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Facility in scholarly and source languages is imperative for participation in global scholarly discourse. Before admission to candidacy each student must demonstrate by examination the ability to comprehend and interpret scholarly works written in one contemporary research language (other than English) relevant to their fields, as well as any research or primary source languages their research requires. Decisions about which language and how many additional languages a student must study are worked out in conversation with advisers.

Language facility is determined in different ways, depending on the language.
Romance languages, German, Hebrew and Japanese: students must pass the regularly-scheduled language examination at University of Chicago. Religious Studies pays for one attempt by each student in each language to be passed. Exams taken at other institutions, or proficiency demonstrated in other forms, will not be accepted in place of these exams. However, students who can demonstrate that they have passed the University of Chicago exams prior to matriculation at Northwestern University do not need to retake them. 

Other languages: facility in Tibetan, Arabic, Sanskrit, Urdu and other languages not mentioned above will be determined through successful completion of coursework; translation work; or other means to be chosen by the adviser and student in consultation with the DGS.

Normally, students’ programs will require competency in three or fewer languages other than English, sometimes as few as one. In rare cases in which more than three languages are required, the student may acquire the fourth language post-candidacy.

Primary source language proficiency is required of students who plan to work extensively with primary texts in languages other than English (e.g., classical Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or Arabic, but in some cases modern languages). When national or international translation examinations are available (such as the Toronto doctoral exam in Medieval Latin, or institutionally-administered Sanskrit examinations), these will be expected, even if a student has passed course work in the relevant languages. When such examinations are not available, the department will prepare, administer, and evaluate comparable translation exams.

Apart from national or international examinations, primary-source language examinations are scheduled and organized in the same way as examinations on languages of scholarly discourse. They are two-hour translation exams designed by a faculty member (usually the adviser), administered by the department, and typically evaluated by the adviser and one other reader. Typically there are three passages in the foreign language, with a total of a thousand or fewer words, depending on the language and on the texts to be translated. Use of a dictionary is allowed, but heavy use is discouraged.

Provisions for failed examinations

A student who fails a language examination may retake it the next time it is offered (normally, the following quarter). If the student is approaching candidacy or graduation and the exam can be administered locally, the student may retake it as soon as the quarter following the failure.

Funding for language study

Graduate students may enroll in undergraduate language courses as fourth courses at no extra charge. Summer language grants are also available, see Summer Language Grant.