The single biggest factor affecting my decision to attend the University of Michigan was the stellar foreign language program. There were more than 60 languages to choose from, a series of intensive language courses offered by the Residential College, and of course the unique Romance Languages and Literatures major. During high school, the infectious enthusiasm of my Spanish and French teachers had inspired me to pursue both languages during college; with RLL, I wouldn’t be forced to prioritize one over the other.
Once I was on campus, though, my plans began to change. I joined the intensive Spanish program, which is sometimes (affectionately) called “language bootcamp,” and toiled through my coursework to pass their extensive proficiency test. I couldn’t fit a French course into my fall schedule, so I started the 4-semester Italian sequence. I found a class called “Portuguese for Romance Speakers”, and I enjoyed every fleeting second. I finally returned to French, taking summer courses just for my own intellectual satisfaction. Most importantly, though, I found the Romance Languages and Literature department and the RLL major-- one of the largest majors on campus, specifically designed for students like me who knew that 1 foreign language was simply not enough.
Despite the challenges that come with learning verb conjugations, vocabulary words, and cultural norms, I was always supported and encouraged by the RLL faculty and staff. My goal has always been communicative competence rather than perfect pronunciation or grammar, which my professors and lecturers helped me reach and exceed. I was also taught to be culturally adept; among other things, I can now make authentic French food, answer Italian phone calls with “pronto”, recognize political symbolism in Spanish poetry published during the Franco regime, and discuss the historical origins of Brazilian capoeira.
Through the RLL program, I connected my day-to-day experiences in the language learning classroom with the science behind them in ways that I hadn’t previously been able to do, encouraging me to broaden my scope from language learning to the mechanisms behind language learning. I became interested in language and cognition, adding a major in Cognitive Science and working as a research assistant in the Speech Production Lab and Psycholinguistics Lab to study subjects including second language acquisition, language processing, and language contact. I finished my senior year by completing an honors thesis that investigated language loss and cognition. My new position as a research lab coordinator at UC San Diego is a testament to the value and utility of a humanities degree and the importance of staying curious.
My RLL courses gave me a lens through which I was able to see the world differently, and, in my opinion, more completely. There is a certain empathy that can only be wholly reached by leaving one’s comfort zone, and foreign language education provides the ideal vessel (and time) to explore it. I found my experiences as an RLL student enriching academically, professionally, and personally, and I hope that the same is true for other foreign language learners, past, present, and future.