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On languages and possibility

<h6>Daniel Viorica / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Daniel Viorica / The Daily Princetonian

There may be no one on campus who complains about their language classes more than I do. Don't get me wrong — I love Russian, and it's a beautiful language. I have so much respect for my peers, my instructors, and everyone involved in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature. But it's just so hard. And it is my fault, obviously, for taking a difficult language. It’s a decision for which I have oscillating cycles of contentment and deep, test-related regret. Language learning is difficult. It takes an enormous amount of time, work, care, and dedication, and that’s a difficult dedication to give when there is always something else that needs attention. Still, there comes a point when you know it was all worth it.

Learning a language and feeling it click is like tapping into a collective consciousness that you never knew existed. You get a new way of thinking, literally and concretely, and you can connect with new people and texts at their level, without reservation, in a way that just isn't possible otherwise. This has an importance that cannot be overstated, especially in the age of the internet, where instantaneous communication and the ubiquity of subtitles and automated translation have brought the world so much closer but have also made us, as English speakers, too comfortable in our distance, in knowing only our own tongue. I’ve felt this. For most of my life, I only spoke English. It took me too long to make a change.

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At my middle school, Spanish class was required in the 6th and 7th grades, but from 8th on you could decide whether to continue with Spanish or study a different language. Many people made the switch, but many others, myself included, decided that, because two years had already been spent learning to conjugate ser and estar, it was better just to stick with it.

All my instructors were lovely and passionate people, but their commitment could not overcome the utter blasé attitude of prep-schoolers being told to do something that they do not want to do. There was a cultural ambivalence for language learning: Spanish was the class you went to between other, more exciting, more important classes — classes that would actually help you later in life, like Calculus or AP Chem.

That sentiment seems silly now, given that I come from New Mexico, which occupies an odd place in the U.S. and should, by all means, be a state of polyglots. Many people who lived there did not become “American” until the borders shifted to include them. This includes Indigenous Peoples and their descendants with Spanish settlers, the “Hispanos,” such as my grandmother. She grew up in a small town in central New Mexico called Quemado, and her first language was Spanish.

After marrying a man from Indiana, moving briefly to the Midwest, and returning to New Mexico, she raised four daughters with my grandfather. None of them were taught Spanish. This was a common occurrence in my mother's generation. A relative gave me the winking explanation that it was so their mothers could talk to each other about the kids without the kids overhearing. Whatever the reason, it meant that my mother didn't learn Spanish, and neither did I. This is troubling. When you lose a language, you lose culture. You also lose opportunities to grow.

For example, take my father’s side of the family, the Romanian side: My grandparents lived when Romania was still under the influence of Soviet Russia — my grandfather spoke Romanian, Russian, French, and German. Today, my father fluently speaks Romanian, French, and English, with some knowledge of Russian and Italian.

Europe, for one, has a culture of connectedness through language, and these languages bring opportunity with them. The opportunity is striking in my father's case — he studied in France, and there met my mother, eventually moving to and settling in New Mexico. If he hadn't studied French, his life would be entirely different. If he hadn’t learned English, I would not exist.

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I’ve come to the conclusion that if I cultivate languages, they will matter so much more to me than all the articles I’ll forget and all the problem sets I barely understand. They, more than anything, could shape my life and the person I'll become, because interactions in other countries and in other languages are viscerally transformative in ways that few other experiences can be.

I’ve learned this first hand. The summer before my junior year of high school, I traveled to El Salvador for two weeks as a chess teacher. I was placed with a host family in the rural Bajo Lempa region. There are few afternoons that have made a greater impression on me than the one I spent sitting on the covered porch, playing a game of chess, and talking with one of my students and his aunt, as the rain poured down onto the tin roof and into the jungle, and the wind blew, and the world was lost in the storm. Everything was different in the morning, but it was still there.

Moments like these can shatter your perception of what life looks like. There is something beautiful in coming from the desert to find a place where people live amid water, where families stay close and stay together, where everything you need is in town and within walking distance  — and in knowing that this place, beautiful and totally unlike my own, is connected by the same thread of language, the language spoken by my grandmother. That I was able to have this experience only because I spoke the same language that she did. Things, in the end, clicked into place.

Now that I’m at Princeton, it’s easy to forget that the east coast of the United States isn't the entire world, and that, though Princeton's bubble can feel like a world unto itself, there is more out there. For Princeton students, there are unparalleled opportunities to access the “everything else.” Language classes for undergrads are emphasized and, in a normal year at least, funded international fellowships and internships are available and encouraged. The world is a massive, diverse, exciting place, and I don't want to be trapped in a corner. I want to see as much of it as possible, take every opportunity I'm afforded, and make the most of the time that I have. The best way to do this is learning a language, learning it well, and learning it now.

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Daniel Viorica is a Contributing Writing for The Prospect and Satire at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at viorica@princeton.edu

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