Language: Key to the Past


Meet Ezra, a new member of our SLE Columbia team! 

To me, learning a language has always been about a connection to the past. In the 1920s and 30s, my grandparents and great grandparents immigrated to the United States from all over Central Europe— though from my native language, the same one I am now writing in, you would never know it.

I never needed to study the languages I have studied. I was not required to learn German in high school. No summer internship I have ever applied to included the stipulation, “Hungarian Speakers Only.” But in a very real way I did need to learn them because language learning can connect someone to their own personal past.

At age 13, I saw the cities scattered across Germany, Poland, and Hungary where my recent ancestors grew up. These places had an eerie familiarity. There were street names from old family stories, and on these streets I heard accents quite similar to those of my older relatives. I had to learn the languages I heard in Europe, if, for anything, to commemorate the cultures my grandparents and great grandparents had left, some to escape the tumult of war.

Resolve turned into frustration pretty quickly. I wanted to learn Hungarian. But how? It was not exactly a popular foreign language choice. I couldn’t find a teacher or even a decent textbook. I then thought German would be a better bet. After all, when I was 13, as is still true, German was the third most taught foreign language in the United States. I found out, to my dismay, that the high school I was about to enter offered three languages, none of them German. Not one to face defeat again, and as a middle school student with a little too much time on his hands, I decided to break out on my own, and started teaching myself German. It was rough. I remember siting alone in my room for long hours trying to figure out what in the heck the dative case was. (Or what a case was for that matter.)

Memories like that motivated me to join the Student Language Exchange (SLE.) When learning a language, nobody should have to go it alone. A foreign language can mean so many things to a vast array of people, be it connecting with a heritage, picking up a language for business, or simply learning a new language for the fun of it. I have found that knowing German has provided me with benefits, both personal and academic, that I could not have possibly imagined when I first started learning the difference between der, die, and das. I hope that every person who sets a foreign language goal is given the opportunity to achieve it.

SLE provides such opportunities, and does so in a stress-free environment. SLE also focuses on lesser-taught languages, a topic that resonates with me. I realize how lucky I am to attend a university that offers a language as rarely taught as Hungarian. But many students at Columbia are not as lucky as I am. A number of languages, especially those native to Africa and Asia, are not offered at Columbia. I joined SLE in the hope that students do not have the same frustration I had, of not having an opportunity to learn a particular language. My relationship with German and Hungarian might very well mirror another student’s relationship with Somali, Cantonese, or any of the languages Columbia SLE has offered.

Since learning German, and afterwards Hungarian, I am constantly discovering new ways that learning these languages has benefitted me. Learning German has opened up a whole new literary corpus to me. I now read Kafka in the original. Learning both of these languages has even led me into the study of Linguistics. Learning a language can take on an importance way beyond ones expectations, way beyond even one’s personal heritage.







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