Two days into winter break, struck by a deep and profound sense of restlessness and suffering from some spectacular overconfidence, I decided to try my hand at Italian.
The endeavor was intended to be a daily exercise where I sit down and work through the BBC website’s Italian lessons, but I can still only ask for un bicchiere di vino at a trattoria after Googling it, so you can draw your own conclusions about how that went.
I gave up in the same way that many of us do when faced with something unimaginably difficult. Learning a new language well enough to successfully communicate is usually just a far-off dream. How often are we in awe of someone’s credentials when we hear that they are fluent in more than one language? We are doubly impressed because it seems like a skill without any immediately obvious applications other than being an interesting tidbit to share at a party.
Maybe we are also amazed because we stopped learning a language after fulfilling the foreign language Gen Ed. We don’t bother looking inside the textbook of a 300-level course. We write on our résumés that we are fluent in languages we don’t bother studying. We sigh with resignation and admit that it’s depressing that the majority of us can only speak English, despite sitting in the middle of an institution that aims to change that, whether through a professor and classroom atmosphere or a cultural club’s language table.
We all know about the studies that suggest growing up bilingual is beneficial for children, not just on a communications level but also cognitively. Logically, we also know that learning a second language is just as useful even when it’s happening at a college level.
The increasingly globalized world we live in presents us with boundless opportunities that were barred to our predecessors. The number of potential employers increases manifold when the search is extended beyond U.S. borders and into rapidly growing economies like those of the BRIC states.
However, the opportunities come with requirements. While some locales will let you get away with just speaking English, working abroad will eventually necessitate a rudimentary grasp of the native language, whether for business purposes or simply to order a glass of wine in a neighborhood restaurant.
It’s not just a matter of ordering a kebab without a full game of charades or taking out the translator/middleman and making it easier to settle a business deal. It’s also a matter of interpersonal connections and diplomacy. Contracts tie together “faceless” corporations, but contract negotiations are done by people. Sometimes it means more to reach across a table and say, “konnichi wa!” instead of letting a translator do it.
Subway stations around the world feature posters advocating English fluency. They invariably feature smiling students whose lives have been improved by this new-found and hard-won skill. One of the best parts of studying a foreign language, though, is how it changes perceptions of the English language.
A few weeks of studying German’s fastidious grammar will make you think twice about English grammar and its multitudinous variations (though maybe not some German stereotypes). Studying Latin or Greek can help you actually understand English grammar and the etymological roots of much of our day-to-day vocabulary, as well as put you in a position to say pretentiously, “Oxymorons? What is that? You mean oxymora. It’s Greek.” And studying Chinese can make you wonder why English grammar is so goddamn complicated.
Wittgenstein once argued that language dictated what can be thought. I’m not nearly qualified enough to go into a psychoanalytic or linguistic study, but here’s what I’m thinking: Taking upper level language classes isn’t a Harpur requirement, but that doesn’t mean we have to deprive ourselves of the accomplishment of reaching the end of a language track. After all, you could one day find yourself sitting in a café in Florence, too busy ordering a glass of wine with your impeccable Italian to make eye contact with Batman.