I would like to offer support to Jeffrey Yu in his defense of German at West Windsor-Plainsboro (The News, March 4). I need not repeat his eloquent argument or his discussion of Germany’s important place in the world regarding Green technology, exportation etc…, but would like to supplement his discussion with my own personal experience.
I left West-Windsor-Plainsboro High School in 1997, received my BA in 2001 from Johns Hopkins, and an MA again from Hopkins in 2003, and have been at Rutgers as a PhD student and adjunct professor since. (I am expecting to receive my PhD in the humanities this May). When I was at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School there was a two-year foreign language requirement, and there was one question we students asked before choosing the language that we would become nearly familiar with over those two years.
Was that question “Which language will do me the most good in my future?” or “Which language have I always wanted to learn, and now finally get the opportunity to learn?” No. There are high school students who ask themselves those questions, but, at least at that time, those students were the exception and not the rule. The question I asked myself, after several days of avoiding the question mumbling to myself about the universality of English and the needlessness in learning another language in this day and age, was “What language will be the easiest for me to learn so I can complete this requirement and move on with my life?” Perhaps this sentiment seems familiar.
If I had spoken a language other than English at home or with relatives, that language would have been the one I would have chosen. As that was not the case, I asked my parents about some of the major features of the other available languages which employed the Latin alphabet. (Learning another alphabet or characters would have meant extra work and so was dismissed immediately, as it did not fulfill the important criterion “easiest for me to learn.”) The result of this conversation was that I would take French. I could have seen myself taking Spanish or Italian, but German was dismissed for its three-gendered and declining nouns. That was too much for me. I took those two years of French, doing the minimum to get by, and was pleased when they were over.
When I got to Johns Hopkins, there was again a two-year requirement for foreign languages. I again, after grumbling, asked myself the same question, and again I took French. Although I was passionate about a number of classes during my undergraduate career, I was not passionate about languages, and wished to get through those requirements as painlessly as possible. Undergraduate classes that are not in foreign languages, broadly speaking as someone who works at a university, do not require students to read anything in a language other than English, so I was able to get by, once again.
The same cannot be said for graduate school. The Germans, for the last few hundred years or so, have had a nasty habit of being more knowledgeable than everyone else about everything, and what is worse, flaunting this knowledge by publishing lengthy articles on every subject that one could possibly research. All of a sudden in graduate school I had to know German; not French or Spanish; specifically German. I had to read articles in German and English and be prepared to offer thoughtful comments on them in seminars. I could not simply slip away into the crowd as one can so easily do in the stadium-size undergraduate classes. The big graduate seminars have 10 people in them; there is no crowd to slip into. I needed to know German, and not just how to order an Orangina and a Brotchen; I had to be able to read it critically.
Sadly, my experience is typical among graduate students. How typical you might ask: typical enough so that there are specially designed courses to assist graduate students of all disciplines with reading German, and most graduate students need to take these courses immediately upon entering their programs. But even after taking them, it is an uphill struggle slogging through necessary German articles, desperately trying to understand them and kicking yourself for not taking German earlier in your life.
This fact along with Mr. Yu’s figures indicates the importance of German in our schools. If I had known that German was as necessary for the humanities as it clearly is, I would have taken it in High School as Mr. Yu is doing, and saved myself an immeasurable amount of frustration. Perhaps it is too much to ask of high school and undergraduate students to consider the importance of German in the long-run. I know it would have been difficult to convince me of it at the time, but it would have been easier to convince me if I had this information then. I hope this warning will assist current students and their parents in making their foreign language choices.