that you don’t have space for a balanced course schedule.


Also, this information is for the doctorate degree (the final result), not for admission into a doctoral program. Some of these language requirements can (and should) be fulfilled during your graduate studies–you shouldn’t worry about all these languages during your undergraduate years. It’s much better to focus on a couple of languages and learn them well than trying to squeeze a bunch of them into your four years of college that should also be the time of exploration for you.


I have some experience in this.

You will need only a reading knowledge of German and French. There are courses in reading German and French for students needing to do academic research in these languages. It would be far too time consuming to take standard conversational German and French. You don’t need to learn how to order in a restaurant or listen to the news - you need to be able to read and understand academic papers (often from the 19th century) in your discipline. And it’s much easier to learn to read German and French research papers with comprehension, than it is to learn Biblical Hebrew (and Syriac/Aramaic), and Greek, and even Latin. Do these academic reading courses only when you are at the point of needing to do research in these languages, because you lose them fast, if you don’t use them. So I would do these during your doctorate - you don’t necessarily need them as an undergraduate, and if you do, you can do them when you need them. This will free up time for you to take other courses.

In my opinion, you would need two years if possible of biblical Hebrew, and you’d need to keep on using it regularly, so you don’t lose it. After two years of biblical Hebrew, you can keep it alive by simply continuing to read a small portion of the Hebrew Bible on a daily basis, throughout your career. Syriac/Aramaic are easy once you know biblical Hebrew. My experience was that because I already had several years of Arabic, in addition to many years of biblical Hebrew by the time I did Syriac, it was easy for me - it just felt like Aramaic (similar to Hebrew and Arabic) written with script that was very similar to Arabic script. But I do recall that learning to read Arabic script was tough, so I would recommend that you plan on doing Syriac for the first time as an undergrad, when you are eligible for it. You will probably do more of it, in your PhD program.

I think that you should try to start Greek and biblical Hebrew as a freshman. The question is which other languages should you start, if any, but I would absolutely limit yourself to starting off with only two, the core ones of the most difficult to learn ones. I would say that starting with Greek and biblical Hebrew would be the wisest choice. As you move through your undergrad years, you will add in the others according to which direction your research interests take you.

FYI, there are language learning apps that you can have on your phone, where you enter the vocabulary you are learning, and it quizzes you periodically by presenting the words to you, just before it calculates that you would have forgotten the word, based upon how frequently you got it wrong beforehand. My kids have found this extremely valuable for learning vocab.

Wishing you much success in this exciting journey that you are beginning.

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One thought that immediately came to mind is - that’s a lot to fit in four years! Two minors + two semesters in 4 languages + a semester of another one? I don’t think it’s actually possible to do that. (What Harvard’s site won’t tell you is a lot of people develop proficiency in their third and fourth languages either in an MA program or in the first 2-3 years of their PhD. You have time!)

It’s probably better to go deep with 2-3 than it is to touch the surface of others. I would concentrate your depth in Greek and one of the other ancient languages (Biblical Hebrew sounds like it makes sense). If you have time, you could maybe add 1-2 semesters of French OR German, just to get yourself started, with a plan to finish the language up in the PhD program or your MA. But I’d mostly focus on the two that are core to your research.

I also agree with blossom’s advice to drop the minors. Since the PhD in your area requires so much language proficiency, I wouldn’t expend precious slots on meeting a minor’s requirements. You can take political science courses that are interesting to you, and you’re already going to be taking Greek. I totally agree with her advice that you need a LOT of content courses to build a foundation, so you want to leave room for that.

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@blossom @Motherprof @parentologist @juillet Thank you so so much for your thorough advice and thoughtful answers. I really really appreciate it.

