Memento Mori, à la Elementary French

(Craig Campbell)– “Latina Est In Villa!”

This was the first non-English phrase I formally learned freshman year, sitting in my first day of high school Latin I. The translation: ‘Latin is in da house!’ (literally: “Latin is in the farmhouse.”) Unfortunately, after three years of the language, the ability to exclaim “Latina est in villa” is about the extent of my Latin skills.

Why did I choose Latin over my high school’s well-established Spanish, French, Italian, and German departments? It was not because I was interested in Roman civilization, nor because I wanted to gain an edge in understanding SAT vocabulary; I took Latin because I wanted to be different and special. The teacher, a brilliant polyglot and the only Latin teacher at the school, spent his free time dressing as a Roman soldier for live reenactments. However, he was organizationally inept, and as the my public high school fought to maintain the prep-school sheen of its dazzling “Latin Department,” sections of Latin I were combined with Latin III, Latin II with Latin IV. The result of these pairings was that I ended up learning intro level material for three years. I tried to get out – I took Chinese instead for a year. However, following the advice of a misinformed counselor who was sure that if I dropped the language I wouldn’t be accepted to a good college, I remained a “Latin scholar,” as we were called.

My first year at Amherst, I decided that I would not “waste” any number of my finite amount of courses here on a foreign language. I foolishly believed that I could pick up a language through an online class if necessary. And anyways, it seemed like everyone here was bilingual or trilingual already—as there was no way to measure up, I would focus my studies elsewhere. Over the course of the year, at the behest of several professors, I began to reconsider. Finally, on the eve of the last day of add/drop this semester, I panicked, worried that I would end up in a third-rate study abroad program, and sent a frenzied, late-night email to my adviser asking her advice.

And that was how I enrolled, after missing the first four days of class, in Elementary French.

I nearly drowned the first week. I quickly realized that although I took four years of foreign language in high school, Latin didn’t actually count for anything. It was a brutal, uphill struggle to catch up. On only the 6th day of classes, I pulled my first all-nighter of the semester. In class, I was entirely caught off guard by the necessity of participation. I stumbled over words, I didn’t understand the questions I was asked – one particularly embarrassing incident was when I didn’t know that my TA was asking me for my name.

“Apprendre” in French translates “to learn.” However, in Amherst (and most other good college) language courses, class is conducted (almost) entirely in the target language and strict translation is discouraged. Instead, the goal is to understand the “gist” of what is being expressed. So with a lack of a direct English counterpart, for the first two weeks of class I was under the impression that “apprendre” meant “to understand.” When I was asked the very basic question of whether or not I was learning French, my answer was always “no,” as I certainly did not understand French; nor did I understand the ensuing giggles from other students. The first week in the class ended in a nearly tearful phone call home to my mom, during which I complained that for the first time in my scholastic career, I felt completely academically inadequate. She assured me that a less-than-stellar grade in the course was fine as long as I put forth an effort, that it would get easier, and finally that I would learn more in one semester of French at Amherst than in three years at high school. (And, on all accounts, she was right.)

Over spring break last year I visited my sister in Honduras, who at the time was teaching 5th grade. The youngsters were required to learn all their subjects (except for Spanish) in English. I spoke to them, and though there were obvious stumbling blocks, we understood each other. They didn’t have a fancy elite college education – they were children in a small village in the rural mountainside of a destitute country. And none of them were panicking about not being smart enough, the cardinal sin of an Amherst student. Considering how emotionally drained I felt during my first week of French, I can hardly imagine an immigrant child’s anxiety at a new school, sitting through week after grueling week of class, surrounded by strange people making unfamiliar noises. I could hardly make it through my one hour per day! Among the academic skills I have, I’ve realized, effortless language acquisition is not one.

In high school, we were all encouraged to be super-achievers, constantly being told that we are great, encouraged to be the very best at anything and everything we set our minds to. As difficult as the first week was, now knowing that the ability to learn foreign languages is not a particular skill of mine served as a sort of memento mori (hey, more Latin!) – I am not infallible, and I have weaknesses. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still learn. As a matter of fact, I’ve started to enjoy my French class quite a bit. Once I finally stopped taking myself so seriously, I was able to catch up without much of a problem, and although my Midwestern accent results in inadequate pronunciation skills, I’ve managed to amble my way through class with relative success.