Why languages?

One of the first things people ask me is why I speak so many languages. Well, it wasn’t because my parents were diplomats.

I didn’t grow up in a bilingual family. In fact, my small hometown in Washington State is known for being predominantly white and English-speaking. But for some reason, as a kid I became obsessed with languages. Anything I could my hands on. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office, attentively reading all the Spanish medical pamphlets (I did not speak Spanish). In the car, we could get the French, Cantonese and Hindi radio stations broadcasting from Vancouver. I drove my family crazy listening to them. I loved the different music they played and the challenge of figuring out what the announcers were talking about.

What is it about languages? For me it’s the idea that the learning never stops. It’s that uncomfortable feeling of neural pathways expanding to hold new concepts, it’s the joy of landing a joke in someone else’s mother tongue.

As education gave me more access to this obsession, I entertained myself translating poetry and studying Japanese. There was even one unsuccessful term of non-credit Chinese at our local community college. In high school, I tested out of my French classes in the first year. I wasn’t fluent by any means, but had already reached the highest level available. Language education in the US is notoriously subpar. My international audience might be surprised to know that the United States school system only requires students to take two years of foreign language in their entire school years. Despite the incredibly linguistic diversity in my country, the hegemony of English still prevails, an obstacle to students of limited English proficiency and a disservice to native English speakers.

My second really fluent language was Portuguese

which I learned, painfully, as a high school student studying abroad in Lisbon. I arrived to a country I had never been to, with no more than a bom dia to my name. After a year of living with a local host family and attending 10th grade classes entirely in Portuguese, I had adopted the typical Lisboa accent and enough slang to offend any well-to-do novos ricos.

n the intervening years, I worked and traveled. I ended up in Turkey, Bulgaria, Ecuador, Kyrgyzstan, among other places. The languages came with these travels, a source of constant challenge and delight. I dealt in street Turkish and survival Russian. I aimed for enough to haggle with gold-toothed taxi drivers and make new friends. But of course, it was never enough. I wanted to understand people in their own languages, and do it well.

After moving to Portland, Oregon for University, I got serious about this goal.

I finally studied Spanish formally, and informally in the many restaurant kitchens where I worked during those years. So that was language number three. Most crucially, I was also able to continue my language and cultural studies in Turkish and then Azerbaijani, thanks to federal scholarships like the Critical Language Scholarship, Gilman and ARIT. Throughout 2016, 2017, and 2018 I studied abroad in Azerbaijan and Turkey, at the Azerbaijani University of Languages and Bogazici University, respectively. That was how I learned my fourth and fifth languages. And also how I became passionate about advocating for language education access.

Before long, I was able to turn a lifelong obsession into a career. People starting sending me work.

From translation, to teaching adult English classes, to managing language programs, to interpreting in communities and courts, to conducting language analysis on social research projects, the variety of assignments have been extensive and never dull. (Well, except that one voice recognition development thing, for a company with fruit logo that I can’t talk about).

While a lot of my work these days goes beyond language services, I’m grateful to be a part of an amazing worldwide community of language specialists. I have learned that there are many people with stories like mine, who have been able to turn their passion and talent for languages into engaging and meaningful work. I am excited to continue advocating for our profession, and to mentor other young people who are interested in bringing their skills to bear in this field.

Do you have a story like mine? Feel free to comment or contact me about it!

Social Media
Follow us on social media
Contact us
Social Media
Follow us on social media

Copyright by RD Medya. All rights reserved.

Copyright by RD Medya. All rights reserved.