Quintessential Kenyon: Student Life, Uncut

On Learning a Language at Kenyon

Katie Jimenez-Gray
February 15, 2016

At 1:10 p.m. on my first day of classes at Kenyon, I found myself sitting in a classroom in Ascension Hall. I was nervous — much more so than I had been for the “Intro to Psychology” class I’d had that morning. When the professor walked in and started speaking solely in Spanish, I looked around at the other students. None of their faces reflected the growing panic that I felt; on the contrary, most of them looked as if they were understanding at least some of what the professor was saying. With a Spanish vocabulary confined to “hola” and “gracias,” I couldn’t help wondering if I’d accidentally ended up in a class other than “Intensive Intro Spanish.” 

By the end of class, the professor had passed around a syllabus confirming that I was indeed in the right place. He had also fortunately switched to English a few times in order to convey his really important points. Nonetheless, when class ended, I felt as though I was in way over my head. As we packed up and left, I asked the girl I’d been sitting next to if she’d taken any Spanish before. “Oh, yeah,” she responded. “For six years.” Six years? I was horrified. “How about you?” she asked. I awkwardly shook my head, mumbling that I hadn’t, and fled.

Kenyon requires that each student be proficient in a second language (equivalent to a year’s worth of a language at Kenyon). You can prove proficiency by an AP or SAT test score, or you can take a language placement exam during Orientation — if you place out of the intro-level class, you don’t have to take a language at Kenyon (or you can continue at a higher level). I had fulfilled my high school’s requirement by taking four years of Latin. I don’t want to state outright that I didn’t get very much out of these four years, but let’s just say that during my AP Latin exam, I couldn’t make it through the first sentence of prose we were supposed to translate. I knew I had no chance of placing out of Latin at Kenyon, so I decided to try Spanish.

Intro-language courses at Kenyon are labeled as “intensive” — this isn’t an exaggeration. My class was conducted almost entirely in Spanish. We had class every weekday, and we had an Apprentice Teacher (AT) class four days a week with an upper-level Spanish major or native speaker, where we met in small groups for an hour in the afternoons. This intensive setting meant that in one academic year of Spanish at Kenyon, we were able to learn the same amount of material that is usually taught over two years at other schools. This is why Kenyon only requires one year of language study, and it’s also why the placement exam is difficult to pass — hence why I was in a beginner class with some people who’d taken Spanish for six years.

During the first few weeks of Spanish class, I was undeniably intimidated. But slowly, I found myself becoming more comfortable. My AT was a huge help — she was a senior Spanish major who encouraged us all to keep speaking despite our inevitable mistakes, which she corrected gently and persistently. My professor was funny, and week by week, I found myself understanding more of what he said in class. One day, I realized that I wasn’t hanging on to every word in a vain attempt to translate — I was just getting it. 

The thing I’ve loved so much about learning a language at Kenyon is the undeniable sense of progress that I can tell I’ve made. If you asked me after my first week of class, I would’ve sworn that after my mandatory year of Spanish, I’d be finished. I’m currently taking second-year Spanish. We’re certainly still learning grammar, but we’re also talking about politics, watching films, discussing social issues and analyzing poetry. And even though I often find myself stammering, “Umm, umm…” and using embarrassing hand charades to try to get my point across in class, I can tell I’ve learned a lot since that first day when I was terrified I’d never be able to understand what was going on. These measurable results are a testament to Kenyon’s mastery of and dedication to education.