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Northwestern University

What’s the most unusual experience you’ve had as a result of knowing a second language?

Students, alumni and faculty share their most unexpected experiences

Noelle Sullivan, assistant professor of instruction, Global Health Studies

In 2008, I was doing dissertation research in Tanzania when President George W. Bush came to the hospital where I was working to showcase his malaria initiative. For more than two weeks before his visit, Americans had come to the hospital every day to make preparations: White House interns, the Secret Service, USAID Tanzania representatives, the press. While some Tanzanian hospital staff spoke English, many weren’t comfortable with it. I knew English and Swahili, which I had studied before arriving in Tanzania, and was asked to help translate.

I was never supposed to meet the president. But on the day of his visit, one of the lead Americans decided he wanted me on site. Sure enough, being there was useful. I was able to find a ladder that the communi­cations team needed in order to set up antennae on the roof, and I helped another American find more Tanzanians for press shots. Standing among the Tanzanians, I shook President Bush’s hand and greeted him as he came through.

Clare Cavanagh, Frances Hooper Professor in the Arts and Humanities; chair, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

As a graduate student in Harvard’s Slavic department, I'd been forced to choose a so-called “second Slavic language”— Bulgarian, Czech, Ukrainian or Polish — to study, in addition to Russian literature. I was ticked. But Poland was in the news all the time in 1980. “What the hell, I’ll do Polish,” I thought. I continued my work in Russian literature and obsessively pursued Polish as a sideline, studying with the Polish poet-scholar Stanisław Barańczak. In 1986, we began translating the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska.

Ten years later, Szymborska won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the Swedish Academy cited our volume View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems in its announcement of the prize. Stanislaw and I became the official translators for Szymborska’s Nobel lecture. But then Stanisław was too ill to go to Stockholm, so I went alone. I was terrified. I found myself surrounded by Poles in the Nobel Laureate Suite with Szymborska, and she didn't speak English. I didn't know her friends. But her Swedish translator spoke Polish like Pope John Paul II, and knew everyone.

Then Szymborska spoke up. “Co mam ukra?” she asked. Even I got that: “What should I steal?” We all went around finding things she might pack in her suitcase (i.e., no lamps or pictures). I think I suggested a shoehorn. I don't remember what she finally took.

Janka Pieper, director of communications, International Relations

Germans don’t engage much in small talk. They tend to either want to have a meaningful conversation or keep to themselves. A couple of weeks into my first semester in the United States, another student and I got on an elevator together. She immediately asked me how I liked my classes. And so I began my longwinded answer. When we got to my floor, I had only told her about one of my four classes. So I stayed on and proceeded to talk about class number two. Three floors later, the doors opened and she exited the elevator. Just like that. She wished me a wonderful day, and said that it was great chatting with me. “Hey, I’m in the middle of a sentence,” I thought, confused. It took me months, maybe even a year, to grasp the concept of small talk. Even today, 16 years later, when asked how I am, I still find myself preparing that long, detailed and honest answer.

Britt Jordan ’17, legal studies and economics major

While studying in Berlin and just beginning to grasp the German language, I accompanied some friends to a cool burger joint. This is it, I told myself, you’re going to order in German and no one will know you’re American. I uttered my request nervously to the cashier. The cashier paused, looked at me intently, and then slowly reached out his palm. “Twenty-seven euros,” he demanded. I was so jittery, I didn’t even think about how high a price this was (about $32) for one hamburger, let alone three (hint, hint). I paid the cashier, took my receipt and sat down to wait. A sense of existential dread set in. After deliberating, I inched over to the counter and explained the misunderstanding. The cashier rolled his eyes and thrust a fistful of euro coins in my direction. I learned how important enunciating numerals in a foreign language could be.

Oluwaseun Ososami ’15, German, political science and international studies major

My native tongue is Yoruba, a Nigerian language. In 2014, I was studying in Copenhagen, Denmark, and went out with a group of students to celebrate a friend’s birthday. At one of the venues, the atmosphere was booming with different languages being spoken aloud. Once we got to the main floor, I heard the deejay playing songs that I had listened to as a kid growing up in Lagos. A sense of nostalgia overwhelmed me. I became fascinated with the deejay and wanted to learn about his background. I approached him and introduced myself in English with my full name. Instantly, he started speaking Yoruba to me: “Bawo ni,” which means, “How are you?” It was so simple yet so powerful. I became very excited. We were both from the same area in Lagos! I was filled with pride that even as far as Copenhagen, I could find a fellow citizen and make an instant connection. It reinforced my desire to go back home, for it had been too long.

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