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Preserving the Boundless Horizon

A Plea Against Cutting Language Degrees at the University of Aberdeen

By Isabella Maria Engberg

Image of an empty lecture hall
Image: Pixabay via Pexels


In 2023, the University of Aberdeen unveiled a bold motto in their promo video: ‘At Aberdeen, it's not about staying in your lane. It's about going beyond disciplines, beyond borders, beyond boundaries so you can go further, to spark lasting, positive change’. These words reflect a commitment to pushing the limits of conventional education, encouraging students to explore and transcend traditional academic confines.


As a current PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, soon to graduate with a doctorate in Comparative Literature, I find myself compelled to share my journey as an undergraduate student in English and German at our institution. My academic trajectory, shaped by Aberdeen’s German Department, exemplifies the university's aspirational motto and underscores the invaluable role of language degrees in fostering interdisciplinary perspectives.


Choosing Aberdeen for its joint honours programmes, I embarked on a journey that would significantly broaden my horizons. Initially drawn to English literature, I opted for German as my second subject due to its potential to enhance my career prospects within the humanities. The interdisciplinary nature of German studies soon captivated me more than studies in English, primarily because it was so broad in scope: it encompassed linguistic, cultural, political, and historical dimensions.


Then came the year everyone doing language degrees looked forward to: the year abroad. I was lucky to be at the University of Bonn, which, for those familiar with Germany’s turbulent modern history, is known as the former capital of West Germany. Beyond the familiar walls of Aberdeen, I immersed myself in German culture, becoming fluent in the language and gaining a nuanced understanding of the country's history and societal intricacies. This experience bridged the gap between two distinct academic worlds, fostering a sense of interconnectedness that would profoundly influence my future endeavours.


Returning to Aberdeen for my Honours years, I integrated fresh insights from my time abroad into my studies. The complementary nature of English and German quickly became apparent. What was Romanticism like in Germany, America, and Great Britain? How were they alike, and how did they diverge?


Inspired by both disciplines, I explored diverse career paths, considering possibilities in journalism and international relations—fields that epitomise the spirit of going beyond borders to effect positive change. So, in between and while writing my undergraduate dissertation, I did an internship at a non-profit organisation in Berlin. I was managing projects, facilitating workshops on European energy politics, and I even had the chance to get into the German Foreign Ministry and see the minister himself. It was such an interesting but also challenging time. I was working full-time throughout the week, constantly talking in German while writing up the dissertation on weekends at the university library in Berlin.


When I came back for my final year at Aberdeen, I was as motivated as never before. Through inspiration from both courses in English and German, I suddenly had ideas for a PhD project. It was going to be comparative. For me, that meant not only comparing texts from different cultures and languages but also having an interdisciplinary focus: it was dealing with the history of science as well as literature, having an international focus between the UK and Germany.


The lecturers at the German Department are to thank for this. They sowed the seeds for thinking beyond traditional boundaries in cultural studies. They encouraged me to do a full year abroad, which, without a doubt, was the biggest influence on my choice of becoming a researcher. They guided me to an external grant for my internship, which helped me gain confidence in my professional skills while speaking a foreign language. This was crucial for my PhD project, which involved a considerable amount of archival work in Germany, both at the University of Jena as well as at Berlin’s Academy of Sciences.


Members of management now aim to discontinue – or at least drastically cut – language degrees at the University of Aberdeen. This is a decision that seems incredibly short-sighted. Language degrees, by their very nature, break down boundaries and offer students the opportunity to explore beyond the conventional. If the university proceeds with this course of action, future students stand to lose the chance to embrace the enriching experiences and perspectives that language studies uniquely provide. Moreover, the University stands to lose alumni who could be Scotland’s future diplomats, foreign correspondents, language teachers, translators, interpreters, humanitarians, and comparative researchers.


In preserving and encouraging the pursuit of language degrees, the University of Aberdeen ensures that its students can continue to transcend borders, foster interdisciplinary thinking, and contribute to lasting, positive change—an ethos that lies at the heart of its ambitious vision.


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