For the love of languages
March 11 2017 11:22 PM
Milena Savova

After spending nearly 20 years as director of the now defunct Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting at New York University’s School of Professional Studies and clinical professor of translation, Milena Savova took up the mantle as Director of the Language Center at the Translation and Interpreting Institute (TII) within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hamid Bin Khalifa University, in January last year. Community caught up with Savova for a chat to know more about the realm of language-learning.

As Director of the Language Center, what are your priorities related to meeting the objectives of TII?
The Language Center has a special mission of teaching foreign languages to adults. It strives to further develop the human potential of the people of Qatar. Languages play an ever increasing-role in broadening people’s horizons. We are engaged in helping the country develop a multi-lingual population that is ready to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. Adults are a special group when it comes to foreign language instruction. They are very motivated and each of them has a specific reason for learning a given language. Usually, those reasons range from professional – being on a multi-national working group or making frequent trips to a certain country – to personal, such as mixed marriages, wishing to communicate with the in-laws, wishing to improve one’s job prospects, or to travel and for love of languages. What all adults have in common is that they have busy schedules and need to learn fast. We, as educators, need to develop curricula that address the needs of adults, often placing more emphasis on developing students’ speaking and listening skills first at least to give them a jumpstart and help them overcome the psychological barrier. 

Could you please elaborate how the Center does this?
The Center constantly strives to increase its footprint in Doha. In addition to teaching languages we host numerous events during the year in which we highlight the cultures of the respective countries. During the past week, we organised a Diplomatic Week and we hosted 16 ambassadors of countries whose languages we teach to give our students an opportunity to practice the languages with native speakers of a very high calibre and learn more about their countries and cultures. Both sides engaged in very interesting and substantive discussions on topics from food and clothing to geopolitics and embassy life. We are pleased that we have a growing number of Qataris in our classes: last fall, they comprised 40 per cent of our student body, the highest ever.

With TII currently offering training seven languages namely Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese, and courses in Italian and Germany to start soon, what are the biggest challenges that you would have to overcome?
Even though we consider the Center to be one language programme, each language is also a unique programme with its own market, its own target audience. For example, French is a traditionally dominant foreign language among Qataris but Spanish is gaining popularity due to football. Italian is also associated with football and, of course, pizza, pasta and food, in general. The greatest draw in terms of German is university education. Portuguese is popular among Indians from Goa and Middle Easterners with family history in Brazil. Chinese is fast becoming one of the popular languages to learn world-wide. Last but not the least, I don’t need to explain why people wish to learn Arabic. Doha is a large multi-ethnic, multi-lingual city. I strongly believe that there is a market for all the languages we teach. As for challenges, I would say they are good ones: how to reach out to everyone, how to tell people our story, how to communicate with them. In Chinese, I am told, there is a similarity in the characters for “challenge” and “opportunity”. The opportunities we have are to constantly re-think and re-evaluate the way we teach and maintain the highest possible standards. 

How would you describe your love for languages? How many languages do you speak?
I have never regretted working with languages. I just wish I knew more of them. My native language is Bulgarian and I started speaking French at home when I was very little. Later on, I had a teacher who had an old-fashioned approach based on grammar and that traumatised me. My second language is English followed by Danish. I had a scholarship to study in Denmark and I learned the language quite well. After I came back to Sofia University, I opened the first Danish language programme and taught in it for a few years. I also speak Russian and a little German. Each language I have learned has been through a different methodology and within a different timeframe and with different outcomes. More time spent does not necessarily lead to better results.

Please tell us a little about your personal relationship with languages.
It’s difficult to say why I love languages: whether I was born with it or whether it was due to the numerous discussions we had in my family. Everyone spoke at least one foreign language. We had French and German dictionaries and encyclopaedias and whenever there was a dispute we would refer to them. I remember being about ten years old when I spent my weekly allowance which my parents gave me – small but quite a revolutionary concept in Bulgaria in those days – to buy a Russian book because I was curious about the language. Another thing I always did while learning languages was to try and think in a given language when by myself. I am sure that it helped me learn faster and become more fluent. Whatever I was thinking about – mundane, everyday chores – I would do it in the language instead of in Bulgarian. Whenever I stumbled for lack of words I would look them up. It’s a good brain game too.

In what ways, do you feel, learning new languages enrich our lives?
There’s already undisputed research that language learning in adults can prevent or slow down the development of Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders. But before we get to the issue of ageing, with every language one opens a new door to another world. We gain new concepts and new insights. As you well know, we often talk about untranslatable words or phrases in certain languages or in all languages. When you learn that language, through those untranslatables, you acquire a new way of thinking and conceptualising the world. Oftentimes, multilingual people throw in foreign words when they speak. It’s not because they are too lazy to translate them but because they have adopted a certain concept as part of their worldview and the word for it best expresses what they want to say. My message would be that more people take the plunge into the beautiful experience of learning a foreign language and start practicing from the very first day, unafraid of making mistakes. We make mistakes even in our native languages. There’s no time to wait till we learn “enough” before we start speaking and listening.

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