Foreign languages


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In my freshman year at a predominantly male tech college, our glee club trekked to a liberal arts women's college for a joint concert. As the two choirs mingled, our high school experiences and summer travels still fresh in our minds, I overheard a young woman ask one of my classmates, "What languages do you know?"

Unabashedly, he answered, "Oh — C, C++, Java…"

He was being utterly sincere and unironic: even if he didn't suss that his ladyfriend was more interested in tongues than code, his enthusiasm for computer programming was something he was eager to share.

Since starting college and discovering the world doesn't run on BASIC, I've not shared my classmate's confidence. I approach programming with an understanding of the fundamentals but with uncertainty that what I input will result in the desired output. I've not learned many language since my first seven:

Last week introduced me to a situation I'd never before been in: speaking French to a native French speaker. I've never learned any of the Romance languages, leaving me sure of only my ability to mangle them. For several minutes before launching Skype, I rehearsed: "Bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais?" I realized a person would be more forgiving than a computer, but I was still uncertain of the output: what if the answer was "Non"? Would I, like a nervous 9-year-old, hang up the phone?

Paris 2013 - Eiffel Tower
I found the whole prospect intimidating.

Hesitating for several moments, I finally dialed. The other end picked up and greeted me in French — words that came so swiftly and surely that I found them incomprehensible and intimidating. I nonetheless steeled myself and in my best American accent responded: "Bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais?"

There was a moment's silence, during which I imagined a computer terminal processing my command before deciding whether to accept it or return with a syntax error. Then, much to my relief, I heard the sound of a successful reboot into a more familiar environment: "Yes, sir. How may I help you?"

Whether it's FORTH or French, I doubt I'll ever be as fluent with a foreign language as my college classmate was, or that I'll be able to speak to someone in or about other languages with the confidence he did. But perhaps, as with my attempt to major in computer science, my grasp of the fundamentals will be enough to get me by.