“I know what class I’m dropping!” That is the ubiquitous phrase that greeted me at the end of my junior year. Since students must take a class in each major subject for at least three years, senior year presents the first opportunity that many of us have to abandon a subject entirely.
I’m not criticizing the practice writ large. Students dedicate the extra time to a discipline in which they have cultivated their interest throughout high school, and the classes that already-slumping seniors love best are those that they have given up another to take. Unfortunately, some students seem to almost automatically drop one subject in particular: language.
When the classes are clothed in quotidian activities like homework to do and assessments to prepare for, language can seem like any other subject. Only it lacks the obvious application of math and science, the variety of different history classes, and the requirement for four years of English. But defamiliarize yourself with your language class, and you will find it extraordinary—a bridge across time and space, to other philosophies and cultures.
It was my Advanced Placement French teacher who introduced me to this idea. I was struggling through a textbook exercise. We had to translate a paragraph in French about a plane that flew entirely on solar power, and Dr. Duggan used a phrase off-hand that I thought about for a while. She said something like: “‘un avion’ is not just a funny-sounding word for ‘airplane’. It’s a brand new word.”
A lightbulb had gone off in my head, and it totally shifted my approach to the paragraph and language in general. Just like in English, word choice has a certain invisible freight. Each vocabulary word we learn has its own history, uses, and connotations.
Because English surrounds us, we can’t distance ourselves enough from it to appreciate this complexity in our own language. Imagine something as simple as phonemes: the way we make the sounds of various words. What information is carried by a British accent? Or by a Mexican one? Accents can help us place the speaker’s origin, but we also use it for class stratification, and phonetics signal educational achievement. Next time you talk to your friends, try something as simple as heavily enunciating the “t” in the middle of your words. In informal English that sound tends to disappear into a kind of swallow (a glottal stop) or a “d” sound, so when you speak this way you’ll be shocked at how formal you sound even to yourself.
Deprived of this context, it’s no wonder other languages seem boring or one-dimensional to us! For example, most students never consider that their classroom-taught accent and word choice will place them as stiffly formal or upper-class, the way we would consider someone who made a point of never using a preposition to end a sentence.
There is a world of words out there that may broadly signify the same object or idea, but do not fundamentally share the same meaning. French, for example, has a formal second person “vous” which is translated as “you” but casts the entire sentence in a respectful tone. Now imagine using “vous” sarcastically to talk to someone you don’t much respect at all. Chinese can express situations timelessly, whereas it is impossible to construct an English sentence without an indication of when an event is occurring.
Then what is the benefit of learning a language? Ask the next bilingual person you meet how many ideas they can only express in one particular language, or how many words that can only be “kind-of” translated. In Spanish, there is the word “duende” which is usually translated as awe. This is a poor substitute for its real meaning, which is something like the inspiration one feels standing in nature, or the indescribable charm and magical nature of something beautiful and simple. That word just doesn’t exist in English.
In the context of books, that meaning disparity multiplies. Think of what you miss in an English translation of Don Quixote, for example. Now imagine the texts that have shaped our world: Plato’s Republic, the Aeneid, even the New Testament, all rendered in English. Some of the most profound thoughts can only be captured in Spanish, or German, or Hindi, or even Ancient Greek.
So when you’re sitting in your language class, think of the billions of people who see the world in a slightly different way, and can express their thoughts accordingly. Languages should liberate all of us to read more deeply, think a little differently, and express ourselves more completely.