From Russian to NPR: Language Study Matters

Well folks, we’re back in a Ghost town.

This past Friday, all of the language school students (finally) left, leaving a 1,500 person sized vacancy on our huge, leafy campus. For (almost) the entire summer, the few, the proud, the English have been surrounded by foreign language school students, so to have them gone feels very strange.

Not to mention that the cute French children have also left.

To celebrate the end of the Language schools, the college held a commencement ceremony this past Friday to honor those students who were receiving Masters or Doctorate degrees in Foreign Language. It was held in Mead Chapel, which was a nice throw back to the days of Convocation (I mean, who didn’t love touching the cane?). For the ceremony, the school brought in Vivian Schiller, the president of NPR, to speak. Besides being such a powerful woman (she’s not only run NPR but also the Discovery Channel and CNN), Ms. Schiller earned her Masters from Middlebury in Russian almost exactly 25 years ago in 1985.

As to be expected, her speech focused primarily on language acquisition and education. As an undergraduate, Ms. Schiller earned a degree in Russian, obtaining her Masters in Russian later on at Middlebury. You might be wondering, as a lot of us in the audience were, how she could have possibly ever ended up pursuing a career in journalism. She discussed how she receives that question a lot of the time, people prodding her to figure out why on earth she studied Russian. She responded, saying that she studied Russian because she loved it and it is because of her study of Russian that she became the journalist that she is today. She went on to say that she could ‘trace a straight line’ from her decision to study Russian to her current work with NPR.

Wow.

As a student fascinated with languages (I’ve studied French, Italian and Spanish, and am thinking about jumping on the Portuguese train), it was empowering to hear that so much success could come from pursuing a foreign language passion. I sometimes find myself struggling to validate my intense focus on language study, both because it is incredibly time consuming and because, at least on the surface, it doesn’t seem very practical, but Ms. Schiller has seemingly defied that notion, and in her speech she spent a great deal of time urging all those in the room to not only study a language, but to become immersed in the culture of that language. In America, she went on to say, we have lost touch with what it means to be aware of other cultures and that only through language study can we ever hope to regain a sense of knowing what it means to be citizens of the world.

Her speech brought me, if nothing else, immense clarity about what I want for myself. I want to study languages, yes, but I also want to become an active participant in bringing together those parts of the world that seem so lost in translation.

I guess Middlebury isn’t a bad place to start.

Listen to Ms. Schiller’s speech here: http://middmedia.middlebury.edu/media/atolbert/VivSpeech.mp3″

And a rousing rendition of Gamaliel Painter’s Cane (led by François Clemmons, tenor): http://middmedia.middlebury.edu/media/atolbert/GamalielPainter.mp3″

Ciao/Adios/Au Revoir,

Cody

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