I spent the summer immediately after graduation helping out at a mountain resort hotel in Switzerland. That opportunity likely would not have been available if I had not spoken German more or less fluently by then. I never did learn Swiss German, unfortunately!
I worked for a few years in Chicago, then moved to New York to attend law school at NYU. During law school, I spent a summer living in Berlin – with no work and very little money; just a desire to spend a few months living in a place I’d probably never get to live in again. After graduating from law school, I worked in the litigation department of a New York firm. The firm had several large German clients and I worked on some very interesting cases that were brought in U.S. courts by plaintiffs seeking redress for injuries they suffered at the hands of German companies during World War II. I also worked on other cases in which my German language capabilities were an advantage.
For about the last five years, I have been living and working in London.
The first language I took at UW-Madison was German, because my maternal grandparents, who were of Swiss descent and lived in New Glarus, Wisconsin, spoke Swiss German. I thought I would benefit most from learning a language that would connect me more closely to them and to my heritage.
I took Italian because I studied abroad as a junior. At the time, the program in Florence was the only UW-Madison program (or one of few) available for a semester only. I didn’t want to miss the fall semester of my junior year because I was in the UW Marching Band.
I can’t list all the ways that the study of foreign languages has enriched my life – more for personal than professional reasons. I have lived in countries where I otherwise wouldn’t have lived, met and made lasting friendships with people I wouldn’t have met, seen and experienced things and places that I would never have seen, and discovered literature and music that I would never have known about. Studying foreign languages has also improved my understanding of English, because it makes you think about how languages are structured, what the rules are and why – and that is sometimes difficult to do when the only language you know is the one you learned as a child.
I had some excellent instructors, especially in German. The teaching assistants I had for the first three semesters were all superb. Unfortunately, twenty-five years later, I no longer recall their names. I also had a very good Italian instructor during the semester I spent in Florence.
For me, language classes were exciting and fun because they opened up whole new worlds of culture, history and thought. They also seemed more practical than much of what I studied. I know many people think the opposite: that studying languages is impractical – but that’s because Americans “study” them, never use them, and then forget them. But I knew when I was studying German that I would use it. I wanted to speak and read fluently, so I worked hard. I was finally able to read and understand the German-language books, letters and documents in my grandparents’ home, and that was very rewarding. Likewise, Italian was “practical” because I was living there, so I had to learn it in order to get the most out of my experience.
Study abroad was my introduction to Italy, which is one of my favorite places. It’s an amazingly rich country of culture, history, cuisine, beautiful scenery, great cities and thoroughly entertaining people. Florence is one of its jewels and I was very fortunate to be able to spend several months there. I started studying German at UW-Madison before I studied Italian, so my study abroad experience added another language to my repertoire – and it’s a language that I have used many times since on trips to Italy. While there are many English-speaking Italians, there are many more Italians who do not speak English. Being able to speak and read anywhere in the country, and not just in the large cities or heavily touristed areas, is wonderful. It is really liberating to know that you can just set off to a foreign country and never have to worry that you’ll be stuck in a place where you can’t communicate.
“Spaccanapoli” (street name that runs straight through the center of Naples). It literally means "it splits Naples."