best financial move in college, part 2

Patrick, of Cash Money Life fame, has tagged me to give my best financial move in college. This “organically growing” meme was started by plonkee. The first part was posted yesterday.

Steve at the Hermitage in St Petersburg

Best Financial Move In College #2: Learning an “exotic” foreign language.

If you read this blog, you probably know that I’m a Russophile. I lived in Moscow for several years, I can read/write/speak Russian fairly comfortably and my wife is Russian. Key the computer geek theme music: I mentioned that I was a finalist in the International Science Fair: I wrote, in Basic on a Tandy Color Computer with a cassette-tape drive, a very primitive artificial intelligence program that reliably translated English into Russian, grammatically correct. I even had to develop the Cyrillic font. I did all of this after buying a Russian grammar book at a public library for $.10 and using it to set it up – I didn’t know Russian at all.

Anyway, after the ISF my interest in Russian waned. I always joke that my ancestry is German with a little German mixed in. Even though the Original Blap Ancestor ventured to the new world in the 16th century, my paternal ancestors clung to German ways and traditions and language. And I mean they clung. To the best of my knowledge, my dad was probably part of the first generation of Blaps to speak English at home rather than German. So in high school and college I had a strong motivation to take German, and I did.

But I always liked foreign languages. I took French and Latin as well and decided in my sophomore year that Japanese would be a good challenge. Keep in mind that this was the mid-80s: Japan appeared to be well on its way to becoming the dominant economic power of the 21st century. We know now, in retrospect, that Japan’s economy tripped and stumbled and has never really recovered, and China and India are now careening past it, but at the time it seemed that Japan might become an economic superpower at a minimum and THE economic superpower if everything fell right.

I decided to take Japanese. It was a new course at Hometown State – only one class was offered. So on registration day I woke up and strolled over to the registrar only to find that it had filled up in minutes and no slots were available. I was disappointed, but I still wanted to take a language. I thought Spanish might be useful, but boring (I didn’t care for French when I learned it – romance languages don’t appeal to me). I skipped through the catalog until I saw Russian and remembered my little project at the ISF four years earlier. And best of all, it was at 10 am so I could sleep late – back in college I had yet to discover the benefits of waking up early.

Russian was fantastic. The teacher was a guy straight out of PhD school, passionate about the subject and the culture. He invited his students to his home, showed us Russian movies, introduced us to actual Russians (quite the novelty in the Deep South in the 80s, let me tell you) and managed to get Russian food. I loved the intellectual challenge of the language – a different alphabet but more importantly a language completely removed from the European languages’ interrelationships.

So why was this a good financial move? I’ve already mentioned it in 8 steps to a six figure career, but here it is in a nutshell: it gives you instant credibility as a smart person (deserved or not). Employers and contacts and almost everyone I meet expresses shock that I can speak Russian, read it and write it. I don’t think it demonstrates much intelligence, personally. Language acquisition is more of an inborn skill, I think. But I do think that learning Russian demonstrated some intellectual curiosity and the fact that I stuck with it indicates some intellectual discipline. I have benefited hugely in my career from knowing Russian. It meant that I was plucked out of obscurity as a junior staff member of a Big 6 (now 4) accounting firm and hurled into the middle of the mid-90s Russian economic explosion. It opened up opportunities I would never have had as just another staff person.

But that’s not the biggest part of it. Without developing my Russian skills I wouldn’t have met, pursued and married my wife. Maybe if I had taken Japanese I would have lived in Japan, developed a fondness for all things Japanese. Hard to say. But I do know that the decision to learn Russian set in motion the life process that brought me to where I am today: with a wife who is focused on the same things I am, personally and financially. So that’s actually the single biggest reason why that was a great financial move.

So what was your best move?

37 Replies to “best financial move in college, part 2”

  1. I tried learning Russian in 12th grade. My mom used to speak it fluently. I think having a Russian class would have been more productive, I just couldn’t work up the energy to get through the hard stuff at the beginning. I also don’t like declining (Latin didn’t work out for me either). I find French quite easy, however. 🙂

    I still remember things like “Do you speak Russian?” and the ever-useful “Excuse me, please.”

  2. @Curmudgeon: Hah, funny you should mention typing – I wrote a post and named that as the #1 class everyone should take: here.

