Saturday, June 20, 2009

For job prospects, why not learn a more useful language, like Spanish?

Spanish is often considered the "practical" language for high school and college students. You can easily hear Spanish spoken in most public places these days. People think that since there aren't large visible pockets of German speakers in this country, that German is only good if you're going to travel to Europe.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Look at the numbers.
While there are significantly more Spanish speakers in the U.S. (28 million vs. 1.4 million) Source: Wikipedia, that means that it's that much harder to stand out if Spanish is your only foreign language. Someone learning Spanish will have to compete for jobs with exponentially more native Spanish speakers. In fact someone who's not fluent in Spanish probably has no chance of competing for a job requiring Spanish since there will, by sheer numbers, be so many more native Spanish speakers. You've lost before you've even started.

German speakers, being far fewer in number, have less competition and more opportunity to be noticed.
Think about it - do you want your child to be a small fish in a big (enormous, actually) pond or a bigger fish in a very small pond. Being bilingual in German and English will put your child into a very select group. While I'm not suggesting your children strive for mediocrity, an intermediate level of German may be worth more than advanced mastery of Spanish.

German helps you stand out
In today's tight job market, anything your child can do to stand out from the crowd will enhance his chances of landing a job. Being bilingual in German or even having a lower level of competency, will make him a bit more interesting to a hiring manager. So many people have some kind of connection to Europe and the German language - they spent some time in the military there, they have a German relative in the family, or they vacationed on the Rhein. It makes for a great ice-breaker and can help open doors for your job-hunting child.

Think that there are no opportunities to use German on the job?
Think again.

Let's look at some more numbers.
Germany has the third largest economy in the world and as of 2007 was the world's largest importer and exporter despite the strength of the Euro. German companies employ 700,000 people in the United States and American companies account for roughly the same number of jobs in Germany. German companies are spread throughout the world and being able to speak German will give your child a significant advantage with these companies.

World view not U.S. view
If you've spent time studying the language and German culture with your child, he will be able to better relate to colleagues who are not American. A common complaint in other countries is that Americans are insensitive to other cultures; hopefully growing up bilingual will help your child be aware of and avoid this American-centric attitude.

Studying German says that your child has put in extra effort and rejected the standard choice.
There is a common perception that learning German is harder (it's not necessarily) and therefore it may convey a higher level of status than Spanish. People may automatically think your child is smarter just because he's bilingual in German and English! Isn't it nice to get credit for things you're already doing?

German in the travel and hospitality industries
German companies generally give 6 or more weeks of vacation, plus holidays. It seems like my German friends are always on vacation! Germans put this vacation time to good use. The Goethe Institute reports that 3 out of 4 German vacations are taken abroad. You may already know this if you have been to a popular German tourist destination - Miami, New York, the Grand Canyon. German tourists are everywhere!

What this means is that all manner of businesses in the travel and hotel industries have a need for German speakers. Hotels, airlines, cruise ships, tourist destinations, und, und, und...

Science and Research
German is the second most commonly used scientific language and the third largest contributor to research and development. German will serve those in scientific fields very well.

Don't pick German just for the career opportunities.
When you choose German as your family's second language, there are so many other wonderful options that open up - travel, study of the culture, great literature. If you focus only on a future job prospect, you'll miss so much of the good stuff along the way. It's the study of the culture that makes the language truly come alive.

My personal path to study German was based exactly on this kind of objective analysis.
As I was preparing to enter college, my uncle pulled me aside and said a few words that would change the course of my life. "If you want to study business, you should study either German or Japanese as your foreign language." My uncle was a successful businessman and I took him very seriously. At the time I was too intimidated to attempt Japanese so German it was. And what a fateful choice! Nineteen years later I am making my living based on my knowledge of German. Who knew this one piece of advice would influence my life so greatly?

Where will German take your family?
Whether your children are small and just beginning to speak or you have teenagers preparing to leave the nest, it's never too soon or too late to carefully plan for the future. The choice of German for me was a pivotal one. Who knows where it will lead you and your children.


Thea said...

For more info on languages in the US, check out the Modern Language Association ( One of the most interesting pages on this site is the MLA Language Map ( which shows which languages are spoken around the US, and their popularity.

Data from the 2000 US Census shows that 10% of Californians spoke German at home! The other top 4 states with more than 5% of the populations speaking German are NY, Florida, Texas and Ohio. German speakers are all over :-)

Jeanne said...

A very timely post, since I have been considering that I chose the wrong language to emphasize with my younger children. I have approximately the same non-native ability in both German and Spanish, and have no native-speaker relatives or other emotional ties to either language. A fairly even tossup! Ideally, I'd like to do both, but that's not happening right now.

In addition, I think that, in the very beginning levels of language learning, Spanish is harder. Students have a very hard with two verbs for "to be" and two past tenses, not to mention the dropping of pronouns as redundant. Although, offering this POV once almost got me beaten up by an elderly lady who had lived in Germany and said it was the most difficult language ever! ;-)

Jeanne said...

Of course I meant to say, "Students have a very hard TIME"

Sarah Mueller said...

Thea, Thanks for the link - that is good data!

Jeanne, Thanks for your thoughts. I'm glad the German lady didn't dissuade you :)


Julie said...

As a high school German teacher, it's been a constant struggle to maintain support from administration and parents. With budget cuts, German is always the first to go, because it is seen in the American eyes as "less useful" and "more difficult."

It's my personal opinion that the Spanish-is-easier misnomer is thinly veiled racism. I've spent a good deal of time studying and living in Europe, and I had never heard that Spanish was considered an "easier" second language. It's a purely American thing. And I think it stems from the influx of immigrants from Latin America.

Think about the narrow-minded view that "them Mexicans" are coming over the border, and working menial labor jobs. "They" are "uneducated" and they speak Spanish. Therefore, the Spanish language must be the easier second language for my kid to learn!

German? Why, German is spoken by scientists and engineers! Therefore, it's a more difficult second language for my kid to learn! If that Mexican that mows my lawn can speak it, it must be easy for my kid to pick up, too.

It's just so wrong on so many levels...

Sarah Mueller said...


You are so right. I had never thought about this aspect but it's clearly present and people will use it to promote German or Spanish, while being wrong in both cases.


Jeanne said...

That's really interesting that Spanish is not perceived to be easier in Europe. This has been around a long time - my aunt was a French teacher and when she retired she decided to substitute a bit. But she was always called in for Spanish and, since the students all thought Spanish was easier, she would get all the troublemakers and jocks who didn't care. She quickly decided that it wasn't worth it, and that was back in 1972-73!