Majors and Year of Graduation: Linguistics, German, Sociology; TESOL Certificate, ILS Certificate, and a European Studies Certificate; 2013.
I feel passionate about: pursuing an understanding of the world, working to help better the material conditions of others in hopes that all may live a flourishing life, enjoying the company of others, and relishing the fleetingly conscious feeling of being alive in the moment.
Languages I have taken at UW-Madison? German, Russian and Italian.
Why did you choose those particular languages? At first, my choices weren’t really based on my initial attraction to particular attributes of the languages themselves; my choices mostly had to do with circumstances.
I learned Russian for the Air Force while serving as a “cryptologic linguist”; however Russian was not even a choice on my radar when I enlisted. I requested training in Arabic. (You should have seen the disappointed look on my face!) But sometimes being forced to do things you don’t want to do will open you up to wonderful new things that change your life. It turned out that Russian is actually a really cool language in many ways! I am continuing to pursue it not only because I’m now attracted to the language itself, but also because historically Russian-speaking cultures have produced quite a rich literary tradition that I know I’d appreciate even more if I could read the works without the lost-in-translation factor.
I chose to learn Italian because, while taking a course on European history in high school, I was presented with an opportunity to go to Italy on an exchange program. So naturally I began to teach myself Italian and it just turned out that I loved the sound of the language. Now I continue to pursue Italian to keep in touch with all the great people I met in Italy.
Looking back on it, learning German was much more of a conscious choice than the others. I think that I was interested in somehow getting in touch with my German roots. I had the vague feeling that I would never understand who I was or what I would become unless I first understood where I came from. It was also the sound of the language – what I, at the time, perceived for some strange reason to be a very masculine way of articulating sounds – that also attracted me… probably because I was a scrawny kid who felt pressured to somehow make up for it. I’ve continued to pursue German more for its rich literary tradition, but also out of an attraction to the culture and a deep interest in the history of the German-speaking countries.
Did you begin language study at the kindergarten-high school level? What languages? How did K-12 language study impact your later decision to take a language? I took German in middle school and high school. It definitely made me more likely to pursue the language because I already had a background in it. Instead of focusing on the difficulties associated with acquiring the language itself, I could focus more on interests related to the language, like studying the culture and history. It also helped me to see where my interests lie: in language.
What has studying those languages meant to you? How has it enriched your life, whether personally, academically or professionally? Learning a second language has opened me up to accepting new ways of flourishing, new ways of thinking and seeing the world, and bettered my understanding of the human condition in general. This is because it is nearly impossible to become anywhere near fluent by locking yourself up in a room with a dictionary and grammar books. Foreign languages are almost always taught through a presentation of a culture associated with a group of people that speaks the language as its native language. In fact, it would certainly have been a difficult task to learn other languages without having enriched my understanding of the world through a better understanding of other cultures.
I also believe that learning a second language may make someone more likely to be a person tolerant of other ways of acting and interacting with others and the world – an important quality in individualistic societies like our own. People generally hold beliefs that, although seemingly irrational on the face of it, are usually quite rational if one only understood the premises from which they start. What learning other languages, and the different cultures associated with those languages, has taught me is that one cannot simply dismiss the actions of others as inexplicable and worth simply laughing at or demonizing; it’s made me more inclined to seek the reasons for such behavior. It’s my hope that this has led me to be a more understanding and compassionate person.
Outside of classroom learning, in what other situations have you been able to apply your language skills or international interests? Before attending UW-Madison, I worked as a Russian translator for the Air Force. It was really my first job, in which I was able to work with a foreign language on a daily basis. It was generally a good experience, even if I didn’t enjoy some aspects of it here and there.
Being able to speak at least a little of many languages also made me less shy when traveling abroad than I otherwise would have been. I was much more inspired to interact with people when I had confidence that they would be able to understand me. So I personally think that I benefited from those experiences much more than I would have had I not learned the languages at least a little.
Also, one of my cherished pastimes is reading, and I have recently been working on reading at least two foreign books a year in either German or Russian. (I’m not good enough in Italian for that). I’ve also volunteered to help teach English to foreign students with the university. But honestly, many advantages I feel I’ve gained have to do abstractly with the way I think. That doesn’t mean they’re any less important, just less concrete and generally more difficult to describe.
A good book or two I just read: Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, incidentally two of my favorite authors. They both write beautifully, making their points with arguments that are well supported, while providing no dearth of background information. No matter the subject, their books always offer new perspectives on difficult scientific and philosophical problems like, for example in these books, what the latest discoveries in the field of evolutionary psychology have to do with how humans think, and what the implications are for concepts like the blank slate and cultural phenomena like religion.
A memorable UW-Madison language class experience: Insisting to my German professor – admittedly in hindsight with some naïveté – that I was correct about some particular historical fact I can’t remember off the top of my head now. I decided to stay after my class to continue arguing the point. My persistence in arguing somehow transformed into hours of enjoyable philosophical and historical discussion with her nearly every week!
My plans for after graduation include: joining the Peace Corps, moving on to graduate school in order to continue my education, and eventually perhaps moving to Germany to teach English and translate literature.
My favorite living or historical figure: Noam Chomsky, a giant in the field of linguistics and an activist who is still indefatigably trying to inspire a new generation of those who are not content with the status quo to envision a better future for the world and to act on their convictions.
My favorite literary figure: It’s a very difficult question! Perhaps Arroway in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact.
A memorable thing that happened to me when traveling abroad: When I got most of my cash jacked by a Russian cab driver on the way from the Sheremetyevo airport to my hotel on my first day in Moscow. I spent the rest of the vacation in Russia subsisting mostly on water and beef jerky. Losing the money may have prevented me from seeing as much as I could, but it forced me to choose to do things I may not have otherwise done.