February 4, 2013

Foreign language affairs

The study of tongues other than English should play a larger role in UChicago’s academic culture.

I was deceived. I’d been told that coming to college was all about learning—learning about the universe, about society, about art; about life in all of its scintillating detail. But it was a lie by omission: Sure, I’ve learned a thing or two in my time here, but, honestly, not nearly enough to justify the kind of tuition being extracted from me. No, college isn’t—or, at least, shouldn’t be—about learning. I would gladly trade any hunk of freshly minted UChicago knowledge for half its weight in unknowledge.

What is unknowledge? It’s that moment when you glance up from whatever text or problem set that’s been occupying your attention and realize with a start that everything around you has been rendered utterly and irrevocably incomprehensible. You frantically grasp for dry land but just stumble over yourself, awash in tantalizing unknown. It’s the most disturbingly fantastic feeling I’ve ever experienced—and it’s why I’m still here slogging away for a college degree.

Let that be my disclaimer then. I’m about to argue for something that by most accounts will sound either exceptionally dull or boorishly preprofessional: I think the University needs to work harder to improve the position of foreign languages and foreign language acquisition on campus. The “on campus” bit is crucial. The growth in, for instance, our study abroad offerings within the last decade is nothing short of commendable. But in the same time span remarkably little has been done to help foster communities of foreign language speakers on campus.

As your harrowing encounter with the subjunctive mood back in high school can attest, there’s no question that learning a foreign language involves, well, learning. If you want to speak German, at some point you’re going to have to get the word Wald into your head. It’s pronounced “vald.” It means “forest.” It’s a masculine noun. Its plural form is Wälder. Our Core language requirement here will get you about that far and then leave you hanging. If this is your conception of foreign language acquisition—the blind memorization of a series of hollow facts—then you have every right to find my contention gross and unacceptable. I agree that we probably all have better things to cram into our heads than irregular French verbs or arbitrary Chinese characters. But there’s more to language acquisition than mere learning.

If you really want to speak German, at some point you’re going to have to discard—unlearn—your cherished notion of “forest.” A Wald isn’t really a forest; Wälder look different from forests, they are managed differently, people use them for different purposes; Wälder play a radically different role within the national mythology of German-speaking countries than forests do for us. And don’t think there’s anything special about Wälder; you’re not going to be able to speak any foreign language well without unlearning a sizable chunk of your Weltbild.

It is exactly this fundamental challenging of preconceived ideas and thought patterns that makes a college degree at any university and in any field of study worthwhile. At the University of Chicago, though, the task before us is even more exigent: We live and die to obliterate paradigms and craft new ones in their place. And I can think of no better training ground for this kind of foundational questioning of reality than the study of foreign languages.

Once we move beyond the bad rap foreign language learning has gotten, there are no major hindrances to taking advantage of the full array of benefits that a greater presence of foreign language learning on campus could offer. We could start small by stocking more foreign magazines and newspapers in the Harper reading room in place of the English-language ones that no one reads anyway. Language-themed dorms have proven hugely successful at other colleges and wouldn’t be difficult to implement.

I’m a realist—I know that a stricter language requirement in the Core will likely not pass muster, but what about incorporating foreign language into our existing Core classes? The third quarter of Self, for instance, is devoted almost entirely to Freud. I think there would be a good deal of interest for a section in which students do some work on the texts in the original language. If this seems outlandish, recall that we already offer Civ classes in French and Spanish through the Paris and Barcelona programs—programs which are an ocean away, but whose guiding principles are still ours to bring home.

Tyler Lutz is a fourth-year in the College majoring in physics and English.