From SWSEEL into the World
SWSEEL always aspires to be part of a larger effort of promoting international education and fostering sustainable global partnerships. For many of our students the IU Summer Language Workshop was the preliminary step to study abroad that gave them the skills to effectively do research and communicate, connect, and meaningfully engage with the local community.
In this edition of the newsletter we are honored to feature alumni who have gone overseas after completing SWSEEL and share their personal accounts of studying and living abroad. We are proud of our students’ achievements and hope to continue to support international research, education, and development.
Joe Crescente (Russian, 2005 and 2007; Kazak, 2008)
To put it simply, from the moment I finished my degree at Indiana University’s Russian and East European Institute in 2007, I’ve been very busy. I completed level 9 of Russian at SWSEEL in the summer of 2007 and with my language skills still fresh I accepted a contract position with American Councils for International Education in Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific Coast. In promoting the FLEX exchange program I got to visit such remote destinations as Kamchatka, Sakhalin Island, and Magadan. I actually came back to SWSEEL in 2008 (my third summer spent at Indiana University), where I took in a year of Kazakh language.
I then spent three years at New York University as a doctoral student in sociocultural anthropology studying under Professor Bruce Grant. I developed a thesis on economic class and social distinction in urban Siberia. I spent the summer of 2009 in Tomsk, Russia on a Critical Languages Scholar. Over the next few years I was able to visit a number of former Soviet republics including Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.
After three years of doctoral study, I decided to part ways with the program at NYU, although not before receiving an MA in anthropology and a certificate from their prestigious Culture and Media program. For the thesis film for the certificate I worked with the decorated Soviet film and stage actress, Irina Shmelova, writing, directing, and editing a documentary about her life.
In the fall of 2011 I was back in Russia and I largely stayed there for the next three years, most of it spent working for American Councils. I did short stints for them in Washington DC, Ukraine and Turkmenistan, before finally accepting a position with them as Hub Director of the Moscow office for the FLEX exchange program. I managed a staff of up to 13 people and was in charge of organizing recruiting visits in over 30 Russian cities on an annual basis in the Urals, Siberia, and throughout the European part of the country. I’ve now been to more than 60 Russian cities throughout my travels, many of them on multiple occasions.
Unfortunately, the FLEX program was a casualty of the worsening of relations between the United States and Russia and in mid-April 2014, all foreign staff of the program left Russia. Although I anticipated that this would happen, it was still a disruptive change. But, this change gave me the opportunity to be self-employed, which I have been for nearly two years now. In 2015 alone, I translated a set of memoirs, a collection of short stories, a coffee-table book for a Siberian university, served as a consultant for a new Russian textbook project for the University of Texas, wrote about 25 articles, and edited more than 350 texts for media publications, international non-profits, and educational organizations. I also serve as the Regional Coordinator for the Land and Housing Survey in a Global Sample of Cities, an initiative of the NYU Stern Urbanization Project in collaboration with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. I am recruiting, training, and supervising the work of 16 researchers in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Mongolia, Poland, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. That job will wrap up this spring. I am also currently finishing work as a researcher and editor on a historical novel set in Poland and Israel.
In early 2016, I will launch my own firm, Content CoLab with another SWSEEL alum, Andy Bamber. We specialize in content creation, business development, and strategic consulting to drive revenue, solve problems, and reach new audiences. We are seeking clients with both domestic and international profiles and hope to help non-profits, startups and educational and community organizations accomplish their objectives. We can be contacted here: http://www.contentcolab.net/. We’d love to hear from other SWSEEL alums!
Olivia Wolf (Arabic, 2010 and 2011)
As a fifth-year PhD student in Art History at Rice University, I was fortunate to have recently received a Fulbright-Hayes Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship to conduct on-site research in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The supportive guidance of my advisors at my doctoral home institution, Dr. Shirine Hamadeh and Dr. Fabiola Lopez-Duran, as well as my former professors as a Master's student in Art History at Indiana University Bloomington and the SWSEEL program from 2009-2011, helped prepare me for the intense experience of delving deeply into bilingual archives and conducting field interviews in a secondary language abroad.
My dissertation focuses on the art and architectural patronage of minority immigrant communities in modern Argentina. At the turn of the twentieth century, Argentina experienced a wave of mass migration that transformed the racial, urban, and architectural environment of the southern cone of Latin America. While a large majority of migrants arrived from Europe, particularly from Italy and Spain, a sizeable number of Arab and Armenian-speaking immigrants arrived as early as the 1860s. This diverse group of immigrants — originally labeled “turco” by Argentine authorities — hailed from the neighboring Ottoman provinces of Adana, Syria, Aleppo and Beirut in the Eastern Mediterranean. My dissertation conducts case studies of key monuments and buildings sponsored by this community, engaging with their histories and visual analysis.
The fellowship has provided me with the generous guidance from leading professors in Latin American art history, such as Dr. Laura Malosetti, Dr. Marisa Baldasarre, and Dr. Sandra Szir at my host institution, the Universidad Nacional de San Martín (UNSAM). It also provided long-term access to specialized archives and libraries throughout Buenos Aires, such as the Sociedad Central de Arquitectos (SCA), where I received the support of Director Magdalena García, and research librarians Alicia Sirvent and Ricardo Gasalla. Last but far from least, the fellowship provided the opportunity to meet and hear the unique histories maintained by community leaders of the immigrant-sponsored institutions featured in my dissertation, such as Señora Zarife Rosenda Allub de Sarquis of the Hospital Sirio-Libanés, and Fathers Gabriel Coronel and Juan Torres of the Iglesia Ortodoxa de Antioquita in Buenos Aires. These individuals kindly allowed me to document their institutional archives and even invited me to present an overview of research-in-progress at the annual fundraiser of the Hospital Sirio-Libanés.