    @Mrs. Micah: I have always wondered if my interest in Russian and the difficult, rules-heavy languages has been because I’m a mathematician and accountant, etc… maybe it’s a left brain/right brain thing?

  3. I’ve been called a smart person in many ways, but language skills are not among them. Excellent unconventional answer to what could be a mundane question.

    My best financial move occurred not in college, but in my senior year of high school, where I took a one-semester personal typing course on a lark, in an era and culture where few men knew how to type. It eventually brought me gainful employment as both a computer programmer and a writer. And I didn’t have to pay anyone to type my term papers in college.

  4. Oh, I’m reading your blog not for too long and didn’t know that you are interested in Russia. Приятно удивлен! 🙂

  5. Malaysians are lucky.

    Many Malaysians know at least 2 languages, some 3. We are quite a racially mixed country with Malays, Chinese and Indians. We speak, read and write Malay (the official language), English (a legacy of our British past) and the mother tongue if we are Chinese or Indian. The key thing is that it is very easy to practice the languages.

    We have a fair share of Westerners who speak our local languages and it never fails to impress.

    I would think that your studying Russian must have been a tougher deal, but then you seem to be one of those rare A+++ students / sports athlete and people that bozos like us don’t like, but secretly admire.

    Best regards

  6. Very nice. I enjoyed learning Spanish in high school and was very good at it for awhile (conversational, but not quite fluent).

    I lived in TX, so I was able to use it while I was there. However, once I made it into college, I stopped taking classes because of scheduling, and once I joined the AF and returned to college, I focused on taking only the required classes to receive my degree.

    With a structured set of courses, I have no doubt I would have been fluent. I think languages are fun and I have an aptitude for learning them… just not the time to do it! 🙂

    There is a saying I firmly believe is true – “to learn another language is to gain a soul.”

  7. I’ll add to Steve’s excellent advice about learning a foreign language by saying that visiting and, preferably, studying in the country whose language you are studying will benefit you on many levels. Young people who never see the world from a different perspective are handicapped, and you can never see the world from that different perspective unless you can speak a foreign language well enough to enter into informal and spontaneous conversations with the people of another country. On a side note, however, and as a former Latin teacher, STUDY LATIN FIRST! Scientia potestas est!

  8. Fathersez – you are Malaysian! So is my dad. He speaks 4 languages (so does my mom, after she learned Malay). I like to think I picked up some language ability from them.

    My problem has always been 2-fold, I can never get the accent right, and I never have an opportunity to practice. So, I’ve lost the French, Spanish, Mandarin, etc, etc, that I’ve learned throughout the years.

  9. Good post. I wrote a similar post on why should we learn a foreign language. In short: New market(s), competitive edge, self branding, networking and cultural diversity.

    I’m a francophile myself. Not very popular, I know.

  10. My experiences with learning Dutch (I always seem to pick something weird) at night school reminded me how hard it is to learn any skill if you don’t have the opportunity to practice. Fortunately, a few years later, I can still order beer, and food and so on which is the important bit, and actually impresses Dutch people quite a lot.

  11. OK, first I must admit that while I lived in Miami I could speak passable Spanish & I took French in high school but can’t do anything but cuss in both languages now (funny how those words seem to stick with us…)

    The language that stuck and has been very helpful in my career, is, of all things, Latin. Because I learned Latin before I was 6 yrs old it seemed easy at the time and as Latin is the root of so many other words I always seemed to others to have a large knowledge base of vocabulary – something people seem to equate with intelligence. I know it’s just good memorization skills!

  12. Pamela: Gratias tibi ago! Latin is the best foundation, so thanks for the positive affirmation of learning Latin before other languages. When I was in Europe as a young person, Latin was still an almost universal language amongst educated people and, when my French failed me, I could almost always make my meaning clear by lapsing into Latin!

  13. Couldn’t agree more – Latin is a GREAT base for learning a lot of modern languages, for understanding english words and for a lot of general knowledge. It should be mandatory.

