German Language Bringing Extra Benefits to Engineers

Engineering student with a Mercedes-Benz
Engineering co-op student with a Mercedes-Benz. Photo courtesy of the Cooperative Education and Professional Practice Program

From the March 2016 Desktop News | When Rebecca Dietz came to The University of Alabama in 2014, she knew Spanish—not German. But she knows it now, or at least she better, because in September, she and one of her peers are traveling 4,800 miles to the Esslingen University of Applied Sciences in Germany to study automotive engineering—in German.

“Typically German companies, including Mercedes-Benz, send German engineers over to the States to solve critical problems,” said Dr. Bharat Balasubramanian, a professor in the College of Engineering. “But that is very expensive, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we train our own engineers, teach them German, and also give them exposure to German industry and culture?’”

In 2014, that’s precisely what UA did—and the International German Student Exchange Program was born. While the College of Engineering provides all of the automotive and technical training, the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Modern Languages instructs all of the students’ language classes. Dietz, a sophomore majoring in German and mechanical engineering, and her peers were the first to step up to the challenge.

According to Dietz, the hardest part is definitely the pace at which they have to be learning. Her group took 26 of the 32 credits hours required for the German major in just two years.

“Over the summer, we had a test or a paper every third day,” she said.

Balasubramanian explained that typically students take German 462, Advanced German Conversation and Composition II, in their senior year, but the students in the exchange program take it as sophomores. This summer, prior to leaving for Germany for a year, they also will take a course on automotive engineering—one taught entirely in German.

“I’m excited because I think we’ve reached a level in the language where it is extremely helpful to just be immersed in it,” Dietz said. “I think we’re as ready as we can be at this point.”

The program is rigorous, but it is also has big payoffs. Last summer Dietz had an internship at Mercedes-Benz in Vance, Alabama. She said that there were plenty of Germans working there, and she was pleased that she could understand them and work with them.

“It’s great for my resume,” she said, “but it’s also good for creativity. When I came to the University, I had all of my humanities credits already fulfilled—so I jumped right into engineering. The only break I have from that has been my German classes, and I personally think they have invoked more creativity in me. It makes me more well-rounded.”

While not required, Dietz and many other students in the program have decided to take the extra culture classes that will qualify them for a double major.

“It’s worth it,” she said, “even if we have to take an extra semester to do it.”

Even if Dietz doesn’t pursue a career in which her German is needed every day, she says that she will continue to study it.

“No matter what I do I think I’ll find a way to use my German,” she said. “At this point I’ve worked too hard not to.”