Franklin Pezzuti Dyer


The Summer Language Institute

This February, I submitted an application to the University of Chicago to request to attend its Summer Language Institute (or SLI) and learn German. I’m happy to say that the program accepted me a couple of months ago, and since then, the program’s directors have been very agreeable and willing to address all of my questions and concerns regarding the program. The purpose of this post is to explain why I want to attend SLI.

When I started studying Spanish during my first year of high school, I honestly wasn’t very enthusiastic. At that time, I still hadn’t fully realized my interest in academics, and my nascent zeal for mathematics wouldn’t start to leak into any other academic subjects for a long while. Many activities that I was obligated to complete during my first Spanish class - like dances, parties, and art projects loosely related to the language - seemed like nonsense and a waste of time, and didn’t foster any enthusiasm on my part. In addition, at the beginning, I could hardly read without constantly turning to a dictionary; listening to the current of words of a native speaker was overwhelming; and I spoke with unbearable slowness and clumsiness. So, for a while, the process was very frustrating and not very gratifying.

Thankfully, my father, who had been a Spanish teacher for a while in the past, motivated me to put forth more effort in acquiring competence, even more than my class demanded of my (in fact, last school year, he prepared me for the AP Spanish exam instead of a formal class). When I realized that I was able to better understand many sources that had previously been out of my reach, I felt empowered. Miraculously, I could understand the lyrics and songs that I had heard time and time again without understanding, and I managed to read some stories and articles without needing a dictionary. I was surprised even more by the occasions on which I could understand the meaning of a text without using English as an intermediate step - that is, understanding it without thinking of a translation.

When I read, I looked for new words, idioms, and grammatical structures. I also tried to identify etymological patterns in order to infer the meanings of words without the help of a dictionary. I “milked” as much as possible from all sources, because every weird word, unique expression and useful trick seemed like a new tool, or even a superpower. In addition, I realized that many structures in Spanish don’t correspond to analogous constructions in English, because of unique connotations coming from Spanish and Latin American culture. Thus, I learned new concepts that didn’t even exist in English.

Also, my speaking ability gradually got better, until I was able to speak with much more fluidity than before. For me, conversing in Spanish is the most exhilarating (and even a bit intoxicating) aspect of the language. Being able to successfully interact with another human being using Spanish is almost surreal, since, due to the high speed of the conversation, I completely stop thinking in English. Managing to do this after months of frustrating practice was like swimming for the first time without a life jacket, or riding a bike without training wheels. Even today, saying something in Spanish and being understood by another person feels like casting a spell.

So, why do I plan to attend SLI? Well, at this point, the answer should be obvious enough. I want to experience all of this again, and I hope that my experience with Spanish will help me acquire German in a more efficient and fun way. I know that it will be a difficult and frustrating process at first, but I believe that it will be worth the trouble. I chose German for two primary reasons. First, I know that the grammar is very different from Spanish grammar (compared, for example, with a language like French), and learning it will be a new challenge. Secondly, it corresponds to some of my other interests, like literature, philosophy, and math, and many textual resources from these fields come from German thinkers (like Hermann Hesse, whose works I want so badly to read in their original language).

My goal is to leave SLI with enough ability in German to be able to continue studying it on my own. In the more distant future, I might like to read German literature, write blog posts in German, study German in college, and even travel to Germany. Until then, I’m ready to give my all to my studies this summer.

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