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Why study a Germanic, Slavic or East European language?

There are countless reasons why students do so!

GSLL currently offers instruction in six Indo-European languages (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Czech, Dutch, German, Polish, and Russian). There are certainly language-specific reasons to want to learn, say, Czech or Polish, but consider first the most immediate reason why Carolina students decide to learn a language taught in GSLL: Our classes are comparatively small and intimate in size. We know and care about our students, and students easily establish close and productive relationships with their instructors. Students easily build meaningful friendships with other students studying our languages. GSLL teaches students core skills rooted in the humanities that are transferable to myriad careers: critical thinking and careful close analysis, research based on persuasive written and oral communication, as well as cross-cultural and cross-historical understanding.

If these reasons seem too altruistic for some, others will agree that GSLL’s languages can set students apart from the rest by complementing a second major. Russian has suddenly become geo-politically relevant. German is indispensable in graduate study in the humanities, social sciences, and even some natural sciences. Like German, Dutch is the language of one Europe’s economic powerhouses. As Eastern Europe becomes increasingly integrated into the European Union, Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Czech and Polish will become increasingly more important.

Perhaps most important is the fact that students who study a GSLL language go on to do amazing things, regardless of whether life after Carolina involves their command of a foreign language: graduate school, professional school, top-notch employment at home and abroad.

Why learn German or Dutch?

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German and Dutch is spoken by roughly 200 million people around the world.

The spectacular and unanticipated event of 9 November 1989, the opening of the Berlin Wall, focused world-wide attention on reunited Germany that is bound to play an increasingly important role in a united Europe and in the world. As a result of Germany’s increased role, the German language will become more important, particularly in Eastern Europe. Although some seem to think that, according to an article in the New York Times (11 November 1990), “English [is] Über Alles,” the following response to that article should give one pause:

[The article] expresses angst for the future of German. The Sturm und Drang with which English is spreading through the world is in line with the Zeitgeist and should not cause anyone Weltschmerz. … [W]hen such melancholy sets in, it is best to put on your lederhosen, go to a nice Oktoberfest, eat some sauerbraten and kraut, or if you like Kultur, go to the opera and listen to a couple of good heldentenors. The best way to correct this language process is to teach children love of their native tongue, as early as kindergarten.

Apart from the general importance of Germany and the German language as subjects of study, some specific advantages of learning German will be mentioned in the following:

Travel

Nowadays it’s common to find young Americans on the bum in Europe, shunning the tourist centers and instead seeking real contact with the people. If you want to clink steins with German students in taverns, or join a hiking group in the Bavarian Alps, your ability to speak the language will make it clear that you are not one of those “ugly Americans” trying to see everything while understanding nothing.

Enrichment Through Literature

German literature is truly a “world literature” with its translated works winning large audiences all over the world. To read books in translation is fine; yet how much better it is to read the work in the author’s own language! The Grimms’ fairy tales are known everywhere; there are many writers ofrecent decades who have had much to say to American audiences: Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum won a place on the best-seller list in our country, the Marat/Sade play by Peter Weiss has been widely performed in many cities and on college campuses, and Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, gained an enormous following among young Americans who look away from American values toward the more ascetic East. Heinrich Böll gained world prominence well before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and Bertolt Brecht, brilliant analyzers of the human condition, wrote works that are now considered classics in world literature.

Heightened Awareness Of Cultural Variety

While language is primarily a tool of communication, it is also an embodiment of the attitudes of human beings, a reflection of their way of analyzing the world about them. No two cultures view the world from precisely the same vantage point, a fact which is revealed in the languages of the many cultures around the world. When we learn German we see how Germans approach each other differently–how close, how personal can one get with a stranger upon first encounter? How does a friend in America differ from a Freund in Germany? How does male-female interaction differ in Germany? What is this feeling of Gemütlichkeit which Americans have so much trouble defining in their own language? Can it possibly be that the values we have established in America are not necessarily essential to the well-being of the human race, or do we sometimes have a definite edge over the Germans? The study of the German language, or of any foreign language, brings to the student, often for the first time, a realization that there are many models for a “successful” society in this world, and the acquisition of the language gives the student the tool necessary to investigate for him- or herself the essence of the foreign culture, thus providing by contrast a heightened understanding of his/her own culture.

