By Maurice Casey |

Previously on the blog, Sara Brouwer offered some useful tips on learning language for your PhD. But historians sometimes tackle language learning from a separate viewpoint to other social scientists. Indeed, we are often in a minority amongst the general language learning community. Those seeking to expand their linguistic capabilities often want an up-to-date vocabulary. Historians, on the other hand, frequently require language practice in archaic phraseology and long-forgotten words. For my own research, I am learning Russian – specifically Russian as it was spoken in the interwar Soviet Union. Therefore, while your average language learner studies how to ask for directions to the bank, I need to learn how to denounce a banker as a social parasite (Sotzialnii parazit, see, it’s easy!). Here’s some advice that should be generally applicable to historians learning a specific vocabulary set.

Your institution likely gives you access to newspaper archives. Hopefully, you can access a database in your target language. For example, for Russianists, the digitised versions of the Soviet papers Pravda and Izvestiia are valuable not only for research, but also for building vocab. Find an article relevant to your topic, mark out any words you don’t know and look them up in a dictionary or on

Cultural Artefacts

Contemporary cultural artefacts are great for building vocab. Movies, in particular, are a malleable medium for this task. Even if the period you study predates the invention of the projected image, you can often find a film set in the relevant period. In case anyone else as my specific requirements, the fascinating 1936 film Tsirk (Церк), is available on YouTube, along with many other old Soviet films. Indeed, you would be surprised at the facilities you might already have at your disposal. For example, I was able to use the video game series Metro, developed by a Ukrainian company, as an immersive language learning tool.

Edited Collections of Archival Documents
Before you enter an archive, you will want to be confident that the documents won’t befuddle you with linguistic surprises. It can often be a lot easier than you initially think to find examples of the documents you will be viewing extant outside the archive. Edited collections are a great way of building your vocabulary base and also assuring yourself that you will be able to tackle whatever challenges the archive throws at you.

What to do with the Vocab
Having pages of vocab lists is not much use if you’re not going to be motivated to learn them. And it is difficult to look at a string of words and feel any enjoyment in rote learning. Fortunately, there is a piece of (free) software that can help. Anki is a flashcard application beloved of the language learning community, and is ideal for academics trying to build vocab. Essentially, you create digital flashcards, that can be studied on your computer, or through a free Android app or a paid iOS app. The magic of Anki is in its algorithms, which estimate your progress and show you certain cards at strategically timed points to secure them in your long-term memory. It doesn’t have the razzmatazz of apps such as DuoLingo, but it compensates through customizability – allowing you to create a diverse array of flashcard decks.

The opportunities for sourcing vocab are, of course, quite limitless. Hopefully these pointers might push you further along the path to becoming a polyglot historian. Good luck and, as we say in 1920s Moscow, да здравствует революция!

Maurice Casey is a first year History PhD at Oxford University and a Pubs and Publications Publicity Editor. His research examines the international connections of Irish radicals in the interwar period.