Most people, it seems, study foreign languages for all the wrong reasons. High school and college students do so to meet graduation requirements. Older adults do so to get certain jobs, or to make more money, or to feel more sophisticated when traveling abroad.
I will be the first to admit that there were times in my life when I pursued language study for all the wrong reasons…
In high school, I needed at least two years of a foreign language to graduate. I chose German simply because my ancestors five generations ago were German speakers and because my father had learned it in school. I suppose I saw it as a family duty of sorts, despite the lack of any meaningful connection with either past or present-day Germany.
The problem is that I could never get German to click for me.
Sure, I learned enough to pass all the classes and exams I needed, and there was even a time when I could make myself understood as a reasonably intelligent human being when traveling through Germany and Austria. I even managed to read a brilliant novel—Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser (The Reader)—in the original German without too much trouble. But despite my efforts, despite the fact that Germany is a beautiful and well-run country with a friendly people, and despite it being one of the world’s best economies with lots and lots of opportunity, I felt myself inexplicably pulled in another direction.
Around the time that my German study began to wane, I started learning Russian. I took up Russian for the simple reason that I had been fortunate enough to see a brilliant performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina in New York. Upon leaving this opera, I knew, right away, that I simply had to learn Russian. And the more I learned, the more I found that I could reinforce what I had learned by making certain life choices—pursuing a year in Russia on a Fulbright grant, earning a graduate degree in Eurasian and Russian studies, and pursuing a career as a translator and communications consultant liaising between the Russian and English-speaking worlds of business.
The more such choices I made, the more my life began to change in other much more significant ways. For eight years now I have been married to a beautiful Russian-speaking woman. Together we are raising a beautiful, bilingual daughter. I have many Russian-speaking friends, both in Russia, at home in Chicago and in the many places I’ve lived and traveled. And since it is my family and friends who ultimately determine who I am as a person, it seems fair to say that the choice I made to learn Russian, quite simply, changed my life.
It has been thirteen years since I first picked up a Russian language textbook, but the process of learning is far from complete. And that’s the beauty of it. The choice to learn Russian was the right one then, just as it continues to be the right one now. Language study undertaken merely to achieve a specific goal such as a job or graduation requirement can be drudgery; language study for the purpose of changing one’s life, on the other hand, can bring untold opportunity.