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Many graduate programs in math require students to pass a foreign language exam in French, German, or Russian. Why is this so? Haven't the important mathematical works in these languages been translated into English already?

I'm set on graduate school, so what should I do to become proficient in one of these languages? I feel like taking a language course wouldn't be particularly helpful as mathematical language is highly technical and different from common/everyday language.

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Would this be considered more on-topic at academia.stackexchange? – Tara B Mar 9 '13 at 22:50
First of all, no: not all papers/books/works have been translated; second: not all papers/books/works are written in english; third, "a" foreign language exam? Only one?! In my school it was two foreign languages...and they had to be different from english (also a foreign language), and had to be either russian, german or french...and if you were very lucky, perhaps also italian. Japanese and Chinese seem to be good ones as well, in particular the latter one in the last decades, but...! – DonAntonio Mar 9 '13 at 22:52
@TaraB I'm just asking how I should learn a foreign language to be able to read the mathematical works in that language. – user66020 Mar 9 '13 at 22:55
I don’t know whether it’s still true, but many grad schools used to offer specialized foreign language courses precisely for people in your situation: needing a reading knowledge in a particular discipline, but with no interest in learning the literature or in acquiring a speaking knowledge. – Brian M. Scott Mar 9 '13 at 22:56
Most papers written in foreign languages will just lack the people competent to understand, let alone translate. – vonbrand Mar 9 '13 at 23:09

Actually I found that many maths departments in the US don't really still have the foreign language requirement, even though they still claim to on their website. In the UK there is currently no such requirement (I'm not sure if there ever was). I don't know about other countries.

It is certainly increasingly the case that most papers are available in English, but still by no means all (in particular, plenty of maths papers are still published in French and Chinese, and the volume of papers produced these days means that people certainly don't have time to provide quality translations of them all!).

There is no need to become proficient in another language before starting graduate school, and I believe that you will probably be given some kind of help while in graduate school, or you can at least find out what the other students are doing. Where I did my PhD (in the UK), they had courses in "Russian for scientists".

So in summary, I don't think it's really anything to worry about. I believe the exam (in the US) usually consists of translating part of a maths paper, and you are allowed to use a dictionary (although probably not a maths-specific one?).

Could someone more familiar with the US system please correct me if I'm wrong about any of this?

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Thanks for the helpful information! – user66020 Mar 9 '13 at 23:06
At most universities the foreign language exams are designed and administered by a particular professor that is proficient in the language you wish to test in. As such the exact requirements vary widely. One professor told me there was a rumor when he was a grad student of a professor that would pass in you German if you could handle the conversation "Do you speak German?" "Yes, I speak German" in actual German. For my French exam I was given a paper in French that I could translate at home at my own pace. Google translate did most of my work. – zibadawa timmy Nov 17 '13 at 19:03

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