  14. I agree completely on the Latin. I’ve taken Latin, too – a tutor in middle school/junior high, and then some college Latin. I also took French but never cared for it (although I did score in the top 5 in my state on the National French Exam). I am a language junkie – if I didn’t have some incentive to concentrate on Russian to improve my communication with the in-laws, etc., I probably would learn some more because I love the challenge. And Bubelah and I still intend to learn Spanish along with Little Buddy because, well, we live in the US.

    @Fathersez: Heh – well, the sports glory lasted about 8.3 seconds after I didn’t make the tennis team for my university and (this is a subject for a future post) the high school grades were meaningless after the first semester in college. But I was intensely focused in high school, that’s for sure – in college I let loose a bit more and let my social life expand a bit. I played a lot of club sports and one varsity sport in college (lacrosse) but in the end it’s all just about being happy with where you end up at, not where you were – and I can tell you I wish I had a few of those hours spent hammering away at the tennis ball in high school back…

    @Stanislav: I’m enough of a russophile that we came VERY close to naming our son Stanislav, actually 🙂

  15. Hi, Deepali

    Say hi to your Dad from all of us in Malaysia.

    I have always wondered about your name. Sounds a little (a lot like) Deepavalli…the Indian Festival of Lights.


    PS: Steve, Sorry to use your post for this off topic spreading of goodwill and good cheer

  16. So all the Japanese girls missed the chance to meet you because you didn’t get up early enough — and you went for Russians?
    (Gee, I was there back in the 80s, you know. ^-^)

    I wish I get as much credit for learning English. . . Americans tend to take it for granted that everyone speak English, and some puts me down for the minor errors I still make, like the singular and plural rules.

    Anyhow — thanks for learning any foreign language. I think it’s good because you get more perspectives.

  17. @Fathersez: Hey, you’ve been reading my blog long enough to know that I would never, ever mind spreading goodwill and cheer through it! I love it – I’m happy to see some connections being made!

    @Akemi: Yeah, that’s about what happened. I don’t think I had any special affinity for Russian culture before I took the course, and so I’m sure I could have become just as infatuated with Japanese (or Chinese or Czech or Brazilian or whatever). I am still fascinated by Japanese from a distance – I watch documentaries and movies about Japan all the time. So I didn’t completely lose my interest!

    The funniest thing is that you would think I met my wife in Russia, but I didn’t – I came back to the States and then met a Russian immigrant in NYC. Go figure!

    And you have a great point that Americans assume everyone should speak English, and I think everyone should! I have always said that the value of a common language is extraordinary. I traveled throughout the former Soviet Union and having Russian as a common language was very helpful. If the world had decided on French, or Spanish or whatever as a common language I would learn that, but hey – if English is emerging as the common language, fine. I just like the idea that everyone in the world speaks their own language but has one more in common. I think in the end it may be Spanish or Chinese, but for now it’s English – and that’s fine with me. Anything to understand people better!

  18. Language skills were my best move. I decided to learn as many languages as I could and although I could not master any other then English I learn’t to speak in over 5 languages and then developed that number into high numerals. As you start to learn more and more you start to develop ways to quickly acquire new languages fast and efficiently which was my goal.
    Once you get the fundamentals down you start to understand languages very quickly, especially when they have the same roots.

  19. Great series! I was lucky enough to have a parent fluent in Spanish and another in ENglish, so I grew up knowing/learning both. So I am fluent in Spanish and English without even trying. But I picked up French with my parents’ pushing for me to pick up a third language.

    My French is to your Russian, a lot of people look at you different when you say you “know” three languages. It’s definitely opened some doors for me and differentiated me from other people when it comes to work.

  20. Writer’s Coin: My Dad came from Scotland & I learned a little Gaelic when I was a kid but since no one else spoke it around me, it quickly went.

    Solar Yard Lights: Could you elaborate on the wasy you develop to acquire new languages fast? Since I grew up in Miami I learned basic Spanish & could benefit from knowing it in my job now but I don’t seem to be moving the needle much with language CD’s – any hints?

    Steve (a/k/a BB): Thank you for letting us take off on a tangent! It is too bad that colleges are not pushing more for current students to learn an additional language as in business we are becoming more global by the day – my company does business in 55 countries.

    And, yes, English is spoken most places on the planet but as you have found out, if you really want to get to know the locals, speaking the language, or even making an effort in their mother tongue is a huge help to entering the culture.

