What can you do with a degree in Scandinavian language?
If you talk to high school counselors when considering going to college, you’ll probably get an earful on how a college degree is the minimum qualification for landing even a basic job. They might point out how it increases your earning potential and job opportunities, leading to prosperity and happiness. Basically, you should go to college so you can get a job. That’s the utilitarian argument, anyway.
The link between learned skills and getting a job is fairly obvious with a vocational degree from a community college or trade school. At a university, where the primary goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree, the link between your major and getting a job is more nuanced.
Sure, a BS in engineering or medical microbiology is likely to help you land a job in those fields. But what about a BA in a Scandinavian language? A bachelor’s in humanities just doesn’t get the same buzz these days as one for a STEM career. So, what can you actually do with a degree in Swedish? Beyond being able to speak haltingly in Swedish?
I set about trying to answer this question: “What is a Scandinavian language degree good for and why would you choose it in the first place?” Full disclosure: I have a BA in Norwegian from the University of Washington. I know why I value my degree now, but I know I didn’t start that degree with a job in mind. Still, it enabled me to do things I would never have dreamed of.
College programs offering Scandinavian studies say graduates find jobs “requiring expertise in languages, cultures, and histories of the Nordic region” (UCLA), which might include translation, technology, or international business. Unless you have a compelling interest in learning the language of your relatives, which isn’t relevant to employment, these hypothetical jobs are rather vague in description.
Recently, I met Dr. Kim Earles who just finished a study for the University of Washington Scandinavian Studies Department, asking this very question about Scandinavian language degrees. She approached this from the other end—what are the UW Scandinavian language alumni doing now? What do they credit as benefits from earning a bachelor’s in a Scandinavian language?
Earles worked together with department faculty to craft an alumni survey that was advertised in the department’s alumni newsletter and Facebook page. The result was surprising, if not amazing—34 responses within two hours! Within six weeks, she had 149 responses. Nearly every respondent was eager to sing the praises of a Scandinavian degree.
What careers did these alumni pursue? Nearly everything under the sun, including what you’d expect: translators, interpreters, and teachers in Scandinavian languages. But they also became business analysts, surgeons, librarians, pharmacists, attorneys, Lutheran pastors, biology instructors, flight attendants, travel experts, public relations directors, and legislative assistants… and that barely scratches the surface.
Obviously, you don’t get a job as a surgeon or pharmacist because you majored in Danish. You get these jobs because you earn (often simultaneously) another degree in those other fields. Some of these surgeons and pharmacists and attorneys use their language experience directly, and some don’t. Still, these alumni with language training stand out from the crowd. A bilingual pharmacist, for example, would be more employable than one who only spoke English.
The biggest advantage cited by the UW Scandinavian Studies alumni arises from the intimate and highly social setting of language classes. They are necessarily small, regardless of the institution. Students get to know their professors really well. Unlike sitting quietly in the back of a huge science class, language students are pushed to talk to each other in their new language, to struggle together, to teach each other, to be corrected and coached by their instructor. They gain an appreciation of another culture, how to relate to people in those cultures, and how to relate to each other.
Language students are therefore highly socialized, and work together doing something that’s difficult and quite personal, learning to converse in a second language. Alumni also cited their skills in writing and analysis, having had to write papers on Scandinavian novels, poems, and film. Others said they were inspired to learn more about the creative arts, such as dance and music.
Back to the utilitarian question: what does a bachelor’s in a language get you in the workplace?
The answer is evident the professions Scandinavian alumni reported. Business analysts, pastors, flight attendants, librarians, and legislative assistants all work intensively with people. And I submit that the empathy, compassion, and creativity so necessary to solving problems with people—which are very employable skills—come at least partly from the struggle to learn a language in small classes.
It has been said that the most successful and happy people are those with high emotional intelligence and a facility in human relations, regardless of how much they “know” about some subject. We could then say that a Scandinavian language degree is one of the most valuable degrees you could earn.
Look for UW Scandinavian Department alumni stories soon (and contribute your own) at scandinavian.washington.edu/alumni.
For infomation about scholarships for those pursuing a Scandinavian language degree, see “Community-supported education”: www.norwegianamerican.com/features/community-supported-education-5.
Eric Stavney is a graduate of the UW Scandinavian Studies Department and cohosts the Scandinavian Hour on KKNW 1150AM, Saturdays at 9 a.m. Pacific at 1150kknw.com/listen.
This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.