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Proving an ability to understand a text like this, from a 1907 physics journal, was compulsory for science students until the mid-twentieth century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Proving an ability to understand a text like this, from a 1907 physics journal, was compulsory for science students until the mid-twentieth century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Do you have a science degree? And can you read and understand a foreign language? We are accustomed these days to compulsory tests for competency in English, largely directed at students whose first language is not English. Some degrees also require or recommend learning te reo Maori; for instance, Otago PhD students in history have to complete a Maori paper. But for earlier generations of Otago students language tests meant proving they could read French or German.

The rationale behind this was that much academic work was published in German and French, so a good scholar needed to read these languages to keep up with the latest research. In 1899 Thomas Gilray, Otago’s English Professor and Chair of the Professorial Board, wrote of his regret that German was not being taught in more Otago schools: “A number of our ablest young men after passing through our University Colleges, now go to Europe to pursue their studies and it is a great disadvantage to them that they have no opportunity here of learning German. Every Student knows that it is impossible to get to the bottom of almost any subject without a knowledge of German.”

Latin was taught at Otago from its first year of classes, 1871, with modern languages – French, German and Italian – added to the syllabus in 1875. Italian only lasted a year, but French and German survived. The first compulsory language was Latin. A pass in a Latin paper was required for a BA until 1903, when students could chose between Latin and Greek. From 1918 this was replaced with a more general requirement to complete a paper in a language other than English as part of a BA. This lasted until 1971, though by then there were various exemptions (including for maths students). Latin remained compulsory as part of a law degree until 1953.

Science students did not have to complete a full language paper, but from 1919 they did have to pass a test proving they could understand a piece of scientific writing in French or German. This remained compulsory for a BSc until 1948; it then became compulsory for a MSc until 1959. Medical students who had taken a year out to complete the Bachelor of Medical Science research degree also had to pass a language test until 1962; it then became optional, depending on the field of research they had selected. By then the test could be in Russian instead of French or German.

For people who had studied languages at high school the language test was not too difficult, especially as they could use a dictionary. But for some science students without any flair for languages it was a big barrier; indeed, it could be the most difficult aspect of their degree. Ann Wylie already knew French when starting her BSc degree at Otago in the 1940s, but chemistry lecturer Stan Slater persuaded all his second year students to learn German. He had recently completed a doctorate at Oxford and knew that chemistry scholars who couldn’t read the German literature were severely handicapped. Ann felt considerable sympathy for the tutor who had to teach German to a bunch of reluctant science students! Alan Mark, who had no previous language experience, learned German to fulfill the requirements for his MSc in botany in the 1950s. When he went to Duke University in the USA to complete his PhD, he was dismayed to discover they required proof of competency to read two languages other than English! He had to add French to his repertoire. Language requirements were certainly common at universities beyond New Zealand; indeed, they were probably less stringent here than in many places.

Otago’s twenty-first century science students can be grateful that so much scholarly literature is now published in English, in part thanks to the strength of English on the internet. Could you read an article in your field in a second or third language? Do you have any memories to share of the dreaded language test?