My methodology synthesizes traditional archival research with interviewing and on-site documentation frequently used in fields like sociology or anthropology to create a layered image of the art and architectural patronage of this diaspora community. The press repository of the Biblioteca Nacional Mariano Moreno features primary source immigrant press records such as the Diario Sirio-Libanés and As-salam, as well as the national press, La Nación and La Prensa. Working closely with the materials of the immigrant press and community members via field interviews has provided me with a powerful appreciation of the importance of language training to effectively conduct research abroad. The publications of the immigrant press juxtapose a variety of languages— from all-Arabic newspaper editions, to bi-lingual Spanish and Arabic papers, to Spanish-only texts. Architectural plans and records in my research also require a “reading” of visual languages, so that both verbal and visual literacy come into play.
While the archives serve as the foundation for my research, interviews with leaders of the immigrant institutions featured in my project help to fill in the gaps surrounding the histories of these minority communities and their contributions to larger society. Interviews at contemporary Armenian and Arab immigrant organizations and community sites, such as the Club Sirio-Libanés and Centro Armenio synthesize with archival materials to emphasize the agency and unique voices of the diaspora community.
Ultimately, I aim to make visible the ways in which the art and architectural patronage of minority diaspora communities participated in the transformation of the Argentine capital during the early twentieth century. Opportunities that support intensive language study in programs like SWSEEL, such as the Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship— as well as those that actively engage such linguistic training via research abroad, such as the Fulbright Hayes, help make such formative dissertation research experiences and the scholarship they yield possible.
Michael Marsh-Soloway (Russian, 2010)
My name is Michael Marsh-Soloway, and I am a PhD Candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Virginia, and Clay Fellow in the UVa Institute of the Humanities & Global Cultures. I am currently writing my dissertation, “The Ontological Necessity of All that is Imaginary: Mapping the Mathematical Consciousness of F.M. Dostoevsky.” In 2014, I received a Foreign Study Grant from the UVa Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to embark on a six-month trip to Russia, where I conducted archival research for my dissertation in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I was sponsored as a visiting scholar at the International University in Moscow with the support of Professor John Arch Getty of the UCLA History Department and the educational organization Praxis International.
Prior to departing, I consulted with my advisor Professor Julian Connolly, UVa Slavic librarians George Crafts and Elena Dimov, as well as Joe Lenkart of the Slavic Reference Service at the University of Illinois to identify key primary sources and their locations in preparation for my project. While in Russia, I visited more than a dozen libraries and museums to examine and collect materials related to Dostoevsky’s education at the Main Engineering School from 1837-1843 in conjunction with the author’s independent readings in mathematics and the sciences. Using funds from the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (AHSS) Summer Research Grant, I procured approximately 400 pages of high-definition scans from the chancellery records of the Main Engineering School from the time of Dostoevsky’s enrollment at the Russian State Military Historical Archive (RGVIA) in Moscow. According to the circulation records of RGVIA, I was the first non-Russian scholar to have accessed these bibliographic funds.
Thanks to the support of the UVa Center for Global Inquiry and Innovation Graduate Research Grant (CGI2), I attended in the Summer Research Laboratory (SRL) in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Illinois in June of 2014 upon returning to the U.S. During the SRL, I continued to work closely with Joe Lenkart and the support staff of the Slavic Reference Service to outline and compose the written narrative of my dissertation. In November of 2015, I presented my dissertation chapter, “The Certainty of Uncertainty: 2+2=5, the Underground Man, and Dostoevsky’s Reconciliation of the Real and the Imaginary,” at ASEEES in Philadelphia on the panel, “Dostoevsky: Faith, Film, and Mathematical Discourses.” In January of 2016, I will be presenting another extension of my dissertation project, “Dostoevsky and the Natural Philosophy of Classical Antiquity,” at AATSEEL in Austin on the panel “Texts and Contexts: Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.” My doctoral defense will likely be held in May of 2016.
In addition to my dissertation research, I pursue projects across a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, poetry, film, international relations, and second-language pedagogy. During the SRL, I participated in the translation workshop hosted by Professor David Cooper. While working closely with Professor Brian Baer, I refined the style and structure of several short Russian translations: Valentin Pikul’s “Drown Me, or Be Damned!”, a work of historical fiction imaginatively conveying the experiences of Admiral John Paul Jones in the Russian Imperial Navy, and Viktor Sosnora’s “Poetry and Poetics,” the speech that he delivered upon becoming poet laureate of the Russian Federation in 2011. These works were subsequently published in Inkstone and The UVa Contemporary Russian Literature Blog, respectively. In 2014, I published the book chapter, “Unseen Beauty, Shadows of Liminal Space, and the Caustic Passions of Exile: The Life and Writings of Mikhail Lermontov” in Critical Insights: Russia’s Golden Age, edited by Rachel Stauffer, and printed by Salem Press. I have also published articles and reviews in Obrazovanshchina, the newsletter for the UVa Society of Graduate Students, and the online journal, Digital Icons: Studies in Russian, Eurasian and Central European New Media.
I attended SWSEEL in 2010, and my studies at Indiana University facilitated my participation in unique teaching and research opportunities. In 2011, I studied at Bashkir State Pedagogical University in Ufa through the U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship program. At the University of Virginia, I have taught a variety of classes, including first-year Russian, second-year Russian, intermediate Russian conversation, ESL academic communication, and theoretical linguistics. As the language advisor of the UVa Russian House, I have been coordinating bi-weekly Russian tea and conversation events to provide additional speaking practice to students of the Slavic Department and the broader Charlottesville community. In December of 2015, I co-directed an all-student theatrical adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “The Crocodile.” Nearly 120 people attended the two public performances, the first held at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Public Library in downtown Charlottesville, and the second in the Nau Hall auditorium at UVa. In September of 2015, I was invited to participate in the yearlong Mellon Graduate Teaching Seminar for Excellence in the Humanities, “Pluralism in Society and the Academy,” led by Professors Alison Levine and Denise Walsh. Since July of 2015, I have also served as the Graduate Student Manager of the Arts and Sciences Center for Instructional Technology (ASCIT) where I oversee foreign-language testing and video production. In addition to my academic and professional activities, I enjoy writing creative short fiction, composing music, hot air ballooning, playing basketball, and spending time with friends and family.
