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Jan 23 2018
by Anne Marie Yurik

Why Language Majors are Just as Respectable as Any Other Major

By Anne Marie Yurik - Jan 23 2018

"What's your major?" a friend asked me.

"I'm actually a double major in German and Spanish," I said.

"Is that because it's like only memorization, so it's not that hard?" she responded, not trying to undermine my program but inadvertently doing so. 

This conversation happened this year, and sadly it's not the only time people have questioned the validity of a double language major or even suggested that I am choosing a language major solely because it is easier than all the rest. I am not here to declare a language major's superiority over any other major, but I do believe that language majors are just as respectable as STEM majors.

Languages are hard. Sure, you memorize verb forms, words, sentence structure and articles, but we have to combine everything we learn and employ them in seconds. When speaking another language, you need to know how to form the sentence, what words to use, what tense to put it in depending on who or what we are talking about and then do exactly that almost instantaneously. 

You need to respond quickly to questions which means that you not only have to comprehend it, but you need to think of a response and provide it correctly and in an efficient manner that doesn't leave an awkward pause or stall in the conversation. Producing, comprehending and writing another language is difficult for a number of reasons. 

Learning multiple languages can mix you up a little bit because sentence structure varies. So, the way I have to create sentences in English is not how it will be done in Spanish, which also varies from how it will be done in German.

Imagine learning a math problem, the way to solve it, how to get the variables and numbers and then how to format the solution, but then you go somewhere else and they tell you that how you write the answer, solve it and express the answer is completely different. All the variables are different, leaving you with the task to correctly determine which variable means what. 

Learning a language is exactly like that. Things get confusing, and even then what is confusing changes depending on what language you are speaking.

While I understand that when you boil down all the things I am learning with languages, you can ultimately say that I am memorizing my way through college, but life is memorization. Everything you know, you memorized. That argument can be applied to every major. Doctors memorize procedures and diseases, lawyers memorize old cases and terminology, mathematicians memorize theorems and equations. Even then, declaring that majors are simply memorization feels oversimplified. 

In reality, we can't really boil down memorization to any one major. What every single field — languages included — comes down to is implementation. Anyone can memorize anything if they really want to, but only some can implement what they learned well. Doctors must implement their knowledge into every day practice in order to help diagnose patients correctly, language majors need to implement the grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure into everyday use in order to communicate. 

Google recently analyzed all their hiring, firing and promotional records in an experiment called Project Oxygen. According to a report from the Washington Post, which found that STEM skills came in eighth in terms of the most valuable eight qualities in a Google employee. That's astonishing for a country whose tides seemed to have turned drastically in the STEM direction.

What were the other top seven qualities that beat out STEM related skills? According to the same report they are, "being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into others (including others different values and point of view), having empathy toward and being supportive of one's colleagues, being a good critical thinker and problem solver and being able to make connections across complex ideas."

Those skills are easily found in a language learner. We can empathize with others across various cultures by knowing what it's like to be lost in culture shock and experience the difficulty of communicating  correctly in another language. Learning a language requires impeccable communication and listening skills. We need to listen carefully in order to correctly comprehend what's been said to us. 

There are so many other things from that list that match perfectly to learning a foreign language. These skills prove that despite the common view that languages are unnecessary and inferior to that of other fields of study, languages equip their learners with so much more than the ability to communicate cross-culturally. It gives people important business skills that top companies like Google prioritize.

All in all, I am not advocating for people to abandon their desired majors, but I am demanding that respect for other majors become more prevalent. Just because it seems like it would be easy doesn't mean that it is easy. How things are perceived is not necessarily how they are, and that is an important lesson to take beyond college. 

Languages and STEM and every other career field or major has their very own set of challenges and difficulties, but that does not mean that other programs should be discounted and deemed simple or easy. I am proud to be a language major, and even if people think I have good grades because my program is easy, or assume that I took the easy way out by declaring a double language major. I will still be proud because I know what it's like to be a language major, and I will still love it fiercely regardless of what they say. 

Lead Image Credit: Pexels

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Anne Marie Yurik - University of Pittsburgh

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