The first time I realized I could eavesdrop on conversations in another language was a pretty exciting point in my life. Growing up, I’d always felt a little shortchanged. Being British, my parents are technically international, but they had managed to pick a country of heritage that offered neither interesting foods nor a secret code in which to communicate. I wanted to speak another language so badly that in fifth grade, I invented my own. The next year, I was able to do one better. I learned Spanish the way most boring, suburban white girls learn Spanish. After five painful years spent conjugating the verb “bailar” and refusing my homework answers to less-than-enthusiastic classmates, I was pleasantly shocked to realize I could understand the snippets of conversation I overheard on the metro. It’s a pretty feeble claim to fame I know, but I think everyone should be able to do that.
Maybe I should be little more clear. I’m not necessarily advocating we all turn into metro-eavesdroppers. Rather, I firmly believe that – at some point in life – all of us should learn a language that is not our own. How each of you chooses to do that is up to you. Williams offers eight major languages and a handful of others besides. If you study away, make an effort to learn the language of your host country. You could even hunt down and befriend one of the many, many people in this world whose first language is not English. There are so many opportunities to learn another language that it just seems a shame not to.
This is far from the biggest reason to learn a language, though. On a fundamental level, success at anything you do depends on your ability to communicate, to make other people hear and understand the important things you have to say. Starting from scratch forces you to do away with the options you’ve been blessed with for most of your life. You must have maximum impact with the limited eloquence available to you, and as contrary as it may seem, this is an opportunity for beautifully expressed thoughts. When you want people to hear what you have to say, this is a blessing, not a curse.
Similarly, knowing another language provides so many opportunities to hear the things others have to say. It’s not so much technical limitations that I’m talking about. Information is mostly free and travels pretty well across language lines. Culture, though, is hard to preserve. Romanticized as it may sound, the Spanish-speaking authors I’ve been exposed to this year have very different thought patterns than the Western authors I grew up on. And somehow, hearing about Latin American history from the native speakers in my class gives whole new perspectives to the things I learned from the pages of a textbook. It seems that when you change the structure of language, you may also change the way of thinking that precedes it. When you allow someone to speak to you with their original voice, you listen to something more than just the words they are saying.
I will admit, the risks you’ll take and the vulnerabilities you’ll face in learning a language are terrifying. We’re the sorts of people who like to win. To know things. To show that we know things. Starting from scratch is bound to be difficult. It’s pretty humiliating when you – you who can explain vector calculus or expound on Kant in your native language – are struggling to ask where the bathroom is located. It can also seem mind-numbingly dull. If the first few months of learning a language seem infantile, it’s because, well, they are. With many languages, you’re essentially starting from zero and building in the way a new child would. Are these obstacles necessarily bad things? Well, yeah. I think they can be. They aren’t, however, bad enough to act as excuses. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m not the world’s best Spanish student. I struggle with basic vocabulary sometimes, and I get flustered when I have to speak. It’s crippling, embarrassing and rather frustrating when I can’t express what I think, especially now that I have real thoughts about the things I’m reading. But at least I can read these new authors and have these new thoughts, which is something that would not have been possible if I’d given up just because I found the preterite tense difficult.
I guess that’s why I find it strange when we talk about having taken a language in high school as if it were just another credit on the way to something bigger and better. Language is your voice. It’s how you yell so others can not only hear you but also understand you. You can’t dismiss something that important as just another boring subject. Speaking and listening. That’s what it boils down to. It doesn’t have to be now or even soon, but I hope that at some point in your life you find the time and courage to communicate like you never have before.
Anna Ryba ’16 is from Bethesda, Md. She lives in Gladden.