Over the years, I’ve heard many organic faculty use the phrase: “Learning organic chemistry is like learning a foreign language.” I’ve certainly used the phrase myself to give advice to my own students, in an attempt to convey that both subjects are cumulative and require a lot of practice. This year, however, I find myself rethinking this advice. This is because I’m currently taking introductory Italian here at Elon (yes, along with 22 undergraduates!) to prepare for my upcoming sabbatical at a research lab in Italy. With the unique perspective I’ve gained, I’ve found that, although there are some ways in which learning Italian and learning organic chemistry do align, there are significant limitations with the comparison. I now worry that making this comparison for students in organic chemistry could be misleading and could ultimately backfire.
In organic chemistry, there is a logical, coherent story that develops throughout the entire year—especially when teaching a mechanistically organized course. The story begins with the structure and stability of molecules and progresses to discussions about how those molecules react in elementary steps. Those elementary steps are put together in reasonable ways to construct multistep mechanisms. Finally, the general characteristics of reactions (what functional group transformation occurs, C–C bond formation or breaking, regiochemistry, stereochemistry), which are themselves governed by the mechanism, dictate how we might use those reactions to design syntheses. This logical progression intrinsically means a student’s success with material later in the course depends on the student’s mastery of material earlier in the course.
In my Italian course, I have encountered some instances that seem to be logical outcomes, but not many. One notable example is the trapassato (the equivalent of the English past perfect, such as “I had worked”). The situations that call for the use of the trapassato are essentially a hybrid of the situations that call for the passato prossimo (the past tense verb form dealing with specific occurrences, such as “I worked”) and the situations that call for l’imperfetto (the past tense verb form describing continual or habitual actions, such as “I was working”). Likewise, the structure of the trapassato verb is a blend of the two other structures—the first half is conjugated according to the rules for l’imperfetto and the second half has the same form as the passato prossimo.
More often than not, however, this kind of logic breaks down in my Italian course, particularly when it comes to why certain things are introduced when they are. For instance, the rules for passato prossimo are introduced in the chapter on caffé culture. And l’imperfetto is introduced in the chapter that deals with media culture (e.g., television, radio, and newspapers). This absence of a logical progression, I feel, reinforces the idea that the material in each chapter is somewhat self-contained and that material from a later chapter can be mastered without fully mastering material from an earlier chapter. Applying this same logic to organic chemistry would be disastrous.
Like Italian, organic chemistry certainly does require a lot of practice and repetition, but not quite in the same way. In Italian, nearly everything I am learning begins with committing something to memory, such as vocabulary words and the rules for verb conjugation. There really isn’t much of an alternative because these aspects of a language are essentially the results of arbitrary decisions made by human beings. By contrast, the bulk of what my organic students are taught they can understand, because atoms and molecules follow specific laws of nature. As such, learning organic chemistry can become intuitive. Consider that the ways in which nucleophiles tend to react with electrophiles—which pervade the bulk of the reactions that students will learn in the course—can be understood by the simple fact that opposite charges attract. And the appearance of peaks at certain locations in a spectrum can be understood by the law of conservation of energy. A student who, instead, applies memorization and repetition techniques to these aspects of organic chemistry—techniques that can be quite successful in a foreign language class—will have little chance of developing intuition, and will therefore enjoy little success.
Without question, at the outset of my organic chemistry classes each year, I want my students to know that the material is cumulative and that they need to put in a lot of time and effort to succeed. But using the phrase “Learning organic chemistry is like learning a foreign language” fails to capture some of the most important aspects of learning organic chemistry: the progression is logical and much of what we learn can and should become intuitive. More to the point, I fear that students who take this comparison to heart will come away with the dangerous notion that what may have led to their success in a foreign language class—memorization and repetition— will also lead to success in organic chemistry. That said, I can sleep much easier knowing that the way I currently teach organic chemistry—under a mechanistic organization—intrinsically sends a very loud and clear message to students that the material is logical and cumulative, and that success will come from working hard toward understanding rather than memorizing.