The first time it occurred to me that I could have made better use of my foreign language T-req, I was in the back of a station wagon in Dakar, Senegal, trying to figure out how to say no to a traveling porn salesman.
I know, it happens to the best of us.
In my case, it all started when I decided I was going to take a quick weekend vacation to the other side of the country, a hallmark of every study abroad semester. Except in my case, instead of a sleek high-speed train to zip me 200 miles south, the public transit option of choice was a fleet of rusting ‘70s-era station wagons, most of which had as many as two working doors.
Hundreds of these cars, which the Senegalese call sept-places (seven spaces), cram daily into a massive dirt lot in the center of Dakar, where they set up camp under a sign bearing the name of their destination and idle patiently until all sept of their places have been claimed.
That morning, two friends and I had wiggled our way through the chaos and found a station wagon heading for the town we wanted to visit. But by the time we sat down in our seats, the word was out: There were three white women in the station.
A throng of salesmen descended, pressing their wares against our windows. In the frenzy, I could make out fake Gucci sunglasses and apple-scented dish soap, pineapple cookies and phone cards and copies of the Koran. And then, suddenly, a hand shot in through the open window, waving a CD jewel case that bore an image of three glistening naked women and a glass dildo in a position that can only be described as compromising.
There are situations in which learning a foreign language can seem like a tremendous waste of time. I’m thinking of those warm Friday mornings in September when you’re sitting in the back of a windowless room in the Languages Building, counting the seconds until your intro Spanish/Hindi/whatever class ends, and you can return to a world where it’s possible to actually describe your weekend with some accuracy (cómo se dice “tailgate” en español?). And then there are moments like this, when the only thing you want in the world is to be able to say in smooth, unbroken French, “Thank you for your offer, but I would appreciate it if you could move that unseemly tangle of limbs out of my line of vision.”
Unfortunately, in the sequence of French classes I took at Duke, we never got that far. Or maybe we did, but during my freshman and sophomore years, I considered language classes akin to a puddle of vomit on the steps of a C-1—you just had to hold your nose and get around it. If you could have seen me in those beginning courses, it probably would have occurred to you that I’d taken a heavy tranquilizer before going to class each morning, perhaps one designed to calm a stampeding elephant. It’s hard otherwise to account for my perplexed, heavy-lidded silence and occasional mangled French utterances: “I enjoy eat some sandwiches, but I prefer watch film.”
But when, the following Fall semester, I found myself for the first time in my life in a place where the vast majority of people I encountered didn’t speak English, I found myself wishing for something altogether different: that Duke had forced me to take more foreign language classes.
In the scheme of language learning, three semesters is a ridiculously short span of time, one that stops far short of proficiency and makes the countless hours you’ve sunk into it by that point feel unsatisfying and pointless. It’s the kind of curricular requirement that tries to tiptoe between two irreconcilable sides—those who feel that it’s important for every student to know a foreign language and those who think bilingualism should be a free choice.
Well let me clue you into something—for most of the world, speaking multiple languages is not a privilege you earn by becoming a student at an elite university that forces you to take a few Russian classes to graduate. It’s a reality of life lived among a crowded array of ethnic, social and linguistic groups. It’s a prerequisite for walking in the world.
So at the risk of sounding like a crazy old senior, I encourage you to do something bizarre—take more foreign language classes than you have to, or at least take the required ones seriously. Let them be entry points into cultures and experiences you could never otherwise be a part of.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
And make sure you ask your professor for the translation of “bootleg hardcore porn.” Trust me. You’re going to need that one.
Ryan Brown is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Tuesday.