Linguistic all-star acquires tenth language at UW
Gaining proficiency in a new language can take years for some, but Stuart “Stu” McLaughlin studied his tenth language in a single summer at UW–Madison’s Wisconsin Intensive Summer Language Institutes (WISLI).
McLaughlin who is proficient in English, Spanish, Russian, Polish, and Arabic, and conversational in Azerbaijani, has taken multiple roads to acquire new languages. English is his native language. He started learning Spanish in kindergarten. He studied Russian domestically and abroad through Penn State. And his newest acquisition, Kazakh, was developed in just two months studying through the Central Eurasian Studies Summer Institute (CESSI), an institute of WISLI.
CESSI is an eight-week summer intensive language program for undergraduate and graduate students, researchers, and professionals. Languages are offered at the beginning and intermediate levels, and are supplemented by a rich program of cultural events, excursions, and a weekly academic lecture series.
McLaughlin praised the program for the opportunities it offered, as well as for the rigor–a component he acknowledges as crucial to language learning.
“The crux of language learning is self-discipline,” McLaughlin said. “CESSI makes that easy and fun. It gives you a lot of ways to adapt your language learning for your own uses. It lets you put different skillsets to the test whether you are hoping to one day be a translator, researcher, or just want to learn the language to speak with friends and family.”
While the program is intensive, the instructors make it enjoyable for participants by creating unique contexts to practice language and share culture.
“It is in-depth not just as far as the language but in cultural aspects,” McLaughlin said. “We would have tea, Kazakh chocolates, and biscuits. It was an opportunity not just to converse, but to do it in a free-form way, discussing what I did yesterday or anything interesting on the news—all in Kazakh.”
McLaughlin said that he was able to cover more than two semesters in just two months, placing him at an intermediate-high level of proficiency.
“When I started the program, my knowledge of Kazakh was close to zero,” McLaughlin said. “Now I’m able to have a conversation about modern Kazakh film. For any student to be able to do that is a reflection on the quality of the program here.”
McLaughlin is teaching English in Azerbaijan for the 2018–2019 academic year on a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship. He has been accepted to UW–Madison’s CREECA and REECAS programs, where he hopes to study the influence of the Soviet Union on the Azeri and Kazakh languages and see how those juxtapose one another and vary in the current socio-political climate.
“Learning language is like being in a pool of water,” McLaughlin said. “The water is the language you are trying to learn. The air above the water is your native language. Anytime you are practicing, it is like you are being pushed down under water. The natural reaction is to want to come up and think, write, and speak—breathe—in your native language. However to really learn a language, you need to stay immersed.”
Roots in Pennsylvania
McLaughlin is a 2018 graduate of Penn State University, where he majored in Spanish and Russian and minored in Arabic. He credits Penn State faculty members Irina Mikaelian and Yelena Zotova for encouraging him to learn new languages, particularly Russian and take part in immersion experiences domestically and abroad.
“I can’t describe the millions of things they have done for me in my aspirations for languages in general, not just in Russian, but bringing it all together,” McLaughlin said. “I am very grateful to them.”
McLaughlin has received two FLAS awards, enabling him to study Russian in Saint Petersburg, and Russian and Kazakh in Astana.
CESSI was founded in 2011 by a consortium of international and area studies centers at major U.S. universities. Since its creation, CESSI has been hosted by the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia (CREECA) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. View a list of the consortium member institutions.