A certain je ne sais quoi
Pushing past hurdles to realize dream of learning a new language

A certain je ne sais quoi
Doug Gonzalez - 01/04/2024

When I was young, I imagined someday I would speak multiple languages. With the jet-set life I envisioned, I would need to speak the languages of the countries I would visit most frequently. With Paris being the home of the Louvre and several couture fashion houses, French was at the top of my “Languages to Know” list. However, my journey toward learning another language would be a bit more complicated than I expected.

My first language course probably mirrors most peoples’ experience: Spanish class in middle school. Nothing stood out to me about it, except the occasional annoyance when someone commented that with a last name like Gonzalez I should know more Spanish than I did, which was very little. French was offered to students in my high school, but only to grades 10 and above. Preparation for my life in fashion would have to wait until I finished freshman year.

When I started French, I had a surprisingly tough time. It was my lowest grade of that semester. However, French II and III were quite a bit easier. Maybe the initial difficulty was a fluke, but this struggle would appear again when I started college at Dartmouth.

Depending on fluency (or lack thereof), Dartmouth required students to finish three courses within a particular language. I signed up for French, excited to see a path that would take me to Paris. Dartmouth uses two modes of language learning: classroom instruction and drill sessions. In “drill,” a fluent student tests and reinforces what they learn in class by leading several rapid, popcorn style language activities. This method aims to immerse students and provide the most learning within the shortest amount of time. 

Although I came to college with three semesters of high school French, I felt like I was on the lowest rungs of fluency in my class. I had some vocabulary and simple conjugation that allowed class to be manageable, but I struggled in the drills. Words I knew on paper sounded muddied or mushed together. We were assured it would become easier through the semester. That did not happen.

Why was I struggling again? Perhaps I wasn’t studying enough. Or perhaps it was too difficult. After 1½ semesters, I switched to Spanish. Occasionally hearing my father speak it, I thought it would be easy to pick up. However, I found myself struggling once again. Halfway through the semester, I met with my profesora. She had a sharp, vibrant energy, reflected by her short gray hair and wardrobe of brightly colored mumus. I explained how I was hearing words in a way that confused me. This wasn’t the first time a student had come to her with a similar experience. She knew my best course of action was to meet with someone who could evaluate this issue.

I set up an appointment with a doctor. He began by asking me about my life and the history of my learning. Over the next couple of appointments, he ran various tests that aimed to paint a picture of how I processed words. After, he explained his findings. I learned languages a bit differently. Dartmouth’s method of teaching would prove quite challenging for me, although not impossible. He also explained how my brain compensated for this by developing a strong visual aptitude. This made sense to me. Despite feeling reluctant and insecure in language classes, I was always confident in art. Art came naturally to me.

The doctor recommended a language waiver, which I received. I was relieved to not only have the waiver, but to be armed with this knowledge about myself. At the end of the report, he also included a personal profile. Using information I shared with him, he wrote that he was worried I didn’t date much. He added that I would be a good candidate for therapy. I thought, “Sheesh! Could this have been done without these last ‘fun’ facts?”

For many years after, I steered away from learning new languages. However, in fall 2023, I had the opportunity to take two language classes at Fort Lewis College: Navajo and Spanish. I spoke to my Spanish teacher on my first day of class, telling her I felt nervous, considering my history. But on the other side of the nervousness was excitement that stemmed from confronting this “language monster” I created in my head. It was exciting to push myself again, but as an adult who knows their strengths and weaknesses. It was an excitement that came from continuing to write the narrative about who I am and who I am becoming. When I finished the semester, I received an A in both classes. But it wasn’t necessarily a good grade that I was seeking. When I enrolled, I knew I was wanting to connect to parts of myself, both the unknown and the forgotten. The attempt to know these parts, despite the difficulty to do so, feels more important to my narrative than any fashion house or jet-set life could ever be.

– Doug Gonzalez

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