The Graduate Program

Language Exams

Students must pass at least one language exam by the end of the second year in order to receive the M.A., and all language exams required by their fields before the oral examination. Consult the Graduate Student Handbook for field-specific requirements. 

Rules and Procedures for Graduate Students

The goal of the examinations is to assure the department that a graduate student is able to make a clear, accurate, and coherent translation. In view of the fact that it is knowledge of the language test that is to be demonstrated, students for whom English is not their first language may petition to translate into their native languages; such petition is to be reviewed by the faculty Language Chair, and to be accepted if there is a faculty member willing and able to grade the resulting exam. Language requirements can only be met by passing the department’s examinations; no external language certificates will be accepted in place of these examinations, except in the case of some East Asian languages.

The exam lasts two hours, and use of a dictionary is permitted. Passages set for language exams should be about 300 words in length. In the event of failure, registration for a language course is highly recommended.

Exams will be set four times for each academic year during pre-registration week and on one of the reading days after the end of the semester (i.e., in September, December, February, and May). No other language exams will be given, except on an emergency basis if a student is able to demonstrate in a petition to the Language Chair that they were unable, through no fault of their own, to take a language exam at one of the set times, and would suffer genuine hardship by having to wait for the next available set exam.

It is the responsibility of individual graduate students to acquaint themselves with their language requirements and the departmental exam policy, and to arrange to take their language exams in good time so as to meet all requirements in due order. Note that all language requirements must be fulfilled before a student can take the orals examination.

Exams, in all cases, are anonymously assigned for grading. It is the responsibility of faculty members grading the exams to do so within two weeks of receipt of the exams. Most will identify themselves on the graded exams (e.g., by placing their initials on the cover), and will make themselves available to students who fail, in order to discuss what they did wrong and advise as to what steps need to be taken before retaking the exam. An exam that is failed is sent to a second reader to be checked; if the second reader decides to pass the exam, that judgment will prevail. Students should be notified of the exam results as soon as all of the grading for exams is completed.

Students should be aware that the perceived difficulty or ease of exams is bound to be highly variable depending on individual students’ levels of preparation and familiarity with the work or context from which a given passage is drawn.

It does not seem advisable to replace the exam merely by course work: the aim of the exam is precisely to test whether students have really learned from the language course they have taken. But the faculty wish to make clear that the language exam sets only a low bar: students should not take passage of the exam as suggesting that they have a high level of language competency even in reading, and should know that professional activities in the future may involve not only reading but also speaking and writing in foreign languages. Knowledge of foreign languages is of increasing importance in an era of globalization.

For PhD students only: Students who are native speakers of a language other than English should take the exam for that language.

Rules and Procedures for Faculty Graders

Students are required to produce a translation of a passage roughly 300 words long, within two hours, and with the use of a dictionary. The goal of the examination is to assure the department that a graduate student is able to make an accurate translation and can therefore use the language for their research.

Exams are anonymously assigned for grading and must be returned to the department office within two weeks of receipt at the latest. However, the Language Exam Officer usually asks colleagues to correct the exams within a week or ten days maximum since in case of failure they need to be reassigned to a second reader; cooperation in meeting the deadline is greatly appreciated.

When grading examiners are asked to give only a pass/fail grade, to write it on the cover of the bluebook, and indicate their initials. Students are entitled to know who their examiners were once they receive the paper, and may meet with them to discuss their mistakes in case of a fail.

Examiners are asked to assess whether a translation is clear and coherent, showing good command of the language and the capacity to use it to conduct research. However, a translation does not have to be perfect, and a few mistakes are admitted as long as the general meaning of the text is not affected.