Ingrid Nelson (Russian, 2010 and 2011)
Last fall, I entered Leiden University as a Master’s student of their Russian and Eurasian studies program. I had chosen the program for its flexibility in combining various study aspects, and for its location—Leiden, the Netherlands. Situated only half an hour from Amsterdam and five minutes from The Hague by train, Leiden is part of what the Dutch call “the Randstad.” Literally translating to “edge cities,” the Randstad is a term used to collectively describe the four cities in the Netherlands that produce much of the country’s economic, political, and cultural output: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht. Living and studying in Leiden, I had the opportunity to visit all four of these cities quite frequently, and I got to experience the mix of international and Dutch culture that the Netherlands is known for.
One of the biggest advantages of studying Russian and Eurasian studies in Europe is the location. Because St. Petersburg is only a three-hour flight instead of a 13-hour one, it’s much easier and much less expensive to travel to and from Russia, as well as the surrounding region. Many of my friends and colleagues were able to make short trips to St. Petersburg or Moscow for translation workshops or Master’s research in different archives. Partially due to their close proximity, Dutch universities are also able to host many guest lecturers from Russia and other nearby countries. While studying in Leiden, I had the chance to attend a master class at the University of Amsterdam given by contemporary Russian author Mikhail Shishkin, as well as the annual Europe Lecture at Leiden University, which in 2015 was given by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.
In addition to the convenience of travel and experiencing daily life in a foreign country, I also really enjoyed my academic program at Leiden University. As a graduate of IU’s Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures program (2012), I already had a great foundation in Russian studies, but my classes at Leiden filled in some more recent topical gaps. Courses dealt with political economics, Russian and Eurasian foreign policy, and even the culture of the Khrushchev-era Soviet Thaw. In the aftermath of Euromaidan, a multi-disciplinary course was offered, which covered various aspects of the Ukraine crisis from linguistic politics to the relevance of Taras Bulba. The academic foundation I built during my time at Indiana helped me immensely during my Master’s studies. Without my Russian language skills (honed during not one, but two consecutive SWSEEL summers!) I would not have been able to read the Russian language material required for many of my classes, or translate interviews given by artist Pyotr Pavlensky whose work I used as a case study for my Master’s thesis on dissident Russian performance art.
Apart from the unique opportunities that studying in Europe can offer, I found that pursuing Master’s work abroad provided a wonderful opportunity to learn how other countries interact with Russian-style politics and culture. Studying in the Netherlands gave me the chance to step back from the American-Russian dynamic that can often become the dominant lens through which we view Russian studies in the United States, and it allowed me to examine how the Netherlands and the European Union interact with their eastern neighbor. Given the current international situation regarding the Russian Federation, this perspective has proven quite valuable, and has given me a more holistic understanding of what is traditionally been called Western-Russia relations.
Allison Quatrini (Uyghur, 2010 and 2012; Uzbek, 2011 )
“Hello! You, young lady. Come sit down with us. Have a chat, drink some tea.”
I was browsing a dusty old bookshop on the very western edge of Xinjiang this past March when I heard the man call out to me. The shop had everything from children's books to a Uyghur-Mandarin chemistry dictionary. There was a lot to sift through—it would be a while before I found something suited to my research interests.
I turned and saw a group of elderly men sitting in a small circle near the front of the shop. They were neatly dressed in navy blue coats and dress pants with at least two of them wearing doppa. Occasionally, one of them would tend to customers looking for a specific item. Not having anything else to do and wanting to embrace opportunities to practice Uyghur, I took the seat the man indicated.
What followed was a conversation that lasted at least an hour or two, covering everything from the public Navruz holiday celebration I had just seen to what prompted me to learn Uyghur in the first place. Upon my departure, the store's owner gave me one of my selected volumes free of charge. When I tried to pay, he waved my wad of renminbi away, saying, “You know Uyghur. Let this be my gift to you.” He invited me to return the following morning to browse his materials at my leisure, and when I did, he had pre-selected some books that he thought I might find interesting.
Fast forward to July. I returned to Xinjiang to celebrate Eid al-Fitr with a Uyghur student who had become a good friend of mine. His grandmother invited me to her home, and I sat with a portion of my friend's extended family for the afternoon meal. I had the opportunity to really connect with the family, listening to my friend's mother talk about her journey from not understanding any Mandarin Chinese to being able to use the language in addition to sharing my own experiences learning Chinese and Uyghur. I wasn't merely a passive observer; rather, I felt as though I was an integral part of the celebration.
Both of these vignettes demonstrate not only meaningful dissertation field work, but also the value of my three SWSEEL experiences. In addition to understanding the language and being understood in return, I noted other benefits as well. When I met the elderly men at the bookshop and my friend's grandmother, I knew to greet them much differently than the teenagers sitting around the holiday table. This etiquette point was stressed a number of times during my Uyghur classes, and I'm glad I remembered it.
My SWSEEL experiences also assisted me not only in terms of language, but also in comprehending my surroundings. While walking around the western edge of Xinjiang, I saw a number of medikar, or daily wage laborers, standing close to one of the town squares, waiting for work opportunities. I didn't need to ask anyone who the men were or what they were doing—I remembered our class discussion and made the connection. During the Eid al-Fitr celebration, I was able to identify sangza, various candies and confections, and of course, polu. These were exactly the holiday items I knew to expect, and I knew to expect them due to my language education at IU.
