“Why Did You Want to Study German???” And Other Stupid Questions
"Why did you want to study German???"
This is the question often posed to me by both native and non-native speakers of the language, a look equally incredulous and sceptical pasted across their face.
“Well!” I start indignantly. I always find it irritating how 1) condescending and 2) depreciating that question is. I flick my hair and puff up like a proud bantam ready for battle.
“It’s actually, like, super cool making an effort to know more than one language, especially in Britain where, like, no one knows how to speak languages – unless they migrated or are, like, second generation or whatever – and I like how it’s, like, an open degree so I can do, like, aaaanything I want after I, like, graduate.”
Then comes the patronising mystified expression.
“Except become a lawyer, doctor, scientist, engineer, or anything else useful and relevant to modern society.”
I sigh. This lack of open-mindedness proves exactly why studying a Humanities subject has its merits: study literature → analyse themes → think deeply about philosophy’n’morals’n’stuff → apply to modern day life → hopefully become more open-minded/understanding towards new ideas → be less derogatory about other people’s perfectly valid life choices, such as when they choose to study a ridiculously grammar-heavy aggressive-sounding language only spoken in a limited number of countries.
“I just like Schnitzel, ok?” I grumble as passive-aggressively as I can.
Now for the inevitable follow-up.
“So what do you want to do after your degree?” Apart from eat, sleep, enjoy my hobbies, spend quality time with family and friends, and find happiness and fulfilment in things other than my job, of course. Rather than airing my inner cow, I wait serenely for the equally inevitable next question.
“Do you want to be a teacher?” Now, I have absolutely nothing against teachers, indeed I wouldn’t mind becoming one myself, but to limit the path after a four year degree to just one job seems to trivialise the degree somewhat. But wait, there are, of course, two paths to me now available.
“Have you thought about translation?”
Yes, of course I have thought about translation. Being able to translate an entire text from a language that was ten years ago as alien as dog barks to me, is quite a feat, to put it modestly, even if there are bilingual children who could do the same at half my age.
What everyone assumes, is that if you study a language you only learn the language itself. This is wrong. You study the history, the culture, the differences, the politics, the geography, the psychology of the countries where the language is spoken. You gain the skills to be able to light up another person’s face because you are interested in a country other than your own; in the Easter holidays I bumped into a few Germans on the bus in Edinburgh, who were delighted I knew more than, “Zwei Biere bitte.” Whenever I meet a French person I excitedly recite my Higher French speaking exam speech in my truly shocking accent, and it always gets a laugh. If I chance upon a Chinese person, I rant about how much I enjoyed learning to write characters in the one year that I randomly decided to study Mandarin, and then scribble some down in what looks like a four year-old’s hand. People really do appreciate the effort.
And that’s a trick you can take into business too if you’re trying to sell whatever to a foreign company. Usually when people start harping on about skills on their CVs I start thinking about what I’m having for dinner – probably Schnitzel – but to an extent, the twaddle we come up with in our cover letters and job applications is actually true.
Speaking a second language and moving away teaches you as much as any degree can: it teaches you not to judge the intelligence of others based on their language level, it teaches you to appreciate the friendliness of those who go out of their way to welcome you abroad, it teaches you that it’s ok to make mistakes occasionally. If you can overcome the ingrained want for perfectionism inherent in any ambitious student at uni, then you can have the confidence to approach situations with a smile regardless of being perfect, and for young people in today’s competitive world where there always seems to be someone better than you, that’s an important lesson to learn.
Sure every degree has its stereotypes and ups and downs and who are we if we can’t laugh at ourselves and our choices sometimes? But it helps to remember stereotypes are never wholly true, unless they concern how great Schnitzel is.
Up next: The Lost Glove Which Used to Reside on the Handrail Outside the Humanities Building (since I forgot to mention it this time).