  21. @SYL: There’s a lot of value in being “just familiar” with a language – I have picked up bits and pieces of languages all over Europe from my time working there. This is to plonkee’s point, too – people appreciate the effort immensely even if they do speak your language.

    @WC: Having parents who speak two languages is definitely a help – we are hoping that Little Buddy and his sister will both be completely fluent in my native language (English) and Bubelah’s (Russian).

    @Pamela: No problem, going off on this tangent has certainly given me some ideas for future posts, anyway! 🙂 I may write more at length on this, but there are some very easy ways to pick up a foreign language. One of the simplest – if you already know a little bit of the language – is to read children’s books in that language. I started reading German children’s books, then graduated to comics, then to basic stuff I had read in English (The Hobbit, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, etc.) and then finally to “heavy literature.” Reading newspapers helps, too. The sports section is seldom written with fancy vocabulary in any language.

    I’d love to SYL’s tips, too!

  22. To Pamela: What helped me to learn English in the beginning was reading fashion (i.e. Cosmo, Glamour, etc.) magazines ;o). The language is not fancy and it was something I was interested in as a teenage girl, the articles are usually not long. And I picked up some common slang and idioms of the English language that is used in conversation. Also watching the news would help too. Later I moved on to text books in College. Living in the US (and especially in the Miami area) makes it easier to find all sorts of publications in Spanish. Good luck!

  23. Thanks Bubelah! I grew up in Miami, now living in Raleigh but I’ve seen Spanish language newspapers here so I’m sure I can find some – thanks so much for the tips!

  24. My husband’s other first language is Bengali, another one of those crazy font languages. One of the reasons I started learning it lo these many moons ago was to understand what hius sisters were saying about me on answering machine messages 🙂 I’m currently plotting a 6 month sabbatical from work, and taking some Bengali courses at the local university here is high on my list of tasks for that period.

    It’s also interesting to me that however rusty and disused those primary and high school languages are, you never lose it entirely. I can still make myself understood, however garbled, in both French and Irish, as can most of my Irish friends.

    Here’s a thread I was reading this morning, which you might find interesting Steve.

  25. @Pamela
    Well, try to start with large common languages. English is a must, but English doesn’t help you with any other languages. French, Spanish (those two help you with other romantic languages), Italian can be learn’t quickly with the knowledge of those 2 especially Spanish. With Russian, learn Greek (if you can read Russian then you can pronounce Greek fairly easily and learn to read Greek quickly), With those two try and tackle languages like Serbian or other languages from that area.
    You use your knowledge of one language to build onto another. Tractor in Russian is Tractor in English (pronounced anyway), porque is why in Spanish and Italian. Little bridges like this can help you acquire languages very quickly, you just have to find similarities between each.

  26. If you live in a non-english speaking country, there is a big possibility that you’d be enrolled in english classes in high-school and college. I myself am not an english born speaker, but I have studied the language for more than 17 years ( including grade school, middle school, high school) and then unofficial being in an english speaking country for several years. I am still learning new stuff.
    What really helped me learn english well enough, was watching CNN all day long..
    I have also studied Russian and German, but I only know some phrases there.. I guess not having a german or russian version of CNN has impeded my learning curve for these two languages..
    I do believe though, that in the 21st century it will be important to speak more than 1 language.. Even though everyone in the world seems to know/ or be in the process of learning/ english, speaking another major language should definitely put you at a big advantage over others..

  27. A native-Russian speaker here, grew up in St. Petersburg. I love languages too – had a minor in Italian literature in college, studied in Perugia – pretty much fluent in Italian. Used to know enough German for a dinner-table conversation with a group of Germans, but lost it a bit: got lazy after my much younger cousin immigrated from Russia to Germany; now I just let her talk when I visit, I guess I am also a bit embarassed given how well she speaks it. I know enough Spanish to express my thoughts in it, to understand 100% of Mexican soap operas on TV, and to write a commentary to an original Spanish-language short story. I started learning it when I was 38, could understand Spanish-language TV pretty quickly (thanks to Italian), and in 6 months knew enough to take an advanced class with people who had studied Spanish for years and being able to express my thoughts, read and write as well as any of them. Tried to learn a little French, but didn’t have time to go beyond “touristy” level – can understand, express my thoughts, but only as long as the conversation stays within my limited “touristy” vocabulary and simple grammar. It was easy enough, but I just never had time.

