Undergraduate Student Blog, Speaking of Princeton

Undergraduate Student Blog

Author: Aidan Gray ’18

Bethesda, Maryland • Classics View Profile

Not Your High School SAT Class: Learning Foreign Languages at Princeton

My personal favorite building at Princeton is East Pyne. Two concentric gothic squares form a courtyard with one of the coolest views on campus, in my opinion, at least, of ornate brownstone rising in two dramatic arches. East Pyne is essentially a castle dedicated to the humanities, home to the Classics and Comparative Literature Departments, the Humanities Resource Center, the Chancellor Green library, and a lot of the language departments, like French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Spanish and the Slavic languages.

Coming to Princeton I didn’t really expect to take any languages. The idea didn’t interest me very much. Of course I did four years of French in high school, after which point I was comfortable struggling through a basic conversation provided that the other person wasn’t actually fluent in French either.

One of the requirements here for AB (Bachelor of Arts) students (non-engineers) is to know a foreign language by the time you graduate. It’s unclear to me whether I could have placed out of this requirement based on just what I took in school, although I will point out here that very many people do, but either way I’m extremely glad I didn’t. The prospect of brushing up on my French was so unappealing that I signed up for Latin on a whim, not realizing, I suppose, that Latin is quite a bit like French, only much harder.

So I was surprised that I actually loved my Latin classes, and that I was getting more out of them than my math classes—I was, at that point, a prospective math major.

Now, senior year, as a Classics Major, I’ve not only taken a lot more Latin than I ever expected to, I’ve added Ancient Greek and Old English, neither of which are particularly easy. I’ve studied Mycenaean Greek, Hittite and Middle Egyptian independently for my JPs (Junior Papers) and Thesis, and I find myself wondering from time to time how many languages it is possible for me to teach myself next year after I’ve graduated.

This from someone who hoped in high school never have to take a foreign language again! What happened? I would say the way Princeton teaches foreign languages is different from the way high school classes tend to.

It’s not about memorizing a list of vocab words here. It’s not about copying frankly boring template sentences. The language departments here place a much higher value on exploring the culture surrounding the language—books, tv shows, movies (obviously haven’t found too many of those for Ancient Greek). You get fluent in the language relatively fast (2-3 semesters) but you are proficient enough to do readings and hold conversations after just 1 or 2 semesters.

The humanities at Princeton are all about looking outward, and trying to gain some kind of deeper understanding about the world, which can’t be done if you restrict yourself by time or place or culture. The language departments in particular have a way of capitalizing on your interests in the rest of the world to make the Princeton educational experience feel international and inter-temporal, if that word exists.

In summary, don’t be afraid of the language requirement! It’s so useful in helping you engage with other cultures, and I really couldn’t imagine my undergraduate experience without that.