The benefit of SWSEEL for me was two-fold. Not only did I learn Uyghur well enough to be able to communicate in the field, the cultural content we discussed in class really came alive. In this sense, I was able to fully participate in my field work experience, not simply making observations but truly connecting with people I can now call friends rather than research subjects.
Kristin Torres (Russian, 2012)
My mother still reminds me now and then about the time she accidentally called me from California in the middle of the night while I was away in Bloomington. She feared she had woken me up, but I surprised her when I picked up the phone and told her I still burning the midnight oil and cramming as much study time as I could during my four weeks in the Russian program at the 2012 Summer Workshop. It was a packed month of study at SWSEEL, where I was completing the last of my degree requirements for my Bachelor’s in Russian, but the hard work paid off and helped lead to two amazing internships in Russia. Now a graduate student in Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Missouri, I credit many of my accomplishments in the past few years to that month of intensive study and immersion.
After graduating from SWSEEL and completing my undergraduate degree, the first of a string of great opportunities came along with an internship at National Public Radio Headquarters in Washington, D.C. My application had been for the Arts Desk, and when I learned I would be granted an interview, for days I prepared to answer questions about my journalism background and career goals. When the interview time came around, however, it wasn’t by prior internships in journalism or my publications that my future supervisor asked me about. All she wanted to talk about was my degree in Russian – how I came to choose it as a field of study and why. We ended up talking mostly about Dostoevsky and literature as philosophy, and when the interview ended, I felt a sinking feeling. Surely I had disappointed – more a literature major than a would-be journalist. But few days later, I got the call. I was going to D.C., and I had my “quirky” background, foreign language skills (and SWSEEL!) to thank.
One opportunity rolled into another. The experience I gained at NPR helped nab me an arts reporting internship in St. Petersburg, Russia from the School of Russian and Asian Studies. Through SRAS, in addition to the internship, I was also awarded a full tuition scholarship for spring semester language study at St. Petersburg State University, followed by a full-tuition scholarship for studio art practice with a Russian master at The Hermitage Museum Youth Education Center during the summer semester. I spent nearly six months hopping around museums and galleries, reviewing art exhibits and creating my own in Russia’s arts capital.
After my time with SRAS, I was working as a producer for an NPR affiliate in St. Louis, Mo., when a post in a SWSEEL Alumni group on Facebook caught my eye. Someone had posted a flyer about an opportunity with Moscow’s New Economic School. They were seeking college students and recent graduates for an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow and a paid six-month internship and visiting studentship. I had hoped my “quirky background” and language skills would again give me a leg up. Before I knew it, I was packing my bags again and headed to my second Russian capital. I arrived in the dead of winter and stayed through the blistering summer, interning at NES’ Merrill Lynch Writing and Communications Center, where I helped Russian students improve their written and spoken English, and taking a class in international relations with Russian undergraduates. During spring break, I took advantage of my proximity and went to Germany, Austria and Poland – the latter where my Russian skills helped get me by.
A year after Moscow, I was offered a position as a teaching assistant of elementary Russian at the 2015 University of Pittsburgh STARTALK Summer Russian Language School, the inaugural year of the program. I got the opportunity to help start the program from scratch--coming up with activities, lesson plans and clubs for around 20 high school students. I drew on my time at SWSEEL for inspiration on how to facilitate an intensive and fun month of Russian study.
Now, I am coming off the heels of my first semester of my Master’s program, where I focus on race relations in Russia and the former Soviet Union. My time as an ethnic minority in Russia – a Latina frequently assumed to be Kazakh – opened my eyes to the peculiarities of the minority experience in Russia. Using my graduate research and language skills, I plan on returning to Russia in 2017 to carry out a reporting project on race in Russia during the World Cup. Naturally, in preparation, I am applying to SWSEEL again this year because I know it works – even if it costs me a few sleepless nights.
Colleen Bertsch (Romanian, 2013)
As I write this short essay, I am sitting in my Cluj-Napoca apartment, my home for nine months, listening to Alexandru Țitruș on my iTunes. A moment ago his violin sang a soulful, longing doina, but now it dances the învârtita. Even in my off time, I like to listen to Romanian folk music. I am in Cluj to research Transylvanian folk violinists for my Ph.D. dissertation in ethnomusicology at the University of Minnesota, and to be honest, I am a bit amazed that I was able to turn a musical passion into gratifying work.
I was first seduced by the melodies and dance rhythms of Trio Transilvan, the string bands that are found throughout Transylvania’s countryside. Now, after a few years of studying and playing the music, I am exploring the complex issues of identity concerning the musicians who live and work in this contested borderland region: Romanians, Hungarians, Romani, those with conservatory training, those who learned from their fathers, and the autodidacts. In Romania, musicians and non-musicians alike claim that you can hear differences in their playing styles and identify their ethnicity without looking at them. My job is to figure out what these claims are all about.
It’s an ambitious project, and as a violinist and budding ethnomusicologist, I’m up for the challenge. Yet one of my biggest hurdles has been language. As most readers of The Polyglot know and can appreciate, the Romanian language (like the Hungarian and Romanes languages) is not commonly taught in the United States. At first, I found a Romanian language workbook and began to learn a few words and phrases, but I quickly found the task of building a solid foundation on my own overwhelming. It seemed that, because of this one hurdle, I was going to have to develop a dissertation project that was completely unrelated to Romania.
Fortunately, in my second year of graduate school, I learned that Indiana University offered Romanian through the SWSEEL program. I attended the Romanian I & II course in the summer of 2013. Logistically speaking, the resulting IU transcript and my instructor’s evaluations have served as proof of the high quality of my language training for multiple scholarship applications. I received a 2015-16 Fulbright U.S. Student Research Award, which is funding my current field work in Romania.
