A sop to tradition

In the good old days, scholars mastered several languages in order to work in them. Most scholars in English-speaking countries learned German and French in order to read the research coming out of the universities in those countries. That made a lot of sense. One time I overwhelmed myself when I saw the complete set of chemical monographs from the early part of the century (I’m talking 20th here), dozens of volumes, all in German, and it dawned on me that I would never read those. What a loss! My German wasn’t great and my chemistry was abysmal.
YET! We persist in asking Ph.D. candidates to take a language, usually French or German, in order to give them access to research in those languages. Of course, they never learn enough to order a doughnut.
Now one guy I met decades ago was a spelunker. He had got himself a Czech dictionary and spelunking journals in Czech b/c they were the world champions at spelunking, and he read those articles by painfully going word by word. Such dedication is rare, plus I don’t believe the intricacies of the physical and chemical sciences along with biology and mathematics lend themselves to such a ‘do-it-yourself’ approach.
So my point in all this is that in the face of zero results, tradition triumphs and Ph.D. candidates find themselves cramming for exams in French or German that they will never read. What a waste.

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