Language classes are humbling. Unless you faked your placement test, you are exercising a skill you do not possess for an hour every day. Ninety percent of the thoughts you have during class are impossible to convey. This was my great surprise when I came to GER 101 as a sophomore. I remembered excelling at French, but I had begun it in Kindergarten, so I didn’t remember a time when I could do nothing with the language. In German I was in a stupor. How do I ask about sentence structure if I can’t form a sentence? How do I explain why I was amused by what the teacher just said? How do I do anything but sit here, mouth open.
And yet, the most humbling part about them is that the thoughts that you can actually express are so dumb. You have assignments like taking pictures of ethnic restaurants. You make power points. You tell strangers facts about your family. You ask about people’s hobbies from a list of twelve. Your textbook follows some gang of unattractive ethnically diverse teens that do boring things smilingly. Your teacher gives a news article about a contemporary Italian circus. It can be depressing to put away work you’re doing for a famous and expensive professor to pull out a colorful textbook and learn about Hans’s surprise birthday party.
This can make taking a dead language attractive. The cultural section of the book isn’t so dreadful because we don’t know what Greeks did for fun on weekends and nobody’s taking Latin to learn about beaches in Italy. And there’s no “At the Mall” chapter for a Sanskritist. If you’re worried about feeling like a child, translating simpler lines of Homer is a real blessing.
But I said they were humbling, not humiliating. Everyone is going through this together and, even in a sterile room in McCormick, it’s possible to feel the thrill of successful communication that comes from struggling through a foreign tongue. I came at last to feel this. I came to enjoy constructing sentences about my weekend to a partner. I came to enjoy inverting verb order thoughtlessly. So, when I dropped German after a semester, it wasn’t because I was over-humbled, it was because the other thing language classes are is daily work. Damn.