Going into an empty room

Recently a well-meaning friend told me that the German language has become so unpopular among undergraduates that the Educational Testing Service will stop offering a graduate record examination in German this year.

I thus must face the uncomfortable fact that the subject in which I have chosen to do my graduate work has become a recondite curiosity. When I chose to go into German the test was still offered and lent an aura of respectability and ordinariness to it, seeming to imply that German was, in fact, a subject that a normal person might conceivably want to study.

I must admit I was the only person who took the test at the time and in the place I took it. I assumed there were many other up-and-coming Germanists and we would eventually come together at one of this country's great graduate schools.

It seems I was wrong. Fewer and fewer of us are coming together at all. Everywhere graduate schools are worried about declining enrollments as students enter business or law, rather than risk the uncertainties in a field seen as impractical.

This development extends to the undergraduate level, where fewer students are choosing to study foreign languages. Language departments are hurting as demographic trends and a slackening of interest make classrooms emptier.

I find myself in the position of someone who has gone into a crowded room to talk to as many people as possible - only to find that the people in the room were leaving because the ceiling was caving in.

It's not exactly a reassuring feeling.

There are some benefits to the individual graduate student. More fellowships and teaching assistantships are available. The graduate student-to-professor ratio is smaller. And students who do go into the field are genuinely dedicated to it.

And yet, I can't help feeling uneasy. I ask myself what I'm doing wrong. Yes, the financial future of a language scholar is uncertain at best, but there are many quite practical reasons for studying a foreign language. Languages are important for both business and the military. Perhaps our failure to learn them plays more than a minor role in this country's declining stature in the world.

In learning other languages we realize how much of what we are depends upon what we speak. The realization that there are ways of speaking and living entirely different from our way of speaking and living is as liberating as it is shocking. Shocking, because it robs us of old habits of certainty. Liberating, because it opens for us doors that we never even knew were doors let alone that they were closed.

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