A grandfather's advice to learn languages leads to an unanticipated future for one Concordia faculty member.
By Dr. Leila Zakhirova, assistant professor of political science
There is a direct link between what I do for a living today and what happened 50 years ago between two men in a remote village in Turkmenistan, then part of the Soviet Union. In their conversation, my 18-year-old father announced to his father that he wanted to break the family tradition of working on the farm and go to college instead (first one in his family).
In the same conversation, he sought his father’s advice on which of the two paths he should pursue: (1) enroll in an engineering school (my father’s first choice and life-long passion) or (2) enroll in a pedagogical institute to learn a foreign language. My grandfather, without hesitation, counseled my father toward the latter. In his own words, my grandfather told him, "Knowing a foreign language is wealth. No person with an ability to speak a foreign language has ever starved in life.”
Admittedly unhappy about the advice at the time, the true impact of my grandfather’s words were fully realized when my father graduated from the university. Upon mastering the English language, my father began appreciating how culturally wealthy he was becoming with every literary piece he read by British, American, Australian, South African and Canadian writers. Moreover, he began communicating with English speakers from all over the world. Not only did his foreign language skills land him numerous consulting jobs with foreign companies requiring local interpreters, they also improved his economic status, which in addition to supporting his growing family, also enabled him to travel around the world, making long-lasting friendships in many countries.
The decision to learn English in that critical point in his life has set in motion a chain of events that has changed not only my father’s life for the better, but continues to positively influence my life and those of my children. Thanks to his language skills, my father had a successful, 30-year-long career as a university professor of British Studies. Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, my father invited one of the first Peace Corps volunteers teaching at his university to live with us. In two short years, she had convinced my parents that upon high school graduation I should be allowed to study in the United States for a year to learn English.
As a typical Turkmen woman living in a clan-based society, my personal path had been predetermined for me at birth. Nowhere on that path was a 40-hour intercontinental journey to a small Swedish Lutheran town in the middle of Kansas. One year learning English led to four years in college, where I studied English and Philosophy, which in turn led to a Ph.D. program in Political Science at Indiana University.
All of these events brought me to Concordia College one year ago, where I passionately pursue a rigorous teaching and research agenda. I am proud to admit that I haven’t starved yet. I am pretty sure my language skills had something to do with it. It’s all my grandfather’s fault! And for that I am thankful.
Zakhirova’s research interests include global energy transitions and the political, economic and security implications of a global shift from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives. This essay first appeared on WorldView, a language blog curated by Concordia Language Villages.