Academics Blog

Romance Languages

Name: Adam Reiffen

Year: Class of 2011

Hometown: Westlake Village, CA (near Los Angeles)

Major: Romance Languages


The Department of German and Romance Languages is, if you ask me, the hidden gem of Hopkins. Being at a school that’s 1/3 pre-med and 2/3 science and engineering, I love saying that I’m a Romance Languages kid. There aren’t a ton of us, but we’re a dedicated group that works as hard with our dictionaries as others do with their Bunsen burners.

610x There are five Romance Languages—French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Romanian—and we teach all but the last here at Hopkins. (That’s a picture of a traditional bullfight in Sevilla, Spain.) The identifying feature of a Romance Language is its derivation from Latin. The enormous reach of the Roman Empire made the adoption of Latin by its conquered peoples inevitable, but each Romance Language has, over time, separated itself from the others, and all have their own idioms, pronunciation techniques and cultural influences. For example, the dominion of Arabic-speaking Moors over the Iberian Peninsula for much of the Middle Ages left both Spanish and Portuguese with traces of Semitic vocabulary, like “alcalde” (Spanish for mayor) and “algodão” (Portuguese for cotton). Similarly, warring between France and England has, over time, made French slightly Anglicized. However, the inverse is far more telling: over one-third of the English language is directly derived from French.

The cool thing about studying more than one language at once is that you get to see the overlap between them very clearly. And while, yes, it’s easy to confuse them at first (actual note from an Italian paper last year: “What language is this word? Portuguese? It’s not Italian.”), after a while you start to see similarities that make things like verb conjugation and vocabulary acquisition all the easier.

Maybe I’m just a grammar dork, but that kind of stuff just has me totally hooked.

The difference between being a Romance Languages major and, say, a French major is that Romance Languages has you go in-depth with two or three languages rather than just one. I’ll be honest: it can be daunting, because there are a lot of required classes. In your junior and senior years you’ll be taking a lot of literature courses, and the reading and writing you’ll have to do is no small task. But frankly, the professors in the department absolutely make it worthwhile. For instance, my Portuguese professor, Dr. Mary Bensabat-Ott, was an editor of the books from which we work, so she knows the curriculum backward and forwards because she pretty much wrote it. The head of Italian Language, Dr. Alissandro Zannirato (noticing a trend of Ph.D.s?), speaks four languages fluently and was trained at the famous University of Bologna–and he’s barely 30!

What befuddles plenty of people (my parents included) is the “practical application” of the major. “What are you doing to do with that?” Well, I’m glad you asked. A quick rundown of each language’s strong points:

Chartres-windows French: The international language of diplomacy, French is spoken on every continent and by almost every multinational organization you can think of. The Red Cross, International Olympic Committee, NATO, United Nations, European Union and even Montreal Canadiens of the NHL all use French as an official language. There’s nowhere you can’t go with French. And since economic odds are stacked against you getting a job when you graduate, you can join the French Foreign Legion and serve until things get better. Le hon hon hon! (These are a few stained glass windows at the Cathedral of Chartres in north-central France. The church is perhaps the greatest example of Gothic architecture in the world.)

Spanish: Spoken as a first language by people in an incredible 21 countries, Spanish is most definitely the language of the Americas. Nearly half of South America’s population, the entirety of Central America and Mexico and a growing number of Americans are all speakers, as well as most of the Caribbean. Studying and living in the United States, there’s no more practical Romance Language to learn. And if it’s Castilian Spanish you want, our professors will teach you how to lisp your z’s with the best of them. ¿Zapatos? No señor, THapatos.

Turin Italian: For some reason, Italy was never really a colonial power in the Age of Exploration—their best guy, Columbus, was hired away by Spain, which may have played a part—so Italy and her North African neighbor Libya are really the only two countries in which Italian is spoken as a primary language. Not to downplay the importance of Italy in Europe and the wider world (see: the Roman Empire, Vatican City, World War II, da Vinci, etc.), but you don’t get the same breadth of use with Italian that our other Romance Languages give you. Where you gain, however, is in cultural understanding. Knowledge of Italian would certainly help any chef or fashion maven, and Italian is, of course, the language of music. (That’s the northern Italian city of Turin, nestled in the Alps and site of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games.)

Portuguese: Portuguese is perhaps the most underrated of Hopkins’ four Romance F_recifeLanguages, and that’s a sorry fact. More than half of South America’s population, or some 190 million Brazilians, speak Portuguese. Considering that 75% of the continent’s GDP comes from Brazil and that the country just joined OPEC after discovering massive oil fields off its coast, the importance of Portuguese is rapidly increasing. Add to the mix Portugal, the African Union and parts of China and India and you’ve got a language whose popularity is on the verge of exploding. Plus, it makes
soccer all the more fun to watch. Just check out this goal from
Manchester United superstar and Portuguese national team leader
Christiano Ronaldo (his 100th as a Man U winger): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2WzVdLD43k.
Seriously. I played football and baseball my whole life, but couldn’t stop watching Portugal in the Euro Cup last summer. Christiano Ronaldo is a god. (Sailboats off the
shore of Recife, Brazil. Recife (“reef” in Portuguese) is among
Brazil’s most popular cities and was so named because of the tropical
reefs that dominate the coastline.)

And if all my other arguments for Romance Languages have failed to convince you, consider this last one: gentlemen, there is no better way to woo a woman than in a foreign tongue. There’s a reason foreign exchange students in America are always so popular, you know. And ladies, knowing a Romance Language may help you discover the true intentions of a creepy American guy trying to show off to you.

If you’re wondering how I got started with Romance Languages, I guess I could refer you to my parents. When I was in second grade they transfered me to  a school whose curriculum included French. I was seven when I started having lessons four days a week, and I haven’t looked back since then. I went through AP French Literature in high school, have gone to France twice and am sometimes used in the Admissions Department to talk to visiting French families about Johns Hopkins. Freshman year, though, I wanted to start a new language to challenge myself. I found Portuguese, quickly fell in love with it (to the point that I’ll be studying abroad in Portugal this fall) and realized that my truest academic passion is for language. That year I also jumped into Italian, and those three languages are my concentration within the major. I’ve taken (and enjoyed) Spanish as well, but there’s only so much space in one’s schedule, you know.

And that’s about it, I think. I really hope reading this has, in some small way, opened your eyes to the world of language. It’s not all about the subjunctive, like some people think (though the subjunctive is VERY important); it’s rather about cultural understanding and the ability to communicate with all kinds of people. I wouldn’t change my major for the world, and I can only hope that each of you finds your own passion, Romance Languages or not.

Bonne chance, buena suerte, boa sorte and in boca al lupo!


Click here to access more information about the German and Romance Languages Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective and the Romance Languages question thread.