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What good is a foreign language degree?   Amazon employee and UW Germanics alum, Christopher Heitkemper, tells us why you should major in German

Submitted by Ellwood Wiggins on November 13, 2013 - 2:13pm

Dear UW Germanics faculty, alumni, current and prospective students:

Reflecting back on my college experience at the University of Washington, choosing to major in German was the best decision of my undergraduate career. I say this not only because of my passion for the German language, but also because of the skill sets and professional competencies it gave me. Having worked for Amazon in two German-speaking positions, I have been given the opportunity to use my German language skills in a variety of analytical roles, giving me a platform with which to learn and grow professionally. I naturally accredit much of my success in these roles at Amazon to my German language ability, but also to the more widely fundamental competencies fostered by the Germanics major at the University of Washington.

I admit that I was initially apprehensive about majoring “just in a foreign language,” as many would say to me and continue to do so today. When I decided to put my intended biology/pre-med studies on the back burner and move German up to the front, I was often presented with the question “Well what do you plan on doing with that?” or simply told, “Oh cool, so you’re going to be a German teacher.” Nothing against teaching (my mother was a dedicated teacher for many years), but I knew that was not my calling and I was stubbornly insistent that there would be many other career options for a foreign language major in addition to teaching. I considered double majoring for a while, but had spent so much of my first one and a half years in other subject matters that I wanted to devote my full-time attention to German. My goal was to develop the German language ability to comprehend complex philosophical concepts, make logical and convincing arguments, develop new ideas and apply them to larger, more significant realities. In addition to German language acquisition, achieving success in the UW Germanics major required effective verbal communication, comprehensive reading, critical thinking, and analytical as well as creative writing. These skill sets can be applied to a wide range of work fields and have been essential to my success at Amazon.

For the many American companies like Amazon with large business operations in Germany, candidates with German language proficiency are a necessity. In my time at Amazon, I have experienced German-speaking roles that required both strong language skills in all capacities as well as cultural and demographic familiarity. In addition to performing routine job duties, it is common to be solicited by other managers or teams for assistance with language-specific tasks, such as translation, proofreading/editing, or calling foreign customers and banks. Foreign language abilities are therefore not only necessary for completing your specific job, but also advantageous in making a name for yourself among other teams and creating a niche skill set for yourself. In large corporations like Amazon, especially in today’s competitive job market, anything you can do to make yourself stand out helps. The argument can be made that specializing too much limits you to a smaller range of opportunities, but combining a specialized skill with such universally fundamental competencies as previously mentioned can lead to many opportunities, and once you get your foot in the door and some experience built up, you can go in any direction you want.

What am I trying to say in all of this? Basically, you should definitely major in a foreign language. But only if you want to. If you are interested in and passionate about a language, it shows great commitment and dedication to devote your time and energy to attaining fluency in that language. How might you go about applying your foreign language studies in the professional working world? Stress the fundamental competencies such as effective written and verbal communication, comprehensive reading, and analytical thinking that are polished through a foreign language degree program. These competencies can be applied to a wide range of work fields and are paramount to success in any role in today’s competitive job market.

Christopher Heitkemper, UW class of 2010

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