An immigration lawyer, a former staff member of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the CEO of a German-American commerce organization walk into a room. What happens next? They start to share some food for thought on foreign language learning with Northwestern students. The trio was part of the panel composed by six alumni who graduated between 1995 and 2017 and, on Wednesday, came back to Northwestern to share the impact that learning foreign languages had on their lives.
The panelists of “Voices of Experience: The Value of Foreign Languages in the Working World” told totally different background stories and reasons for learning their chosen languages, but they all agreed that learning a new language in college was essential for their careers.
Angela Lin (Weinberg ‘17) not only “took pretty much every possible Arabic class” during her time at Northwestern, but also served as a language tutor during the school year and as an independent researcher in Jordan in the summer. Those experiences led her to receive an offer to work for Queen Rania of Jordan at her educational foundation after graduation.
Alongside studying German, Mark Tomkins (Weinberg ‘95) was very involved with international organizations, such as AIESEC, as an undergraduate. Now, he is the President & CEO of the German American Chamber of Commerce Midwest, being the first American to hold this position. As the veteran in the room, he shared some “boss advice” with the audience.
“If you speak a foreign language, your employer will see you as someone who is international,” Tomkins said. “So, whatever your language is, develop that under a skill, develop that under an interest.”
Although all the panelists agreed the classroom is the best place to start learning new languages, they also defended the importance of going beyond and immersing yourself.
Finding passions related to the languages you are learning is a great way to improve your skills in a pleasurable way, according to the panelists. While Andrew Donaldson (Weinberg ‘15) found in French theatre a way to practice the language, Marie Silver (Comm ‘07) said her passion for Latin American literature increased her interest in continuing to study Spanish.
Daniel Weinberg (Weinberg ‘16), who studied abroad in Japan as an undergraduate student and decided to go back to the country as an English teacher after graduation, said finding people who do not speak your native language is also a great way to practice the skills, as you feel obligated to speak in their language. It is also a great tool to learn how a local communicates in reality.
“I think that was the best to learn,” Weinberg said. “A lot of people know that feeling when you go abroad and try to find a speaker of a language that you learned in your classroom through a textbook, and you say [a phrase] right but it’s not really how a native speaker would speak.”
They also pointed out the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone. They shared stories that ranged between trying to come out to the host-family and not finding the right words in the language, to trying to have a conversation with the school principal about the host-parents “having retired,” but instead saying “they had an abortion.” Those experiences of discomfort, according to the panelists, are essential to shape the international experience.
“Because of that discomfort, I think you get to understand the culture,” said Robert Fojtik (Weinberg '07), who studied both Russian and Czech at Northwestern.
Finally, the panelists remembered the perks of studying new languages. For them, “becoming a global citizen” is the biggest advantage.
“After you learn a new language and you go abroad, you’re then a global citizen,” said Donaldson. “It does not sound that cliché in my head, because that’s the truth. Learning a foreign language changes you.”