So, You Don’t Want to Learn a Foreign Language?

For some students, seeing four required foreign language courses in the core curriculum is no big deal; it is even a source of excitement. For other students, the foreign language requirement is a source of dread and frustration. One might think, “Why should I learn a foreign language when my prospective job industry mainly works in my native language?” This is an understandable reaction because, let’s face it, learning a foreign language is difficult, but I encourage you to look past that difficulty to see all the benefits it can provide.

In my study of Italian and Latin, I have found that my English has improved. I have been studying Italian for ten years and Latin for four years. Though I began learning Latin after Italian and English, it proved helpful in the way I composed English sentences. For the English language, word positioning is everything. The rearranging of elements in an English sentence will change the meaning of the phrase.

In Classical Latin, words don’t have to come in any particular order. Since all of the information gleaned from English word placement is contained in Latin word forms, strict syntax rules are unnecessary. To an English speaker, the sentence would sound awkward but not incomprehensible when translated literally. I’ll add an example to demonstrate how it works.

Latin: puer puellam amat

English (literal): The boy the girl he loves

English (idiomatic): The boy loves the girl

As you may have noticed, English word order is not nearly as free as Latin word order. The sentence is allowed to be written like that in Latin because the words have cases, which control the role they play in the sentence. For example, the direct object form of one noun (puellam) looks distinct from the indirect object form of the same noun (puellae)

It took me a while to get a hold of all those noun forms. It was frustrating at times that puella and puellā represented two different cases, playing two different roles in the sentence. It was even more infuriating that puellae and puellae looked like the same word but represent two different cases, one being genitive and the other being dative. All these confusing forms forced me to learn the true function of a direct object and an indirect object.

Once I got a handle on the functions of direct and indirect objects, my Italian improved in places I had previously been very confused. In Italian, indirect and direct object pronouns confounded me almost as much as the subjunctive mood. I could never quite get indirect object pronouns right on exams because I couldn’t figure out what made them different from direct object pronouns; this confusion made combination pronouns an absolutely miserable subject. Once I learned Latin, I could recognize that “Maria me l’ha data [la sciarpa]” means “Maria gave it to me [the scarf].”

Both Italian and Latin helped me with my English writing in different ways. Latin got me out of the habit of ending sentences with prepositions. Because of Latin, I began thinking as if English words demonstrated case differences. It suddenly sounded unnatural to write, “She was unaware who she was speaking to,” because that is not how the dative case works. The preposition ‘to’ is built into the dative case. In Latin, that would be, “cui loquebatur nesciebat.” In English, that would say something closer to, “She was unaware to whom she was speaking.”

Italian further helped me develop my English speaking and writing capabilities. Through my Italian classes, I learned the invaluable skill of communication, even when you don’t have exactly the right word for the job. Because I was not always fluent, there were times when I was conversing that I absolutely did not have a wide enough vocabulary to continue the conversation in the most precise manner. Since I wasn’t allowed to use English in the classroom, I had to discover a roundabout way to explain the vocabulary word I was missing. 

This helped my composition in English because I learned that there are many ways to arrive at the same point. In academic writing, it is easy to get caught up in jargon, but there are many possible explanations for the same thing. If a certain phrase referring to one topic is becoming stale, there are always ways to switch it up and make it more interesting.

Though learning a foreign language can be extremely challenging, it can provide many benefits to the native language. Learning other languages can also come with interesting quirks like only being able to remember a word in Italian while you’re speaking English or accidentally inserting Latin words into your Italian sentence. So, get excited about your foreign language courses! They will truly enrich your learning experience over the course of your four years, and if you don’t have a language requirement, try out some language classes for fun!