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The importance of languages

At dinner parties, family gatherings, and impromptu meetings with old teachers, there are always the standard questions. How do I like college? What am I involved with on campus? What am I studying?

Then come the rote responses so ingrained in my mind that I don’t even have to ponder how I really am doing or how I spend my time. College is wonderful; I love it. I do this and that and whatever. I am a prospective Spanish and Portuguese languages major with planned certificates in creative Writing and Latin American studies.

The adults in my life nod along for a bit, willing to approve of my extracurricular activities and general outlook on college life. And then they do a double take as they process my third response.

“Spanish? Creative writing? Latin American studies?”

Here, it is my turn to nod and to prepare myself for the inevitable follow-up question.

“What are you going to do with that?”

“I want to be an author,” I reply. I have wanted to ever since third grade, when I learned of metaphors and similes and translated my love of books and language into a direction.

Here, the conversation generally grinds to a halt, and I inquire after their more practical vocations.

But, this time, I don’t want the discussion to end here.

I am a prospective Spanish and Portuguese languages and cultures major with planned certificates in creative writing and Latin American studies. I want to be an author. And there’s nothing wrong with this, just as there is nothing wrong with declaring oneself to be an aspiring electrical engineer or a biology major bound for medical school.

This is my defense of the language major, of the “impracticality” of devoting one’s time to an intrinsic part of what it means to be human and a major component of most cultures.

As an aspiring author, I consider it my duty to strive to understand the manner in which others think and process this world in which we live. One can explore the human psyche through psychology, anthropology, sociology, biology and a variety of other subjects. I don’t deny this. I simply contend that languages offer a window through which one can view the mores of societies around the world through subtle syntactical and vocabulary-based differences.

One such difference has been well documented in various neuroscience and psychology papers: namely, the perception of time often changes according to one’s native language. Time itself is such an abstract, yet universal, entity, so it stands to reason that interpretations of the concept may vary. In the words of a paper entitled “How Languages Construct Time,” written by Stanford researcher Lera Boroditsky, “How people conceptualize time appears to depend on how the languages they speak tend to talk about time, the linguistic context (what language is being spoken), and also on the particular metaphors used to talk about time in the moment.” To be able to harness the flexibility of thought to try to understand various representations of something so crucial to human existence is a powerful thing.

This example, one could argue, is very narrow in its scope. Yes, by learning Spanish, French and other languages, I can perceive time in a slightly different way — beyond this, however, the lens through which I view the world and understand others’ actions is bending and widening. Maybe alone, the perception of time, knowledge of idiomatic phrases or the ability to understand foreign jokes don’t seem to have the ability to influence the work one does in his or her life. I contend, however, that in conjunction with each other and with many subtle shifts in perspective, they can.

When you step outside yourself; when you begin to understand the nuances of another person’s point of view; when you immerse yourself in a new environment, you’re becoming the ideal mediator in a world in which misunderstanding reigns. Languages, of course, are not the only way to achieve this, but in my opinion they are one of the best, as they represent methods of thought and the stringing together of ideas.

This is why I’m a language major, and this is why I take issue with the assertion that this is a “useless” path to choose. A more comprehensive understanding of the world can be applied to any occupational realm, and, in my case, it will hopefully allow me to write legitimately about the diverse people who inhabit our world.

Kelly Hatfield is a freshman from Medford, Mass. She can be reached at kellych@princeton.edu.

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