In practice, SWSEEL’s intensive language training has been invaluable for my research. While it is true that many young people in Romania speak English, especially in the two largest cities, Bucharest and Cluj, my work often requires me to travel to smaller villages and talk to musicians with whom I can only communicate in Romanian, like the well-known violinist Florin Codoba from Palatcă and the colindatori I met while they were caroling in Albești on Christmas Eve. And while it is exhilarating to speak, even at an intermediate level, and be understood, I am most surprised by how much I understand. I certainly did not anticipate that I would be able to comprehend graduate-level folklore seminars, taught entirely in Romanian, at the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy.
Pas cu pas is a Romanian catch phrase, meaning ‘step by step,’ and the title of the book written by Romania’s current president, Klaus Iohannis. In it, he tells his life story as motivation for all Romanians to continue working calmly, patiently, confidently, to achieve long-term stability for the country. I use the phrase as my mantra for learning the Romanian language. Two and a half years after my first Romanian course, there are still times when I cannot say what I want to say. If I am in the middle of an interview, I fall back on playing the violin to fill in communication gaps. . . but then I take a deep breath and muster up confidence to speak again.
Although I often feel impatient because I want immediate fluency, I remind myself daily that it is okay that this is where I am with the Romanian language. I am in the throngs of learning, as an adult, a new language, while doing work that I am passionate about. I will get there, one step at a time.
Keely Bakken (Tatar, 2013)*
There have always been a number of excellent reasons to learn another language. From the numerous cognitive benefits of bi- and multilingualism to the immense personal growth attributable to language’s ability to open the door to increased understanding of other peoples, perspectives, and cultures, it’s difficult to imagine why everyone isn’t trying to pick up Polish or Swahili or Korean in their spare time. Especially with the growing demand for employees proficient in multiple languages besides English, more and more people are studying languages to increase their employability in an internationally competitive job market. Others still learn languages to communicate with family and friends, to make travel easier and more enjoyable, or just to appreciate the music and films the rest of the world has to offer.
All that considered, you might still wonder, why did I decide to learn Tatar, a Turkic language with just under 4.5 million native speakers in Russia?
As an undergraduate student, I had already seriously studied Spanish and Turkish, but as I became increasingly interested in expanding my area of study into Central Asia, I decided that learning another Turkic language—in addition to Russian—was imperative. In the summer leading up to the beginning of my graduate program, I enrolled in Indiana University’s Summer Language Workshop for Tatar—a rare and unique opportunity. A Turkic language spoken by Volga Tatars found mainly within the Russian Federation and parts of Central Asia, Tatar is infrequently taught in the United States. I thought it would give me a strong foundation for learning other Turkic languages in the future, and the means to learn about a less commonly studied region with a rich and complex history. The following summer, I went on to participate in the Eurasian Regional Languages Program that allowed me to intensively study Tatar for two months in Kazan, Russia.
Although I had begun studying Russian by this time, I had little to no practical speaking ability, and tried my best to get around relying on the language of Russia’s largest ethnic minority. As one might expect, this was baffling to Russians and Tatars alike. Especially since processes of assimilation have led more and more ethnic Tatars to forgo learning the Tatar language, it was difficult for them to understand why an American student had come all the way to Tatarstan to study Tatar, even if she did have an academic interest in the region. Why not just focus on learning Russian?
Although there are many great personal benefits to learning another language, there’s something to say about the impact of learning a language on the people around you as well.
I could communicate with people in English or in Russian, but nothing touched the hearts of people in Tatarstan like speaking to them in their mother tongue. It was just like Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” And this was something I fully experienced learning Tatar.
People were generally surprised but overjoyed that I was learning Tatar, and the fact that I spoke to them in their language made them proud and gave them the opportunity to express their pride in their language, culture, and people. This aspect of our interactions undoubtedly colored the connections I made with people, and although that definitely translated into a more rewarding experience for me, I like to think that my ability to communicate in Tatar mattered to the people I spoke to as well. Communication is about more than just being able to speak to one another—it’s about sharing as well. And being able to reach out and truly have an effect on another person is why #languagematters to me.
*This article was originally published by American Councils for International Education on November 9, 2015.
Connor Leach (Turkish, 2013; Russian, 2014)
I'm always surprised by the ways in which the Summer Language Workshop has helped me. I've been teaching in Bulgaria for 3 months now on the Fulbright Program and even though I never learned Bulgarian before I came here, the things I learned in Russian and even Turkish during SLW have helped me to pick up Bulgarian faster than I ever thought possible. One of the things this program teaches you is that languages are a gateway to other languages. Once I could speak Russian pretty well, it was easy to pick up Bulgarian, and as I have traveled around Eastern Europe, I've used the skills I learned in the Summer Language Workshop to connect one language to another. I feel like the world is so much more open to me now.
My year in Bulgaria so far has been one of the best in my life. Adjusting to a new language and culture is like being a kid again. I’m constantly learning something new here and every day it’s like I get to discover the world all over again, but through Bulgarian eyes. Everything is new and exciting, as if I’m experiencing the world for the first time. The skills I gained during the Summer Language Workshop have given me the tools I needed to learn Bulgarian very quickly, and that, in turn, has helped me to assimilate into Bulgarian culture more rapidly. Language isn’t just a way to understand the world a little better, but also a way to build relationships with other people. On the Fulbright Program, I teach in a high school every day, and learning Bulgarian has helped me to connect with my students in a way I simply couldn’t without it. The language has given me access to people in Bulgarian society that I could never have reached speaking only English or with only people who can speak English.