Careers

Learning German can help one’s career or enhance one’s flexibility in making career choices. Some jobs have linguistic skill as the main requirement, such as positions with the US State Department, National Security Agency, and US Information Service. There are jobs involving a combination of German skills with other specialties such as business and economics, legal training, and journalism. One UNC graduate became director of the Associated Press in Germany. Several German majors from UNC stepped into jobs as flight attendants, opening opportunities for world travel. A person combining knowledge of German with other skills is especially “marketable” in these times when most large businesses (and many smaller ones) have international connections. North Carolina now has probably over one hundred German and Swiss companies with branches located here. North Carolina has in fact sent trade delegations to West Germany several times, to win even more German participation in the commercial life of the state. And the time has at last arrived when the number of German tourists coming to America equals the number of Americans traveling to Germany. We need more German-speakers here, and fast!

Twelve reasons why learning Russian makes sense

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  1. Russian is the fifth most spoken language worldwide. Russia has a population of almost 150 million people and there are roughly 270 million Russian speakers in the world. It is one of the five official languages of the United Nations and remains the unofficial lingua franca of the former Soviet republics, an indispensable communication tool across all of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
  2. Russian opens up the largest country of the world and one of the largest producers of natural gas and oil in the world.
  3. Russia is home to some of the world’s finest traditions in the arts. Some of the world’s most prominent writers, artists, musicians, directors of the stage and screen are Russian: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, Pasternak, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Repin, Kandinsky, Malevich, Popova, Chagall, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stanislavsky and Tarkovsky … to name just a few!
  4. Russian is an important language for science and technology. The number of publications in the sciences is highest for English, with Russian coming in second. Astronauts aboard the International Space station speak Russian.
  5. Learning Russian prepares you to join the world economy. Since it joined the World Trade Organization, there are thousands of foreign companies operating in Russia. Among them: Mercedes-Benz, Starbucks, Siemens, Boeing, Google, IKEA, Michelin, Coca-Cola, etc. Russia’s big job market for foreigners is huge!
  6. Russia is both a regional power and a re-emergent world power. By learning Russian, students understand the continuing strategic importance of Russia from the days of tsarism and the Romanovs through the Soviet Union of Stalin and Khrushchev to the present Russian Federation of Putin.
  7. Russian is the language of sports. Since the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Soviet and later Russian athletes never went below third place in the world, in number and gold medals collected at the Summer Olympics. In February 2014, Russia hosted the XXII Olympic Winter Games.
  8. Russian compliments many other disciplines offered at UNC: business and Russian, science and Russian, political science or history and Russian, English and Russian, another foreign language and Russian, mathematics and Russian, music and Russian.
  9. The United States government needs more Russian-language specialists than ever before. Federal agencies have identified Russian as a priority-language of national importance. Among the agencies that seek expertise in Russian: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Human Development, Department of Labor, and Department of the Interior.
  10. There are myriad opportunities for Americans who know Russian within Russia itself. American law firms, businesses, and consulting firms expand almost daily and they all need employees with knowledge of the Russian language.
  11. Russian classes at UNC are fun and students in Russian classes form a friendly tight community. Students receive lots of attention from enthusiastic and creative instructors.
  12. Besides, the language itself is simply beautiful! Just ask Anjelina Jolie, who said while studying Russian for her role in the spy thriller Salt, “I love speaking Russian. It’s very, very hard. I find it a very interesting sound because it can be so hard and strong and also very sensual and very beautiful.” Watch Jolie speak Russian at the premier of the film in Moscow.

Why learn an East European language?

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The Slavic and Uralic peoples constitute the largest ethnic group in Central and Eastern Europe and have made important contributions to the arts, sciences, and humanities throughout modern history. Student of East European languages, literatures, and cultures (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Czech and Polish) encounter compelling works of art and fascinating philosophical perspectives. The works of such major Slavic and Uralic writers and thinkers as Czeslaw Milosz, Danilo Kis, and Milan Kundera enrich our understanding of human nature and prompt us to reflect on our preconceived attitudes toward politics, business, religion, and the arts.

Course work toward the B.A. in Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures can also serve as crucial preparation for jobs in government, business and industry, education, journalism, non-profit work, library and information sciences, and medicine; our recentgraduates have successfully pursued jobs in most of these areas. The training we offer helps students develop the important writing and critical thinking skills that make our graduates attractive job candidates to many prospective employers.

Forgotten in the immediate shadow of the Cold War, Eastern Europe has recently emerged as a focal point of international politics and U.S. foreign policy. One cannot overstate the importance of knowing well the diverse languages and cultures of this region, especially in light of the political and economic challenges and opportunities presented the eastern expansion of the European Union and the restlessness of the Russian Federation.