    @Pamela – start with the spoken language, memorize sentences, not words, at least initially. Avoid translation – you need to learn to think in a language, as in an everyday situation there is no time to translate anything. Memorizing phrases teaches you to think in a language, translating does not. If you read a paragraph, try to grasp the meaning without formulating the sentence in your native language. Look up the words you don’t know but need for understanding, but still try to understand the original paragraph without actually translating it. Get yourself a good course with tapes or CDs spoken by native speakers. I usually prefer CDs where they speak in a normal conversational speed, not that artificial slow tempo of language teachers. Comprehension is very important, and you cannot learn to really understand people if you are only used to very clear, very slow teacher’s “speak”. You cannot always hope to ask everyone to “speak slowly”. People are often in a hurry.

    Also, it is important to learn how to talk about simple things in a fluent, idiomatic manner – directions, food, etc. first. There are some people who have a university degree in a language and who can write a composition about the role of providence in the novels of Manzoni in Italian, but don’t know the right words to use to ask for a bill in a restaurant. Our teacher in Perugia university tried it as an experiment once. It was pretty funny: so many advanced students who read all the great literature and who wrote papers, and yet nobody could quickly come up with “il conto, per favore”.

    Choose contemporary authors for reading material, at least unless you are really interested in literature and know enough of a language to understand the differences between then and now. You don’t want to worry about whether an expression or sentence is still in use.

    You can learn grammar and words while memorizing simple dialogs related to everyday situation a tourist can face. As you get better, you can improve on your grammar and vocabulary, but if you start from conversation, you’ll get the reward of being able to communicate quicker, also you will learn all four aspects – understanding, speaking, reading and writing at the same time. Way too many people who know grammar but cannot speak or understand.

    When I was learning Spanish, I tried several courses sold in stores. The one I liked most was made in the UK. It used Spain’s Spanish, which is what I wanted, it may not be what you want. The main reasons I liked it, though, were 1) native speakers on tapes spoke in normal everyday language at normal conversational speed 2) the course started with common situations that tourists encounter, then built on them, and 3) it had everything – good tapes and comprehension exercises, a bit of grammar, vocabulary, reading, and writing.

    I don’t agree about Latin. Personally I consider it a waste of time unless you plan to go to medicine or study Latin or old Spanish and old Italian literature. Pretty much any Romance language – Italian, Spanish or French makes it easier to learn any other Romance language, you don’t need Latin for that. Also, learning any other language improves native language as well. At the same time, while Latin may help you with grammar/vocabulary, it’s not going to help you to learn to think in a language, and being able to think in a foreign language is the key to being able to learn any language quickly. This ability to completely switch to thinking in another language immediately, even if you are just starting learning it, is the reason why those of us who know more than one language really well find it easier to learn other languages. Also, unless you have an unlimited amount of time, you cannot learn everything. The time spend on learning Latin can be spent on learning Spanish, and at the end you both improve your ability to learn other Romance languages and know an actual language. This is just my personal opinion, and as I don’t know Latin, who am I to say…

  28. @kitty – thank you SO much for your advice. I am trying to re-learn Spanish (grew up in Miami – had to know how to order food, ask directions, costs of items, etc – downtown Miami was almost 95% Cuban when I lived there) and I agree it’s easiest to learn phrases first. I now need to know Mexican Spanish as we have shops in Mexico that I need to communicate with & not all employees speak English well, as well as the Hispanic community where I live is mostly Mexican. I have purchased some CD’s & they are at normal conversation speed thankfully!

    As to Latin, I learned it in kindergarden & first grade so it wasn’t a choice. The private school I attended had it as part of the curriculum. I took French in high school but don’t remember much & Spanish, at this point in my career will get me further than French (even though I work for a French company! They all speak English).

    I appreciate everyone’s tips – it’s been very helpful in my quest to become bi-lingual!

  29. Steve,

    Great point on being multilingual. At one time, everyone thought Japanese was going to be an important language skill. Now it look’s like Russian and Chinese will be among the important ones for the future.

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