German and Russian and Arabic — Oh My!

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 am | By Patrick Busch '08

 

Issue: 

 Winter 2007

Author: 

 Patrick Busch '08

I got my laptop a few weeks before I started college, and it’s been more or less my constant companion ever since. What makes it cooler than other laptops is it’s adorned with 79 stickers. To clarify, my laptop is not covered with stickers. Rather, the stickers, like well-chosen body piercings, beautify and enhance function, while only incidentally impinging upon the host body. One of my laptop’s stickers, the Apple decal covering the HP logo on the outside casing, is there purely as a joke (as well as a record of when I got my iPod). The other 78 make my computer keyboard tri-alphabetical by arranging red Cyrillic letters and neon green Arabic letters around the white Roman letters.

My excuse for the stickers is I have occasion to type in all three alphabets. I am a language nerd, currently studying three foreign languages: German, Russian, and Arabic. I took German all the way through high school, and now one of my majors is in German studies. However, I started Russian my first semester at Grinnell, and Arabic this semester.

Studying Russian at Grinnell was both challenging and kind of fun. College language courses are paced much faster than high school classes, and it was something new to not only have class five days a week, but to also have 8–10 pages of homework for each class session. Although our class was a little larger (16 students, I think) than I had hoped it would be, the professor managed to get us all to interact and use Russian as much as possible. In that class, there was a lot of writing, conversing, memorizing, and repetition — the foundation of language learning.

After having taken up (and maintained) two foreign languages, I thought studying Arabic would be easy. This turned out to be a miscalculation without serious consequences. Arabic is genuinely a very difficult language to learn, in some ways more so than Russian and German. The alphabet is more complicated to learn than Cyrillic, and reading from right to left is still a slow, turbid process. Also, in part because the Arabic alphabet is so new to me, it’s much more difficult to memorize vocabulary. Plus, there’s the attendant despair of starting any foreign language, which persists until you know enough to surprise yourself by how much you can say and understand.

But Grinnell does not (yet) have an Arabic department, and so does not have the same sort of standardized course of study it would for another foreign language. Because of cool people like me who want to study different foreign languages, the College operates a program called the Alternate Language Study Option (ALSO). With this program, we meet three to four times a week with a native speaker (who, for my class, is another student). We follow a textbook and take examinations at the end of the semester, administered by an instructor from a university that does have an Arabic department (or a Swahili department, or a Hebrew department, or whatever language the ALSO student has chosen).

This program requires much more self-motivation than a course taught by a professor. So instead of having 8–10 pages of homework every night to make sure I’ve learned my verb conjugations, I, myself, have to make sure I’ve learned them.

Is the ALSO program as good as having a full Arabic department? No. But it does mean Grinnell can offer foreign language instruction in more languages, and for that I am grateful. I’m not sure what I’ll do with Arabic after Grinnell, and it’s quite possible that I won’t ever use it again.

What I will have, though, is the chance to have learned it, and to see how I can use it in the future — the future that is otherwise known (with some trepidation) as “life after Grinnell.”

Patrick Busch '08 is a German and Mathematics major from St. Paul, Minnesota.