Foreign Language Requirements

It should be understood that the department regards the stated language requirements as representing an absolute minimum. The earlier the student acquires foreign language skills the better. Many fellowships for study abroad during the dissertation phase require reading and speaking ability of the language of the country in question. Students may consider using their summer vacations for intensive language study.

Each examination consists of one passage that is to be translated with the use of a dictionary. In general, passages are to be chosen from the primary and secondary literature concerning music. Sample examinations, as well as the departmental policy detailing expectations concerning level of expertise, amount, and kind of translation required are available in the Graduate Studies Office.

The languages must be approved by the Graduate Faculty and ordinarily will be ones in which there exists an extensive, significant, and diverse body of scholarly and/or theoretical writing on musical topics. If the faculty does not include a qualified examiner in a selected language, it will be the student’s responsibility to find a suitable examiner (subject to approval by the Graduate Faculty). Students are urged to discuss choice of languages with the DGS during the early stages of their program, since the knowledge of certain languages may be imperative for specific areas of specialization. A record of languages exams passed will appear on the student’s official Duke transcript.

For composition students only: If able to demonstrate a substantive compositional or research interest, composers may petition the Director of Graduate Studies to fulfill the foreign language requirement with a proficiency examination in a computer programming language such as Java, Python, Ruby, etc. This permission will be given solely at the discretion of the DGS. If granted permission, the student will have to identify a faculty member (for example, in Computer Science) who is willing to administer this examination. Apart from the specific content, all aspects of the computer programming language proficiency exam must be identical to the normal Foreign Language Exam format. (Refer to Appendix A: Policy Concerning Foreign Language Requirements on pp. 68-69 of the graduate handbook.) 

  1. The Music Department recognizes that professional needs in languages for Composition, Ethnomusicology Musicology, and Performance Practice may differ. However, the standards for judging reading knowledge remain the same for all. Everyone must show they can read at a level useful to him or her.
  2. To insure that the required foreign languages are mastered early enough in a student’s program to be useful in course work and research, the department requires that the first language exam be taken in the fall semester of the first year. If the exam has not been passed by the fall of the second year, progress toward the degree will be declared unsatisfactory, and the student becomes ineligible for fellowship funding. Funding can be reinstated only for the semester following the one in which the exam has been passed.
  3. For the en route A.M. in Performance Practice, demonstration of reading knowledge of one language is required.
  4. For the Ph.D. in Composition, demonstration of reading knowledge of one language is required. This requirement is fulfilled as part of the en route A.M. requirements.
  5. For the Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology, reading knowledge of one language is required. This requirement is fulfilled as part of the en route A.M. requirements.
  6. For the Ph.D. in Musicology, demonstration of reading knowledge in two foreign languages is required. The first language requirement is fulfilled as part of the en route A.M. requirements. The first language exam must be taken in the first semester of the first year of study.  The second language exam must be passed by the end of the fifth semester after matriculation and before taking the Preliminary Exam in order to maintain satisfactory progress toward the degree (see conditions under #2 above). This requirement may not be satisfied with two closely related languages (e.g., Spanish and Portuguese).   Please note that at the dissertation stage, a student’s dissertation committee may require further language study. 
  7. English may count as one of the foreign languages for students who are not English speakers.
  8. Students entering the program with a completed Master’s degree must take language exams regardless of past experience at other institutions.

Language examinations will be given three times during the academic year: once during the fall, once near the beginning of the Spring Term and once toward the end of the Spring Term. Language exams ordinarily cannot be given during the summer.

  1. Language examinations are a translation of selected texts. (At the discretion of the examination committee, passages assigned may be different for different doctoral tracks.) The passage may be translated with a dictionary. Students are to provide their own dictionaries. For each exam, the committee will specify the minimum amount of text to be translated. Two hours will be allowed to complete the translation.
  2. For the Latin examination, generally the passage will be chosen from the Bible, the Roman Catholic liturgy, or a medieval or Renaissance treatise. 
  3. For composers, generally passages will concern the post-1850 period. For students in Performance Practice and Musicology, the time frame is post-1600 as a rule, though earlier authors still currently used by composers (e.g. Petrarch) are fair game.
  4. Students will be given printed sources--contemporary to the period when written or in a modern edition. Students are, therefore, advised to become familiar with typefaces (e.g., long “s”) and variants in and syntax for the chronological periods given above. In German, knowledge of Fraktur is required.
  5. While every effort will be taken to select passages of a fairly consistent level of difficulty from one exam to the next and from one language to another, some variation will inevitably occur. Students are reminded that faculty take this into account when grading: the easier the passage, the more will be expected. Samples of previous examinations are available in the Graduate Studies Office.
  6. Given variations between languages and within passages in the same language, no specific acceptable word counts can be promised. However, as a rough guideline, students should normally expect to translate 400-600 words in a prose passage with dictionary in modern languages. (Less will be expected if the passages are in poetry or in Latin.) 
  7. Students whose native language is not English may be given extra time at the discretion of the committee. 
  1. Examinations will be graded by two faculty members on a pass/fail basis. In case of disagreement between faculty members, a third opinion (within or outside the Department) will be sought. All examinations will also be checked by the DGS for consistency of evaluation policies and standards.
  2. Students can appeal a negative decision in writing to the DGS, who will seek outside opinion within 30 days.
  3. If a student is passed “at the master’s level,” he or she may be required to retake the examination the next term should he or she wish to proceed to the Ph.D., or may be required by the committee to do additional work to demonstrate language competence.

Common Reasons for Failing Language Exams

Faculty are often asked, “Why did I fail?” The answers vary from case to case but often include:

  1. Failure to have a good grasp of basic vocabulary (not translating enough due to looking up almost every word).
  2. Failure to translate verb tenses and moods correctly. 
  3. Failure to understand the syntax and grammar.
  4. Failure to produce coherent prose in English.
  5. Failure to translate enough. And what “enough” is may vary from examination to examination depending on the difficulty of the passage.