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The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

Why should we even have language programs in college?

When I tell people that I am a German major, I usually get one of three responses. 1. “Oh, my [insert parent]’s side of the family is German!” (No, I cannot translate your last name from German to English. That’s not how last names work.) 2. “World War II is so interesting!” (Sure, but so are the hundreds of years of German history outside of that.) And 3. A sound of surprise followed by a laugh of disbelief. I’ve gotten response #3 from everyone from doctors of veterinary medicine to active military service members. That response has me wondering why I even bother learning German. 

The academic world’s treatment of language programs doesn’t support my choice either. In case you hadn’t heard, West Virginia University has officially decided to cut nearly all of their B.A. programs in various foreign languages. Gone! No more! Or as we say in German, kaputt! These attitudes of both casual acquaintances and professional academics leaves me feeling discouraged with my choice to major in German.

But my love for the language overcomes this discouragement and helps me articulate my argument: there is no better way to understand a culture than to learn its language. You can visit a country or take as many International Studies courses as you want, but you will never truly know its culture unless you know its language. When studying a language, every single word reveals insights into the culture and the history connected to it. When partaking in a language program, you don’t just learn grammar and spelling. You learn the history of the countries that speak it, you learn the attitudes of its people, you learn its politics, its traditions, its celebrations. How can that be worthless? How can that be so easily disposable? My German major won’t lead to a million-dollar home and sports cars (that’s what my Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major is for), but it will help me deeply understand German culture, as well as teach me to understand cultures that are different from mine. To me, that is priceless. 

So, to West Virginia University, I say shame on you! Shame on you for eliminating the ability for students to connect and understand cultures they did not grow up in. Shame on you for getting rid of degrees that help nurture tolerance and empathy. 

To whoever reads this, keep learning a foreign language. Whether you are at the 200 level, just starting out, or trying to get a feel for what language speaks to you, press on. Do not stop learning because of the opinions of others. 

(And if you really can’t decide, you should take German. The department would be thrilled. Tschüss!)

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  • P

    Profe EliOct 1, 2023 at 10:31 pm

    As a Dickinson alum and current Spanish professor at an institution where languages (and Humanities, in general) are being forced out of the curriculum, your appreciation for languages and other cultures has touched me and given me some much needed hope. A very genuine thank you.

  • B

    BenSep 30, 2023 at 9:07 pm

    ¡Viva el estudio de los idiomas!

  • L

    Larry DarrellSep 28, 2023 at 5:41 pm

    Dson’s 日本語 program is what got the school on our radar. FWIW

    The writer is so correct, though. Every language carries with it so much more than can be translated. Having folks around who can say, “Yeah, Google translate is correct, sort of, but there’s more to the meaning of what was said…” Subtlety and nuance are keys to communication, and, unfortunately, at risk in so many contexts these days.

    As Chancellor Gorkon said, “You’ve not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

  • N

    NanaSep 28, 2023 at 3:37 pm

    Fantastic article Nina so articulate and heart warming to hear your love of German and you are right people need to know the culture of the countries and the one-way to do that is through language