One More Window

Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiss nichts von seiner eigenen.
Those who know nothing of foreign languages, know nothing of their own.
— Goethe

At St. John’s, we study how other men and women thought for themselves in the belief that we will learn to think for ourselves. It seems odd, but perhaps it becomes clearer in the realm of language learning.

Your primary language, gleaned from relatives prior to schooling, is learned without heed (or even need) for the study of vocabulary or grammar; once in school — if your school bothers to teach these subjects — the teacher plays catch-up, giving technical terms for the common code in which you’re already proficient.

Studying a different language, however, starts you back at square one and demands a more critical attentiveness which your younger self, immersed in society’s lingua franca from birth, lacked. A tree is a tree and yet also un arbre, and you ask yourself what might it mean that there are different sounds denoting the same object? Conjugations and declensions make you consider the complex conditions and qualities of everyday sentences. Finally, translating passages inevitably begs the question: why can’t English be as easy to rhyme with?

In much less eloquent words than Goethe, we learn our language’s peculiarities only by their comparison with a different one’s. And who could claim to truly know their own tongue when they can’t grasp and manipulate its distinct structure and beauty?

IMG_5929The Graduate Institute offers instruction in four different languages: Ancient Greek and Latin for those pursuing their Masters in Liberals Arts; Classical Chinese and Sanskrit for those pursuing their Masters in Eastern Classics. The foundations of entire traditions of thought were written in these languages, and thus, studying them allows students to approach how these cultures originally began. Ancient Greek and Latin are offered as optional preceptorials. Eastern Classics students, however, because almost all of the works read in the fall and spring are written in either Classical Chinese or Sanskrit, must study one of these for both semesters. The proximity of language learning to the greatest works of that language intensifies the inquiry and understanding of both.

The goal is not mastery. Students start with textbooks, drills, and rote memorization. Lines from classic literature are included at the very beginning, but translation assignments are held off until late in the term. There are many exercises at the chalkboard, and this, added with the homework from the textbook and perhaps quizzes, might recall a style of class which St. John’s purports to eschew. But there is still much discussion.

“In all of the language tutorials, we inquire into the very nature of language,” says Mr. Kenneth Wolfe, current tutor of Classical Chinese. “Also, the slower reading and focus on short passages compels the students to notice how much interpretation has already gone into a translation into English.”

These language tutorials are frequently cited as the toughest yet most rewarding aspect of the degree. “The rigor of studying a difficult language like Sanskrit,” said Mr. Llyd Wells, “probably benefits the Eastern Classics program by appealing to more dedicated students.” The current tutor of the Sanskrit tutorial, Wells expects his class to be able to translate passages from the Bhagavad Gita by March of next year.

As the proverb goes, learning a language is having one more window from which to look at the world. Learning the language of Plato and Confucius, Virgil and Kālidāsa, is having one more window from which to look at yourself.


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