It wasn’t until I went through the Summer Language Workshop that I realized that learning a language is so much more than just learning the grammar or how to pronounce the words. The most important thing that a language does for you is provide you access to a whole new worldview: a different way of doing things, different philosophies, beliefs, and ways of communicating. There’s an entire world out there that you don’t have access to if you speak only English. In the Summer Language Workshop we worked with authentic materials every day, even in the lowest levels of a language. I heard about the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013 not from American reporters trying to interpret events on their own, but from a Turkish reporter on the scene, talking with Turks about their views on the protests. Likewise, in the summer of 2014, I didn’t hear about the events unfolding in Eastern Ukraine from American or British sources, but from people on the ground in the country, speaking the language. Being able to hear both sides of the story empowered me and allowed me to be more independent in my assessment of the situation.
Haley Townsend (Arabic, 2014)
“750 dirhams,” the busy shopkeeper stated in beautiful English. “Ghali bezzaf! (Too expensive!)” I retorted in accented Darija, or Moroccan Arabic. I always noticed the immediate surprise followed by confusion on the faces of merchants when I — a very white, blond-haired and blue-eyed Hoosier — responded to their English in understandable Darija. We were standing amidst countless colorful swords, knives, bellows and other trinkets in a bustling stall within Marrakech’s famous square, Jemma el-Fnaa. Smells of leather and cumin wafted through the musty, crowded corridor as we spoke. The middle-aged man quickly turned away from his other customers and devoted his attention to me. We bargained for quite some time in Darija when, finally, he accepted my highest offer: 250 dirhams for a small, decorated knife. The shopkeeper thanked me kindly for my service, holding his right hand over his heart in gratitude and respect. “Barak Allah-u feek” (blessings of Allah be upon you) I responded in thanks as I took my purchase, still noticing the pleasantly confused expression on the man’s face.
Initially embarrassed and alienated in a foreign country, this shopping moment was just one among many in which I felt capable of operating in Moroccan society, beyond the level of a visiting tourist. At this point, I was in my third year of Arabic language study. I had taken introductory and intermediate level courses at Kenyon College and then participated in the 9-week intensive Arabic program with SWSEEL before heading to Rabat, Morocco, where I spent my 2014 fall semester. My Arabic background prepared me well to go abroad, but I had to learn Darija in order to truly connect and communicate with Moroccans.
Reading through my Moroccan Arabic Phrasebook & Dictionary before departing, I recognized how difficult it would be for tourists, unfamiliar with Arabic pronunciations and constructions, to use various words and phrases. Darija is a predominantly spoken dialect of Arabic and is very difficult to learn from standard textbook and homework assignments. Darija, by its very nature, requires that you actively use it in various settings with new people. This often dissuades many students from studying in Morocco, since the dialect is starkly different from Modern Standard Arabic, which is taught in university classrooms. Originally nervous, I learned to embrace this challenging language and actually found it incredibly rewarding after a few months of practice. Because of my Arabic grammar and vocabulary background, I was able to quickly adapt and apply my language skills in different situations.
I observed a direct correlation between my bargaining and language skills — as my Darija improved, I struck better deals in the souq (marketplace). Shopkeepers often changed their demeanors from annoyance with customers, focusing only on getting the most money from tourists, to mutualism and intrigue when I shifted the conversation into Arabic. But beyond getting better deals for souvenirs, my everyday interactions with Moroccans became more fruitful as my Arabic became more natural. Trips to the souq began to take hours, my focus shifting from simply buying necessary items off of a list, to actually enjoying my time talking with the merchants and listening to their thoughts.
After about 2 months, I felt as though I had really assimilated into Moroccan society, a feeling I could not have gained in just a week as a visitor. For example, when my American friend paid a visit to my host family’s apartment during his travels, I noticed how he violated various norms. I cringed when he trudged across the rugs in his dirty shoes, gave my host mom a huge hug and spoke loudly in English the entire time. My adoption of Moroccan cultural norms was clearly demonstrated in this instance, and I realized that I no longer felt like a tourist. This shift in perspective could not have happened as quickly as it did without my knowledge of Arabic.
I practiced Arabic constantly that semester: with my host family in L’Ocean, in class at AMIDEAST, with my new swim team, at the gym, restaurants, etc. After a few months, I looked forward to my conversations with taxi drivers as we discussed religion, language, family and politics on the short drive from the club swimming pool to my host family’s apartment. My language abilities continued to improve over the course of the semester, and thus, my ability to integrate into Moroccan society. Communicating in Arabic, rather than French or English, granted me more respect from Moroccans and made me feel connected and functional in the new culture.
Steven Luber (Russian, 2014)
As a lifelong history nerd, I always found the Eurasian region particularly fascinating. Despite the fact that international headlines were focused on the Middle East for most of my formative years, there was something about this area which kept drawing me back. When I began my undergraduate studies in the Intelligence Studies program at Mercyhurst University, I chose Russian to meet my foreign language requirement, despite the fact that we were all encouraged to take Arabic or Mandarin Chinese. After my first year with the language, I enrolled as a student in SWSEEL’s level 2 Russian course in order to make more rapid progress. While in Bloomington, I would spend much of my free time trying to struggle my way through original Russian-language materials in the University library, and kept coming across books focusing on the Caucasus. When I saw that American Councils was offering a summer abroad course in Tbilisi for the first time in summer 2015, I decided to take a chance and sign up.
I was not disappointed. The Peace and Security in the South Caucasus program includes coursework (taught primarily by Georgian professors) on regional identities, religion, politics, economics, art, and culture, as well as the opportunity to learn Russian, Georgian, and/or Chechen. I chose to continue with Russian, wanting to take advantage of this opportunity to become truly conversational in the language, and figuring that I could also pick up a fair amount of Georgian from everyday interactions with my host family and daily life in Tbilisi. Once the Georgian alphabet is deciphered (it isn’t as bad as it looks, really) it was easy to learn a dozen basic phrases, which proved useful time and time again.
