Michiana Chronicles: Why I Learned German
Growing up amidst the cornfields of the Midwest in a monolingual world, there was no real reason for me to learn a foreign language or study overseas. While I grew up with an awareness of my German ancestry, I grew up without a passport. In my family, international trips were unimaginable. If we traveled, it was usually to visit relatives in neighboring states. If it wasn’t for a chance encounter with a foreign exchange student from Berlin at my high school, I could have followed the path of my parents and other relatives who had barely left the region either, except for during the World Wars, an experience few chose to repeat. I think about my personal background during International Education Week – a joint effort organized by the US State Department and the Department of Education concluding today – that spotlights and salutes programs designed to prepare Americans for global experiences.
Because of my acquaintance with that exchange student, I knew when I entered college that I had to learn German. I had no idea what that decision would mean for me and where it would take me. As my relationship with that exchange student blossomed – we later married and started a family – I recognized I needed to become more proficient in German. After all, I had future in-laws and friends to get to know and try to impress and I could only smile politely and nod along for so long as Oma Anni chit-chatted with me unabated in German. In an effort to further my burgeoning relationship and get closer to that great city, I chose to study abroad in Prague, in the neighboring Czech Republic. I spent as much time possible in Berlin, of course, but I also traveled throughout Europe and even to Turkey. I had enough crazy adventures during that academic year to last a lifetime, including trudging alone with luggage in tow over the mountains along the Czech-German border in January due to a railway strike.
With further study and another stay in Berlin, my level of proficiency in German increased significantly. Because of this improvement and the qualifications I was earning, I was able to secure an internship at the German parliament, where among other activities, I watched a World Cup soccer match with Germany’s foreign minister. This led to a job in Washington DC, which saw me encountering Angela Merkel and tagging along with German politicians to meetings with American government officials. All of these experiences led me to my current position as Associate Professor of German at IU South Bend.
I always tell my students, learning a foreign language will take you places, both figuratively and literally. I, as a first-generation student from rural America, am living proof of that. Now, I don’t expect my students to follow the same path I did. Without a doubt, each person’s journey with a foreign language is unique. In my case, it’s remarkable how motivated you are to learn German or any other language when you fall in love. While the benefits of learning a foreign language for the development of cognitive skills and overall brain health is a worthy pursuit in its own right, I have always seen learning German as a means to an end. Indeed, learning a foreign language will create opportunities and open doors in ways you might not even think of. For me, it unlocked a world – history, politics, literature, film, etc. – that never stops fascinating me. For others, it’s a skill they develop to earn credentials to set themselves apart on the job market. For everyone, it fosters empathy and cultural awareness and strengthens communication skills. As International Education Week concludes, we should all “celebrate the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide”—something I do every day and urge you to do as well.