Dropping Greek/classics and political science won’t be an option, unfortunately. I’m part of an honors program + major at my university where I basically have a few concentrations (I know poli sci doesn’t fit in much with early Christianity, it’s just a labor of love. The reason I’m even going to college in the US is so that I can do both Religion and poli sci.) But the beauty of the program + major is that I get to design my own concentrations - they just have to be existing academic areas and I have to do a certain number of upper-division classes in each concentration - but apart from that I’m free to design my concentrations how I wish and I am also exempt from the entire core curriculum, save two religion classes. Thankfully, this means I have a lot more room for language study than students typically do.
This is roughly what I’m looking at, schedule wise.

12 religion classes (If I were to do either Aramaic or Syriac I would be able to include it in this as they are 4000 level classes). This will be a lot of theology
6 poli sci classes. I could petition to possibly get credit for my A-level government & politics which could possibly get it down to 5
5 classics classes. I’m going into Greek at the intermediate level so I was thinking 3 language classes ending with advanced NT Greek, which leaves room for classes like the Septuagint, NT textual criticism. I would use an intro Latin class to bring me up to 6, otherwise I’d need another class. For the sixth classics class I was planning on counting one of the two Latin classes, but I may decide to go for another upper-division class on the NT/ancient Mediterranean religion.
3 required Great Texts honors classes, one of which is ancient intellectual tradition so very relevant

Since, as part of my program, I am expected to do 15-18 credit hours a semester, I will be taking, at minimum, 40 classes, plus a few extra 1 or 2 credit honors classes. So after the 3 required honors and the religion, poli sci, and Greek/classics classes, that leaves 14 classes free (13 if I go with a Greek and not classics concentration) to do one Latin, and two biblical Hebrew, French, German, and any other electives I want to. And I may be able to add on a 1000 level elective like intro to film to a 15 credit semester, who knows; I know quite a few students in my program do two or three 18 hour semesters and handle it fine.

So, yeah, it should hopefully be doable. The biggest thing I need to decide it, do I need to take that many language classes, or do I need to take more language classes. I guess I also need to decide if I’m better off doing a year of both Latin and biblical Hebrew, or two years of one (which one it would be would heavily depend on what very specific areas of early Christianity and the historical New Testament I go into, which I likely very very likely won’t have decided by the end of my sophomore year, hence my plan to do both. What do you guys think?

I’ve looked in the course catalogue for my school and there doesn’t appear to be any classes in just German or French reading - or would they be graduate level classes? Maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. How many semesters of a MFL does it typically take for one to be considered to have reading knowledge?

I guess one of the reasons I’m so keen on taking so many languages is that I’m hoping to apply to PhD programs whilst in undergrad and not have to do a terminal MA prior to doing so, and for example, the Harvard website says that language ability is a significant factor in admissions (which they underlined) and I’ll need any leg up I can. I also LOVE learning languages so I’d definitely choose to spend quite a few of my 14+ electives on languages.

You’re very welcome!

So, most Ph.D. programs in the US usually include two years of MA, so you wouldn’t need to get a terminal MA elsewhere (although it’s often possible, too). You’ll definitely need some of the languages at the undergraduate level (especially Greek and Hebrew), you just don’t need all of them, in my opinion (I’m a professor in a languages/literatures department with a Ph.D. program, which also has lots of language requirements). You can definitely add French or German as an undergrad, but I wouldn’t recommend doing both, while pursuing two ancient languages and other courses.

The language for reading courses are indeed usually offered only at the graduate level. From my experience, though, it’s easier to read if you know the language more actively. I did an MA-Ph.D. program, which required reading skills in both French and German. I already had fluent French and had no problems passing the reading exam; I had no previous knowledge of German, took one semester of German for Reading and then finished the textbook on my own. I passed the exam, but can I really read academic works in German? No. I can make out some quotes and titles, and I understand the structure of the sentence when I see it, but I can’t read an article quickly. But again, you have years of graduate training to advance in a couple of additional languages. I admire your determination, but it seems to me you’re overthinking and planning a little too much in advance. The US system is more flexible than the European one.