The program, which is run by fellow SWSEEL alumni Dr. Timothy Blauvelt, includes visits to historical sites around Tbilisi, a trip to the Stalin museum in Gori, a visit to a settlement of internally-displaced persons fleeing the South Ossetian conflict (though never refer to the territory as South Ossetia when talking with Georgians, use the Georgian name Tskhinvali instead), an optional excursion to the port city of Batumi, and many opportunities to meet with American and Western expats in Georgia. I highly recommend taking advantage of all of these opportunities, especially considering you’ve traveled half way around the world to get there.
Tbilisi is the geographic and symbolic center of the entire South Caucasus region. It has always been a very metropolitan area, serving as the crossroads for merchants, missionaries, and armies moving east and west for centuries. As late as the early 20th century, it had a relative Armenian majority, something which is still reflected in much of the city’s architecture. Today, it is very easy to hear a multitude of languages spoken in everyday interactions; Georgian of course, Russian, which serves as the predominant inter-ethnic lingua franca, Armenian, Azeri, Farsi, Greek, Turkish, and an ever more visible English. In fact, I was genuinely surprised by the extent to which English was present in the capital. Most restaurants had English language menus, many street advertisements were written in the language, Georgians of all ages seemed eager to learn (and practice it, upon correctly guessing my accent), and Georgian universities were increasingly offering courses taught entirely in English.
This is the classic frustration that many Anglophone students have when trying to learn foreign languages (especially less common ones like Russian and Georgian); a lot of people would rather practice their English rather than speak to you in their language. As a general rule, you have to make it very clear right way that your objective is to learn Georgian, Russian, Chechen, etc., and not deviate from that until everyone knows you are serious about it. My advice is to take advantage of what SWSEEL has to offer beforehand, master as much of the grammar and develop as large a vocabulary as possible, to make a good first impression.
I would highly recommend American Councils to any student interested in the Caucasus. The language teachers were some of the best I’ve ever worked with, the faculty was top notch, and the entire program was very well run. This is a great first step for those interested in the region, and an introduction to a place that will keep calling for you to come back, time and time again.
Sarah Murray (Swahili, 2014)
I participated in the SWSEEL workshop in order to learn some basic Swahili directly prior to going to Tanzania for two weeks to conduct field research for my master’s thesis. My thesis was studying population movement, and while in Dar es Salaam I interviewed more than twenty women who had moved to the city from rural areas in the northern region of Kilimanjaro. The interview questions contrasted the well-being of the women and their households, contrasting from before the migrated with their wellbeing after arriving and living in Dar es Salaam. The interviews were conducted in four different markets across the city.
I had arranged to stay in student housing at the University of Dar es Salaam while I was there, and the University sent a driver and a student to pick me up at the airport. My plane landed at midnight but they were there waiting for me. I was quiet for most of the half hour drive, taking in everything I saw going past the car window. At one point the student (his name was Benny) asked me if Tanzania was different from where I came from in Michigan. At first I wasn’t sure how to answer – everything was different. “Yes, it’s different,” I said. “How?” he asked. “Well, for starters,” I said, “in America we don’t drive on the left side of the road; we drive on the right.” “On the right? That doesn’t seem very safe to me,” he said.
I was able to conduct my fieldwork with the help of a research assistant, Cecilia, from the University of Dar es Salaam Center for Climate Change Studies. Cecilia was my guide and to this day we are still friends. She helped with identifying women to participate in the interview and took me around to the different markets, as well as various government agencies in order to gather additional research. As my jetlag wore off and as we spent more time together, we began to talk more and share more about ourselves. One day she shared with me that I was the first white person she had ever met or talked to, and that she had been nervous about meeting me. We talked about such a wide range of subjects – from what television shows we liked to watch to climate change to relations between the US and Tanzanian governments to the availability of electricity.
The same driver and student took me back to the airport when it was time for me to return to the United States. Due to the afternoon traffic, however, the drive was two hours instead of thirty minutes. Although Benny spoke English quite well, the driver barely spoke it at all, but having studied Swahili during the SWSEEL program, I was able to have a conversation with the driver. We talked about his family and children, where he worked before he was a cab driver, among other things. When I said goodbye to Benny, he gave me a painted figurine of a hippopotamus to remember Tanzania by and said that he was certain I would come back one day.
Alyssa Meyer (Turkish, 2014)
In 2012-2013, I won a Fulbright research grant to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to study the extent to which renewable energy development could help Kyrgyzstan achieve greater energy security and independence. And while the grant was naturally fantastic daily practice for my Russian, it also offered me a new perspective on my research.
I will be the first to tell you how lucky we are to study/have studied at a university rich in area studies programming and course offerings, but personal experience has taught me that even the strongest of book worms cannot absorb all knowledge about a given research topic from a library.
Let me give you an example. During library research or even short stints abroad, one does not typically have to spend a great time of time visiting doctors. But when you get sick during a long-term research grant, you have little choice but to wade in an aspect of local life that you likely avoided up until then—at least, this much was true in my case. I’m certainly not advocating getting very ill abroad; my closest friends can tell you that the beginning of 2013 was one of the most frightening times of my life. But the moral of the story is that I got a firsthand glance at my research topic from a setting and an angle that I had never considered before—and probably never would have considered. I realized—sitting in the hospital worrying about electricity outages—that I didn’t understand my research topic as well as I thought. I had gone into my Fulbright grant thinking that the causes of Kyrgyzstan’s energy insecurity were well understood. And I wasn’t completely off base here, but what I came to understand during this time was that I didn’t understand the effects the problem. When I interviewed researchers and specialists and watched the news, the most I ever heard was an estimate of how many households had been impacted by an outage, but no one ever told me how people’s lives were impacted. I sat there wondering: What do hospitals do during an outage? Do they all have generators? Are they shielded from outages by officials? What happens, for example, to patients on ventilators?
