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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

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A language adventure: the lessons to learn during a semester in Chile

This semester, I will be studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. In the past week, I have been questioning if I am some sort of masochist, choosing to spend five months in Latin America, attending university, staying with a host family and navigating a big city fully immersed in Spanish. I have been wondering why I did not just go to Europe where I could always speak in English, or choose an international study abroad program with other English-speaking students. 

These dramatic, woe-is-me lamentations have sparked genuine questions. What is the importance of language? What is the purpose of attempting to learn another language in an increasingly globalized world, where many people know English? What role does language even play in a time when learning Python, C++ or JavaScript is more important than learning German or Hindi? Is language anything more than tokens and probabilities?

I do not have the answers to these questions, but thinking about language has prompted me to reflect on my relationship with it, particularly during my time at Notre Dame. 

At the beginning of their first year, Notre Dame students are required to take two writing intensive courses — a university seminar and Writing and Rhetoric (WR) — unless they are lucky enough to have earned Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) credit to bypass WR for another writing intensive course. The core curriculum’s six courses in the liberal arts are meant to foster students’ relationship with and appreciation and understanding of language. On top of that, the colleges can have additional language requirements, including the College of Arts and Letters’ one to four semesters of foreign language and Architecture’s six credits of Italian.

That’s all to say that Notre Dame prides itself on fostering language skills within its students. The ability to digest texts, persuasively argue, effectively write and communicate with others — in English or otherwise — is an essential component of a Notre Dame education. 

I have always been fascinated by language. As a child, instead of playing with Barbie dolls or Legos, I would pretend to write. Knowing how to write letters but not spell words, I would group together letters in an imaginary syntax, attempting to translate the stories in my head onto paper. As I learned to read, I gulped down books like they were oxygen, and I was drowning. In school, my teachers admonished me for how much I spoke, with one likening me to a “Chatty Cathy” in my report card.  

As I grew up, I was praised for my use of language. I thrived in speech-writing, debate, poetry and story competitions. I aced English exams. I published literary magazines with friends that shared my love of writing. I gave the commencement address at my high school graduation. I felt comfortable with my identity as a writer and my relationship with language. 

However, at Notre Dame, my relationship to language — and my confidence in that relationship — has changed. Once a star writer, my writing often feels clunky and vapid among classmates with formal and elegant prose. I have come to dread writing essays, as they are the predominant way that my grades are evaluated. I sit at my computer for hours on end, agonizing over the logical flow of my ideas, sentence structure, word choice and fretting that I have incorrectly applied grammar rules.

In addition to writing, enrolling in seminar-style classes and teaching yoga classes have put my speaking skills to the test. I have gotten better at public speaking and putting coherent thoughts together, but I regularly find myself stuttering and struggling to present myself as the intelligent, collected person I am in my head.

Despite my insecurities and rather pessimistic perception of my language skills, I have no doubt that Notre Dame has fostered growth in my language abilities. My liberal arts education has furthered my love of reading and pushed me to be a better writer and communicator. 

During my time in Santiago, I will foster a different relationship with a new language. I will approach Spanish with the child-like perspective I once approached English. In the process of struggle, failure and eventual success with Spanish, I hope to gain new understanding and insight into the common threads weaved throughout all languages.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.