Also, I don’t know if you realize it, but an MA-Ph.D. program in the US takes quite a while, around 7 years in the humanities, including writing the dissertation. So, nobody expects students to be completely equipped with all the languages and other full preparation, otherwise what would you be doing during your graduate studies? It’s not pure research, but a lot of coursework as well.

Knowing a smidgen of Biblical Hebrew and a smidgen of Latin doesn’t get you where you need to be. If it were me I’d focus (and you can wait for your first intro class to figure it out). Antiquity? Hebrew (and pick up Aramaic in grad school). Medieval? Latin.

Why don’t you look at Art History instead of Poli Sci? (I have nothing against poli sci, big fan, but your schedule still looks like you are spread too thin). Or Philosophy?

Taking textual NT is great and important- but the foundations of the discipline were born in textual criticism of the Old Testament, and you need a really solid grounding in Prophets specifically AND some of the apocryphal works (So much of NT echoes/paraphrases Isaiah, for example). So getting more languages in at the expense of the core concepts of your field AND the sociology/literature/history/philosophy of the period strikes me as the wrong way to go.

Where in your program is a deep study of Hellenism? A course in Josephus?

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Which college are you going to be at? It sounds as if you’ve been awarded some type of scholarship that requires that you major in religion, minor in poli sci? And you’re taking this, but what you really want is to then go for a PhD in early Christian texts? If so, this conversation isn’t about choosing your college - it’s about what languages to do during college, in order to position yourself for admission to a PhD program. Which is, of course, what you titled it.

I was able to acquire enough reading knowledge of German in a one semester class geared towards reading knowledge of German for research, to be able to slog through primary research documents in German from the 19th century. The joke in my field was that the most important, foremost Semitic language was German, because all the academic research from that era was done in German. I had no prior knowledge of German other than being a native speaker of English. After I stopped using it, I quickly lost it, like within a year or two. This is why I say, if you’re going to do this, don’t do it early on. Do it when you need it. If you’ve already had Spanish in high school, I imagine reading French would be even easier to do, in a one semester class. I’ve never heard of a two semester sequence for reading German or French, and there was no prerequisite for it - you didn’t have to have had, say, a year of that language first.

Reading in a foreign language classes are usually simultaneously undergrad and graduate level, since not that many people are reading old research documents in German and French to do primary source research at the undergrad level.

I’d concentrate on the classes that you need to start early, that require at least a two year sequence to be able to use them. That means Greek, Hebrew, Latin. The hardest thing about Syriac is learning to read the letters (assuming you’ve had Hebrew). Don’t worry about the French and German reading - you can do them later, or as a summer class at a nearby public college. Of course, if you want to learn to speak, read, and write French or German, and have the room for it, sure. But I suggest doing no more than two languages at once, and they must be very different languages, like Greek and Hebrew, so that you don’t mix them up as you learn. I suggest that you start them in your freshman year; in fact, if you have the time to do it this summer, continue your Greek and take Hebrew this summer, online, so that you can start right in on the Biblical in the fall at a higher level.

I’m not understanding from your post why dropping political science as a minor is not an option for you, but if it’s a requirement of your program, then I suppose that locks you in. I agree with your plan to try to get credit for some of the other classes to reduce your overall courseload.

The total number of classes by itself is not necessarily the only metric for whether this is doable - scheduling, sequencing, and availability also matter a great deal. Does your college not have general education requirements? I still maintain my opinion that deep-diving into 2-3 languages is preferable to spreading yourself thin, so I’d advise taking two years of one of those two languages (which one you choose is up to you).

You haven’t even gotten to college yet; it’s possible that your interests take you in a different direction; you may need to retake classes. I applaud you for thinking ahead, but there is such a thing as thinking too far ahead. I’d re-focus to thinking about what your first-year schedule is going to look like, and then find a good solid advisor in your religion department who can help you navigate the rest - including the question of how much to take on when.