This naturally caused a shift in my work for the rest of my grant...so drastically so that halfway into a dual-Master’s at IU I found myself applying for a second research grant. Now as a Boren Fellow in Kyrgyzstan, I am lucky enough to be back and collecting data on this exact question from 30 households across the country: How does Kyrgyzstan’s energy crisis impact everyday life for the population? There are those that find two grants overkill, but the truth is that no matter how strong your research proposal, you can never predict what it will be like to actually do the work.
The one thing you can absolutely expect is this: Being forced to function linguistically in a native setting can help even the shyest of language learners—and, yes, I am absolutely amongst you—to overcome the crippling fear of making mistakes. In a U.S. language classroom, I was always comforted by the fact that in the worst-case scenario, I could always ask permission to ask my question in English. But when I’m standing in the middle of a bazaar or on a bus in Central Asia, I don’t have that to fall back on. If I’m on a bus, I have to ask the driver to stop in order to get off. In a bazaar, I have to ask a seller for everything I want or walk away with out it. (Oh, and believe me, I’ve had plenty of days when I couldn’t muster the courage to do what I needed!) But the more I do these things, the more it becomes second nature. In fact, in my nearly five months since returning to Bishkek, I have watched myself become braver and braver in Russian. During my Fulbright year, I prided myself in being able to do everyday tasks alone, but very often I relied on close friends to help me with more difficult things like doctor's appointments. This year, I've been pushing myself to do even the difficult stuff alone—into more and more situations, in order to find the limits of my current vocabulary. Between research field trips and vet visits with my kitten, it has exposed me to a lot of new vocabulary, and I'm really proud of the growth I've seen.
Diana Hatchett (Kurdish, 2015)
I never imagined that I would teach indoor cycling in Iraq.
Although the Islamic State, or Daesh, as they are called here, occupies Mosul, just 80 kilometers away, daily life in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq continues. (Mosul is located outside the borders of the Kurdistan Region). It was a typical Tuesday night at Esporta gym in the city of Hewler (also called Erbil), where I coach indoor cycling, or “spinning,” classes. Esporta has separate workout facilities for men and women, although many of the group fitness classes are coeducational, including my cycling classes. We had just finished a climbing a hill, and I told the participants "peshew bidden," to take a break.
“Oh my God,” said the new girl, looking up from her bike. “You're speaking Kurdish!” She looked around at the other participants. Some of the regulars grinned. They have heard me -- and have helped me -- speak Kurdish before. Her reaction is normal: most locals expect foreigners to have little or no knowledge of Kurdish.
An estimated 7 to 9 million people (there are no official estimates) speak Sorani Kurdish, a group of dialects also referred to collectively as Central Kurdish. Sorani Kurdish belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European languages. There are an estimated 30 to 40 million Kurdish speakers (again, no official estimates exist), mostly residing in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, as well as in diaspora across Europe and the United States. Most Sorani speakers live in Iraq, where Sorani Kurdish is one of the two official languages, the other being Arabic.
At Esporta gym, the group fitness classes are taught in English, which most gym members understand. If a participant does not know English, a fellow participant offers to translate. I don't need to speak Kurdish to teach cycling. I discovered, however, that if I use a few phrases here and there, people respond. They smile. They pedal harder or faster.
After class, the new girl, Gul,* and two of her friends approached me: “If you want to learn Kurdish, we should form a pact,” Gul said. "We want to learn English; you want to learn Kurdish. Easy!”
Muna,* an Arabic speaker from Baghdad, nodded eagerly. “Yes, I want to learn Kurdish, too,” Muna said. “I live here [in the Kurdistan Region] now, so I should learn Kurdish.”
“Bikheir bi, welcome,” I said to Muna.
“She's so cute when she speaks Kurdish!” Muna teased.
“Hey, don't pick on me. I want to get better,” I said.
Many of my language experiences living abroad are mundane: introducing myself, taking taxis, buying groceries. These were language-learning exercises in my introductory Sorani Kurdish class with Dr. Haidar Khezri at the Indiana University Summer Language Workshop in 2015. Surprisingly, many of the same language learning topics have proven useful in my cycling classes: Describing the weather and places (e.g. “It's a sunny day and you are going down a long, flat road”) and lots of adjectives (“fast, slow, heavy, light, strong, weak”). When we learned in Dr. Khezri's class how to form the imperative, I thought, “When would I even use some of these verbs in the imperative?” Now I frequently use them: “Go! Stop! Sit down! Stand up! Take a break!” Even the doctor-patient role play scenario, which we did in class to learn the body parts and healthcare terms, has been relevant: At the gym, women often approach me to ask about pains in arms and legs, or what exercises to do for different parts of the body. Several women have asked me how to achieve a posterior like Nicki Minaj. We could all do a few more squats, I guess.
Sometimes I sit in Kurdish grammar classes at the high school in Hewler where I am conducting dissertation research. Doing grammar exercises in a classroom feels familiar and safe. The hard work is initiating conversation with people outside the classroom, especially in a city where so many people can speak English. I admit that I am a shy language learner. I want people to see me as competent, and language learning, by necessity, involves making many, many mistakes in front of others. So it is instructive for me to regard language learning as a kind of physical exercise, much like the group fitness classes I teach, rather than as a stage performance: In group fitness classes, everyone has a different fitness level. It is visible. Some people have been working out for years and are buff. Others have just started and are flabby. My Kurdish is flabby, but it is getting stronger, thanks to SWSEEL and a little help from my language workout buddies.
* A pseudonym
Share your Experiences!
If you you would like to share your experinces of living abroad and would like to be featured in The Polyglot, please send your photo and a few paragraphs about your experiences during your time overseas to the newsletter editor Olga Bueva (firstname.lastname@example.org).
We look forward to your submissions!