I never thought I would take another language.
The plan was always to place out with Hebrew and free up my schedule for all the other numerous classes I need and want to take. The summer before freshman year I spent more time than I care to remember hungrily clicking through course listings on SCORE, writing down the names of all the classes that caught my fancy. I felt like a five-year-old with a year’s worth of allowance standing at the doors of the world’s largest toy store. The sensation doesn’t grow old; if anything, each semester I have a better appreciation for all the opportunities at my schedule-molding fingertips. Why would I limit my options by committing a time slot each semester to an unrequired language?
On a last minute whim I enrolled in French, reasoning that I could always drop if it failed to suit. Three semesters later, I’m still twisting my throat into knots trying to produce the perfect French ‘r,’ suffering through the subjunctive and grappling with all those vowel-heavy homophones.
The most familiar argument against taking extra languages at Princeton is that language study is readily accessible outside of college. Why sacrifice a precious class slot on a subject that you can learn after graduation or pick up over the summer?
The answer is that, while language classes may be more accessible beyond college than Shakespeare seminars, for many of us this is the last realistic opportunity to take either. Learning may last a lifetime, but taking structured courses becomes progressively less attractive as we grow older. Our natural ability to acquire new languages also declines in proportion to our age. I know too many adults who regret never learning a language in their younger days, when unfamiliar sounds and syntax were conquerable. The longer people put off studying a language, the more difficulty they have when they finally take it on.
So much for why putting off language study is a bad idea. Some might challenge the premise that learning another language is at all worthwhile. I have recently encountered a surprising number of people — oddly, all Princetonians — who don’t see any value whatever in these classes, now or post-college. My initial impulse when challenged by these skeptics is to bang my head against a wall repeatedly until they disappear. Once the urge passes, I attempt to explain why I am spending so much “unrequired” time learning French, but the head-banging reflex keeps popping up. This makes coherence difficult. If I could face language-disparagers without the interference of massive, suffocating waves of incredulity and frustration, my argument would go something like this:
After college, there will inevitably be courses you wish you had not taken. I’m less than halfway through and I already have a list — quite short, but still. You will regret the philosophy course that sunk your grade point average way below the graduate school application line. You will regret the embarrassingly easy “science” course that you took to kill the lab requirement. You will not regret taking a language.
Humanities disciplines offer new understandings of the world around us, of the people around us and of ourselves. Engineering offers utility. Languages offer both. The practical benefits should be obvious. Communication opens doors. Many of the most stimulating careers, from academia to foreign service, demand at least bilingual skills. I was recently speaking to an engineering friend who wants to go into robotics. Apparently, the best graduate schools are in Japan and classes are conducted in Japanese. In a world that is growing increasingly connected and interdependent, it pays to break the stereotype of a monolingual American. On a more metaphysical note, languages are the key to understanding a nation’s culture, literature, industry and consciousness. No matter how many times you have visited a country, the essence — the pulse, the soul, the reason locals smile or don’t smile, cry when they hear certain songs, defend certain values fiercely and consider others perfectly irrelevant — is incomprehensible until you speak their language.
Language proficiency is not an “extra” — not a frill or polish for your college education. Those Spanish classes you are forcing yourself through, eagerly counting down the days until you can place out of your requirement, may offer the most concrete, useful skill of your undergraduate career. I sometimes have trouble defending my class choices to friends and family who don’t quite get the point of a liberal arts education. I may know in my bones that a course in creative fiction is a valuable component of my college schooling, but explaining the conviction in articulate terms can be a challenge. Language, though, is universally recognized as an objectively useful accomplishment. Do your mind and resume a favor; take an extra language class.
Tehila Wenger is a sophomore from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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