Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Student of German with a Future in Politics
We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…
Meet Conor—a Temple University Political Science & Global Security double major whose future plans include pursuing elected office.
1. What role does your double major (Political Science and Global Security) play in your language learning?
My majors played a very important role in my interest in learning languages. My first trip out of the U.S. took me to Berlin, and I fell in love with both the German culture and the German language. When I got to Temple, I learned that my Global Studies major required fourth-semester proficiency in a foreign language. I had placed into the third level of Spanish, but I had the option to start a new language fresh, so I chose to start learning German, knowing that I would want to study abroad in Berlin.
2. And you’ve since made that dream a reality and have been studying abroad in Berlin! Why Berlin?
Berlin was the first place I ever visited in Europe and stole my heart right away. After seeing many other European cities, Berlin is by far the most unique, welcoming, and free-flowing place I have ever been. Being in Paris, you feel like you need to be Parisian. Being in Rome, you feel like you should be Roman.
Being in Berlin, you feel an overwhelming pressure to just be yourself and nothing else.
That’s why I think it is one of the most incredible places in the world.
3. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken from living immersed in another culture and language?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned, especially upon re-entry, is that you can never take for granted your basic interactions. Living in the U.S., natively speaking English, you feel confident walking into a store or restaurant and ordering something specific. When you’re in another country, all of your most basic interactions are suddenly incredibly difficult. You have to force yourself to learn tons of new vocabulary that you were never taught in school, including a lot of slang words, in order to get by as a local.
4. During your time in Germany, you completed a homestay with a local “Berliner.” How did doing a home stay make an impact on your language learning experience?
Being in a homestay made my language skills unilaterally better than they would have been if I was in a dorm. My program was in English for American students, and all of my friends were American, so if I wasn’t forced to speak German at home my skills would have been limited only to ordering things.
I remember how proud I felt after my first successful, full-length conversation with my host.
Sometimes he would start talking to me in German but switch to English when he saw that I was struggling a little bit, but the first time he stuck to German with me, I knew my language skills had progressed immensely.
5. Why are language skills a “must-have” for students considering a future career in politics? What about German?
Living in Europe showed me that Americans can be really isolated when it comes to learning languages. Europeans can hop on short flights and have to speak other languages, but Americans rarely step out of their own bubble.
There are so many languages to learn out there, and having that skill shows that you worked hard to go out of your way to communicate with a certain group of people in their language, not just assuming that they’ll understand your English.
In fact, even within the U.S., descendants of non-native English speakers are on track to become the largest ethnic group in the U.S., so learning another language has never been more important.
Although it is hard not to see some truth in it, I think that outside of being able to use the German language in three different, major European countries (more than Spanish or English), one of which is the most populous, learning any language is valuable and should not be discounted. Just because Spanish is a more prevalent language within the U.S. doesn’t mean people shouldn’t learn German, or Polish, or Slovak, or whatever.
With every new language you learn, you are breaking down cultural barriers and becoming a more globally engaged citizen, no matter what language that may be.
BONUS QUESTION: Is there a moving or funny anecdote about an interaction in your second language you’d like to share with us?
When I first arrived, my German was still a little rusty. I walked into a Spätkauf, or a 24-hour convenience store, to get a quick coffee. I walked up to the cash register and said “Wer ist die Kaffee,” thinking I had asked where the coffee was, but I had actually said “Who is the coffee?” because in German, wo is where, and wer is who. The cashier looked at me funnily and said in perfect English “It’s right there, sir.”
Check out our Lead with German page to learn about scholarship opportunities, college programs, and even more student stories, like Conor’s. Then tell us how or when you use your language skills @LeadWLanguages on social media.