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On language learning, career moves, and writing

On February 2, Oakland University’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures held an Alumni Showcase event on its campus in Rochester, Michigan. Alumni representing the department’s curricula in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish were invited to speak to undergraduates about their post-college careers and the role language learning has played in them.

I was honored to be among the 10 alumni who spoke at the event. In the limited time available, I shared my career history and how language learning has impacted my writing and shaped my life. The text of my speech follows.

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Bonsoir tout le monde, всем привет, hi everyone.

Thank you for that nice introduction.

And thanks to the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures for asking me to speak tonight. I’m humbled to be included among the other guests who have spoken about their impressive careers.

Special thanks as well to Prof. Dikka Berven for inviting me to be among the alumni here this evening.

Prof. Berven is the one who instilled in me a love for language learning, which continues today as I’m learning French through the Alliance Française de Détroit, and Russian through the Michigan Russian and Eastern European Cultural Center.

As I tell you a bit about my career, I hope to share something that in some small way may be helpful as you consider the path you might take as a student of a foreign language.

After earning a master’s degree in English at the State University of New York at Binghamton, I returned to OU and became a Special Lecturer in Rhetoric. I taught argumentative and persuasive writing and the fundamentals of research papers.

Around this time, I became intrigued by the legal profession and I worked for a couple of Detroit law firms in litigation support. I maintained case files, wrote deposition summaries and drafted correspondence to court clerks and judges.

After doing this for a couple of years, I found myself in search of a creative spark. That’s when I learned The Detroit News was hiring on its editorial side.

Soon enough, I began working as an editorial assistant in the Sports department. I had opportunities here and there to write stories covering all levels of sport, from the pros to college, high school and amateur sports.

But I wanted even more opportunities to write. So I returned to OU once again and became the university’s first Web Writer. I wrote stories for an online news hub covering campus events and other items of interest to students, faculty and staff.

From that job I transitioned to Judson Center, a human services nonprofit in Royal Oak. I worked in the agency’s fundraising department, where I wrote for donor publications, annual reports, and foundation reports.

When my agency job was cut, it created another opportunity. I launched Samoray Communications in 2007, which serves clients in the health care, nonprofit and higher education sectors. I write content for publications, websites, annual reports, fundraising campaigns and more.

So my career might seem rather circuitous. But I look at these different jobs as chapters in a book with a plot that continues to evolve. The common thread that binds this book is writing. In every job I’ve had, communication through the written word has been the common theme.

Which brings me back to the study of foreign languages—which is really about learning how to communicate effectively with people across different cultures.

Having this skill is very valuable, because the global economy has created a need to communicate with foreign business partners. Listing a foreign language on your resumé can only help make you more attractive to future employers and help broaden your career opportunities.

To this point: British psycholinguist Frank Smith wrote: “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”

Learning a foreign language also makes you look more closely at your native language; you begin to think at a deeper level about how your own language works. Learning foreign languages has helped me become a better writer in English. I choose words more carefully and consider how to use them strategically to reach my target audience.

Lastly, there’s little doubt speaking a foreign language can enrich your life. Fluency offers chances to travel, connect with people across cultures, and more easily navigate life in a foreign country, as I experienced while visiting Paris last fall. You can’t beat reading great works of literature in the original language.

In addition, as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote, “A special kind of beauty exists which is born in languages, of language, and for language.”

I hope that learning a foreign language (or two, or more) will allow a special kind of beauty to enter your life as well. I encourage you to embrace it, absorb it, and cherish it for the rest of your life.

Merci beaucoup, спасибо, and thank you kindly.