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Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Future Surgeon Learning Spanish & French

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We’re asking students, recent grads, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…

Meet Nicholas—a Colorado State University neuroscience major and French minor studying pre-med.

1. Could you share with us a little about your first experiences with languages: Which languages did you speak at home or with family as a child? Was there a moment when your motivation to speak Spanish shifted?

I was born into a family that is half-Peruvian, and as a result, I had a lot of Spanish influence from as young as I can remember. As a child, we ate lots of Peruvian food, like arroz chaufa, and I lived with my grandmother who only spoke Spanish. For this reason, I had a sort of pressure to learn Spanish, but the real influence came when my grandmother needed life-saving surgery: My language journey would not be the same without her.

I had grown very close with my grandmother, and when I was around five, a life-threatening tumor was found near her ear. To cure this, she needed a revolutionary new procedure at the time (CyberKnife). This near-death experience with my grandmother, someone I cherished a lot, was what truly influenced my decision to learn how to speak Spanish.

I thought: “Wow, my grandma almost died, and I love her a lot, so maybe I should try to learn how to truly talk with her so we can play more!”

2. When did you begin to learn French? What were some of your favorite parts of your secondary school French experiences?

I began to learn French in middle school. Starting then and throughout high school, I had lots of amazing experiences learning French.

Most of my highlights come from when I was in high school under one of the best teachers I’ve ever had: Mme Knight. She would always craft really fun activities that helped us learn the grammar and practice the vocab that we were learning in class. I still have videos of some of my French projects for the class, which included a commercial catering to parents of obese children; a video filled with jokes from when I originally started taking French with her (used to gauge our levels); and videos where I talked about personal interests. We also made lots of posters and presentations, all of which were—in one way or another—humorous.

One fond memory I have involved a program she used called Flashcard Factory, which helped us to learn vocab. The class was put into groups of two, and for a set amount of time, each team was given a vocab word from a preset list. One person would write a sentence that correctly used the vocab word, and the other would draw a corresponding picture. These flashcards led to some very funny moments, especially since in this class we only spoke French. We also had a running joke where the Kool-Aid man would randomly appear throughout the flashcards!

All of these classroom activities made for an amazingly fun and enriching French experience that led me to top marks on my IB French exam and success in college French classes.

My French teachers and professors have always been extremely supportive and amicable. I still talk with my high school French teacher to this day, and I remain in contact with all the French professors I've met in my college career as well. Their personable nature is what drew me in and convinced me to stay in French programs.

3. As a neuroscience major, how did you decide to add a French minor? Any advice you’d like to share with fellow pre-med or STEM majors on including languages in their schedules and future plans?

Going into college, I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, but I knew I wanted to continue French (...and to play trumpet, but that ended up not working out).

I talked with an admissions counselor and eventually decided to try a neuroscience major for my first semester and take a French class, with an end goal of figuring out if I wanted to continue pursuing neuroscience and major/minor in French.

As the semester went on, I loved the support I received from my French prof and the wonderful people in the French program (who I am still friends with today), and this made me realize that I at least wanted to minor in French. As it turns out, at my college, it was very doable for me, only requiring one French class per semester in order to obtain the minor. Adding a French minor felt like an amazing balance between upholding and improving my French skills while simultaneously working towards a career in the medical field.

If I were to offer advice to other STEM majors about taking a language, I would definitely clarify the undoubtable benefits of learning a secondary/non-native language—including an increase in job opportunities and other potential experiences.

I'd also mention that the pursuit of a language does not strictly have to be a major or minor. I know at my college I need elective credits to fulfill my major, which can easily be filled with French classes. But if someone wanted to take a class and it didn't fit their schedule, I would ask around the department to see if any French-specific events were being put on, as they are another amazing way to engage with the language and the community!

4. We’d love to hear more about your involvement in language and cultural events on campus: Do you participate in any language clubs, tutoring, volunteer work, or other projects outside of the traditional classroom?

In high school, I worked one-on-one with students as a French tutor to help them learn difficult concepts or to help revise papers in French they had written.

At Colorado State University (CSU), I am an officer for the Cercle Français—a club that focuses on bringing French culture and activities to the campus. Through this club, I’ve been exposed to a lot of leadership roles. As an officer, my involvement in the club is very high, and often I’m one of the only officers going to specific meetings that involve the entire language department and events they want to collaboratively put on. As a result, it falls to me to be able to communicate the information of the meeting to the other officers, which is an experience I never thought language would take me to.

Along with this, I’m often in charge of leading events that the club puts on; for example, this previous semester I oversaw a board game night for the club and also helped to lead a Jeopardy game show based around French culture. These experiences are great gateways into skills I’ll need to use in the future, and are also a great way to better my French abilities in college!

5. Could you share an anecdote about a funny, moving, or memorable moment made possible because of your language or cultural skills? Why is it special to you?

During my second semester in college, I forgot my computer charger in a chemistry lab on campus. Since I was in the last lab section of the day, nobody noticed. It wasn’t until that night when I needed to charge my computer that I realized I didn’t have it, so I made the 20-minute sprint back to the building in the hopes that the doors would still be open and that my charger would still be there.

Unluckily for me, all the doors on the inside were locked, so I went running around for anybody that might be able to help me open the doors... After checking every floor, I finally found a custodian on the second floor, and after a short dialogue I realized he only spoke Spanish.

Fortunately, my years of Spanish training had prepared me for this moment!

I told him about the situation, and he gladly helped me out, opened the door, and I got my charger back. I gave him some money as thanks for his help, and he and I held a conversation for the next 10 minutes or so. I learned that had it not been for me, he would not have had the gas to get back to his house that night.

This encounter really warmed my soul and reminded me exactly why I was studying language: To help other people in the medical field in the future that I would normally not be able to help had I not known those languages. It’s encounters like these that make me extremely happy and push me to learn more and be a better person.

BONUS QUESTION: What would you say has most surprised you about your language journey?

What has surprised me most is where my language skills (Spanish and French) have taken me.

Not only have both of these languages given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise—such as to travel to Peru and the leadership opportunities I described above—but they have also given me lifelong friends and memories that I will never forget.

Check out our Connect with Spanish and French pages to explore language scholarships, university programs, testimonials, and more! And, as always, visit @LangConnectsFdn on social media to share your story with us.