Updated: Dec 31, 2020
I spent eight years in the International Baccalaureate Program, steadily moving from the Primary Years Program to dreading every moment in its final Diploma Program. I had also just moved from the public school system in America, to the Indian private school system. When I started 5th grade, I was asked to pick a second language on top of English, of which I was already a fluent speaker, and my options were limited to French, Spanish, and Hindi. I don’t know why I gravitated towards French, but the moment I did my fate was sealed.
I could have easily switched to Spanish at any point from then but I was too stubborn and reluctant to put myself through the torture of failing at another language. French taunted me. I only seemed to be able to memorise lists upon lists of colors, animals, numbers, rooms in the house, prepositions, and directions. I blundered my way through conjugations, memorising the most important verbs and hoping that they followed the regular ER conjugation approach. Don’t ask me about tenses, because I don’t remember any and I have no intention of wracking my poor brain with the hope of recalling Imparfait. I kept at French for eight years, and with each passing year, my confidence was destroyed by the yearly listening exam. I always got a passing grade, or maybe each teacher marked me slightly higher because they didn’t want to see me fail. Either way, I slowly got accustomed to D’s in French, even when I never dipped below an A in anything else.
It came to a point where I froze up if I was forced to speak in class, and the thought of an upcoming oral examination would give me nightmares for days. I mumbled half my sentences, in an attempt to mask the fact I didn’t know which articles to use and when. Eventually, my place was relegated to the back of the class, in a corner, behind the tallest guy, avoiding all eye-contact. If even that didn’t work, I’d create the illusion that I was furiously writing down whatever was on the board, because teachers always call on the smartest kids or the ones who look like they aren’t paying attention. To sum it up, I’m terrible at French, but not for a lack of trying. I spent three days a week at language tutoring centres, and cycled through at least 4 different tutors overall. I did more French homework than half my subjects combined on a daily basis, but nothing seemed to work.
This wasn’t just a me problem. I know that because half of my classmates ended up at those tutoring centres with me. On top of our expensive private school education, we were all paying for extra lessons outside of class. I’m not a genius kid- every grade I got in high school I worked hard for. Yet, for some reason, no matter how hard I worked at French, I never improved beyond a certain point. As the years went by, my aim wasn’t even to learn French, but to know the right vocabulary and tenses to pass the IBO examinations. This led me to poring over every past paper for the last ten years and memorising almost every essay prompt, tailoring different vocabulary lists and potential sentences for each one. I managed to take all the fun out of learning a language, but learning a language in high school was never meant to be fun anyway. My few successful attempts at French comprehension were met with sighs of relief and not enthusiasm.
I’ve now graduated high school and moved halfway across the world to escape French, but it seems to follow me wherever I go. NYU requires me to complete its 16-credit language requirement, or prove my fluency in a language placement exam. If I place higher than Intermediate II on this placement exam I get to take an in-person exemption test to skip the requirement altogether. You’d think that’s good news, considering how I’ve wasted eight years of my life on French for these precious 16-credits, but I’m nowhere near good enough to even come close to Intermediate II fluency, nor am I ready to subject myself to the torture of retaking French for another two or three semesters, depending on where my mangled French places me. That leaves me with one option; find a 4-year accredited university that offers a language placement exam for Telugu (NYU does not, unfortunately) and petition NYU to accept it.
Luckily, after a couple minutes of research, I discovered that UPenn offers Telugu (yet another reason to celebrate being an Ivy League reject). Unfortunately, I may have just lied about how proficient I am at Telugu. Telugu is a Dravidian language standing as the 4th most spoken language in India, most commonly spoken in the southern regions. It is also the 3rd most spoken Indian language in the United States. Considering its popularity, you’d think NYU would offer it, but that’s an article for another day. Telugu is my mother tongue, and while I never bothered to learn it as a child in America, throughout those eight years of studying French I had unconsciously become a fluent speaker in Telugu with absolutely no effort. My speaking skills are now on par with native speakers in the language, but if I want to avoid learning a new language or re-learning French at NYU I now have to teach myself to read and write in Telugu before I take the placement exam. It’s either passing the placement exam or being forced to drop the minor I’m dying to take.
The past couple of weeks I started slow, writing and rewriting the alphabet until it became ingrained. After that I memorised the secondary consonants and accents, which drastically change the sound and nature of a letter when added to it. Overall, there are 56 characters in Telugu, and each one is equally important. After that I began to write words, read short and simple sentences, and eventually moved on to stumbling through short stories and songs. It’s not easy, but I noticed a drastic difference between the way I used to learn French and how I’m now learning Telugu. The stakes were high for both, yet I don’t feel like I’m failing every time I struggle to read a sentence or completely butcher a spelling in Telugu. I’m more forgiving of my mistakes, more confident in my abilities, and I feel a sense of accomplishment with every little win. Learning Telugu is objectively harder than French due to the fact one must learn a completely different alphabet and syntax structure to speak it, yet I’m not intimidated. I’ve come to realise that my inability to learn French was the direct result of not being immersed in the native culture or having anyone to converse with on a daily basis, not my own deficits. I didn’t grow up watching French movies or listening to the news in French, so how could I ever hope to be fluent enough to incorporate it into my life?
I had learnt French and Telugu for the same number of years, but the environment in which I learnt them was drastically different. I was immediately immersed in Telugu and my culture from the moment I moved to India. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know a word because I was surrounded by native speakers who found it difficult to converse with me in English. Something had to budge and I eventually began to speak it just as well as them. With every colloquial phrase and idiom, I learnt another important piece of my culture, which eventually shaped me into the person I am today.