The other day, when I described what I mostly did at university, one of my other teachers said “Well, what’s the bloody use of that?”. It’s a question I get often, though not always that rudely.
How did I end up studying ancient languages? I’m still not sure some days. I did not naturally take to them. Vocab, translation, I struggled all the way through five years of Latin in high school. French I dropped even faster than I did physics.
But my Latin teacher was amazing, and I made one of my best friends in that class. While I scraped through literal translations by rote learning and poorly educated guesses, I was very good at interpreting and understanding literature.
A+ and C-. That’s how my grades in Latin went for several years. As heartening as the former is, the combination isn’t really the sort of thing to encourage you into language. But I enjoyed it. Other people’s literature is challenging in a way that English literature isn’t – or rather, certainly not the stuff you’re exposed to in high school.
I suppose I picked up some grammar eventually, but vocab was still a guessing game – even by the fourth and fifth years of studying Latin.
Luckily, languages are something you can work at. After a point, natural ease becomes irrelevant. I found that languages click like maths does, cogs falling and connections forming. Translations are blocks fitting together, each word and each sentence clicking into place. The point of comprehension is tangible, achievable. You can feel it approach. All of this is very satisfying.
So I kept going.
Learning a language not your own for the first time is hell. It’s grinding rusty gears, shifting the machinery in your head. It takes years for the gears to shift. You’re taking something which was subconscious and stripping it, unpacking it, relating it piece by piece to a different version. It’s headache-inducing. You are teaching yourself how to think. But the other good thing about languages is that they grow a lot less intimidating after your second.
Once the old gears crunch eventually into their new places, they begin to turn. The rust wears off very quickly, and from that point you pick up pace. It’s a unique internal experience, and it changes things: writing and language never looks the same again. You see things as their parts, rather than the whole. Languages by themselves are useful, but the effect of learning them is equally so.
‘What’s the use?’ If he hadn’t been my teacher my reply would have been much snarkier than the laugh he got instead. In a world containing gardens and libraries and gorgeous art, I’ll stand up for my decision to study what I love.
I’m glad I had friends in Latin, or I wouldn’t have ended up here.