Salem State Polyglots: The Frustrating Joy of Learning Multiple Languages
By Elizabeth Blood, WLC
While some people fear learning a foreign language and many feel content learning just one other language, there are some—among them numerous students at Salem State—who think learning only one foreign language is not enough. Who are these fearless polyglots? The answer may surprise you.
Google “polyglot” and you will find videos and websites singing the praises of language geniuses who are fluent in multiple languages, who are self-taught or can learn to speak a language fluently in hours. However, you don’t have to be a genius or even someone gifted in the area of language learning to become a polyglot. You don’t even need to be “fluent” in multiple languages, just functional. It is more important to be curious, open-minded, persistent, and to be okay with making mistakes.
“I’m actually rubbish at learning languages,” says Kelsey Utne ‘12 (Political Science, History and Economics major and World Languages minor) who studied French, Chinese and Arabic at Salem State and is now learning Persian and Hindi-Urdu in graduate school, “I have friends who have a gift for them—but alas, I don’t have that gift. However I do adore languages. They are each a puzzle and an art. They are frustrating and hard, but in my opinion one of the singularly most satisfying intellectual pursuits.” Utne, who never studied a foreign language before coming to Salem State, and who never studied abroad as an undergraduate, used her language skills to help land a Fulbright grant to study in India after graduation from Salem State. She is currently studying in Pakistan and recommends that students study multiple related languages that share grammar and vocabulary: “It can be a lot to juggle in my head sometimes, and I make tons of mistakes, but at the same time I feel like it gives me a richer understanding of the bigger picture.”
William Sherman ‘14 (Spanish major) is another alum with a penchant for languages, motivated by a desire to connect with people in our region who speak other languages as well as by an intellectual curiosity to learn about other cultures. Sherman, who has formally studied six languages, learned French and Latin in elementary and high school, and chose to pursue Russian, German, Spanish and Classical Greek in college. “The BA in Spanish I completed because of my belief that the US is becoming, if not already is, a bilingual nation, and my work takes me to Spanish-speaking parts of Lynn and Salem,” says Sherman, who initially studied Russian in order to take a commission in the Air Force but notes “Given Russian emigration to the area, this turned out to be fortuitous.” Aside from the practical uses of multilingualism in our region, Sherman has been driven by a desire to “read literature in its original languages—Caesar in Latin, Cervantes in Spanish, Verlaine in French, Pushkin in Russian, Goethe in German.” Curiosity and persistence, coupled with practical applications of language learning, have propelled Sherman to continue to study and learn languages over the years.
Juliana Carvalho ‘14 (Business major and World Languages minor) immigrated to the US and learned English as a second language to her native Portuguese. In high school, she studied French, which she continued at Salem State, also adding Spanish as a fourth language. Carvalho notes: “For me, coming from one culture and living in a country which is a melting pot of so many cultures was fascinating. By the time I started learning French, I was already bilingual in English and Portuguese. I started Spanish because I already listened to so many songs in Spanish and I think it’s another important language to learn.” Carvalho also offers some advice “For someone who is interested in learning another language, I would say don’t be afraid. It can be complicated and frustrating, but in the end it’s very rewarding. It’s an awesome feeling to know that you can understand a person that speaks another language.” And Carvalho isn’t done yet: “I think I want to learn Italian next…or a language that is completely different like Chinese, Russian or German.” Like others, Carvalho admits that the process of language learning is hard and can be frustrating, but that the rewards of connecting to another culture make it all worthwhile.
Current Salem State students continue to pursue multiple languages. Jeff Robinson (WLC-French major) is currently studying French, Spanish and Arabic at Salem State, in addition to intensive Russian courses taken through the Army last summer. He is also planning to complete the department’s new Certificate in Translation next year and will use his language skills in the future, perhaps in a military career. During a recent ROTC training activity, Robinson’s language skills were tested: “It was crazy. We were simulating how to speak to civilians in various situations and they kept calling me to interpret when the people we encountered didn’t speak English. I think I used all of my languages that day!”
Sophie Swiniarski (WLC-French major) is another polyglot: “It started with me finding a passion for languages in high school. It just so happened that French was one of my favorite classes because I had a particularly good teacher.” Like Utne, Swiniarski found the similarities between languages to be something that made multiple language study easier, and went on to study Spanish, Gaelic, Polish, Latin, Chinese and Korean. She states “I started noticing similarities between Spanish and French, and I began to recognize what certain words meant by cognates, even if I couldn’t speak the language… I took Latin since it’s the foundation for so many languages, and then I took Chinese in college because I thought it would help with my Korean.” Swiniarski’s language learning is also motivated by her multicultural heritage: “I took French in the first place because of my French relatives, Gaelic for my Scotch-Irish heritage and Polish for my Polish heritage.” Though not Korean, Sophie says “I really love Korean music, so I started learning that to try to understand the lyrics.”
Freshman Gail Coughlin (double major in History and WLC-French) also has an interest in several languages and is similarly motivated by a multicultural heritage and by living in a multilingual world: “I decided that I wanted to learn another language when I was three years old. This interest stemmed from hearing other languages while out in public and wondering what those people speaking those languages were saying.” Coughlin, who is currently studying French and Chinese at Salem State also recently “downloaded an app” to try to learn Russian and has studied Irish on her own as well. Coughlin also describes the language learning process as a difficult one: “Somewhere along the way learning a different language becomes hard…one is required to use parts of their brain that have not been used since they were a child and learned their first language. Relearning how to use a part of your brain is difficult and frustrating.” Coughlin, who considered giving up French after her second year in high school, now finds great joy in being able to communicate with others in their native language: “Through French I’ve been able to connect to people in ways I never thought I’d be able to before and to connect to a culture that I never thought I had any connection to.” Her advice to other students? “Don’t give up. There will be times when you will be frustrated or embarrassed but don’t give up. Power through all of the negative emotions. The rewards are so much greater!”