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Students traverse the globe to learn languages that most Americans don’t

Flying from Moscow to Moscow isn’t your typical itinerary – but senior Elizabeth Nielsen did just that, traveling from her Idaho hometown to Russia’s illustrious capital, a city Nielsen has been itching to see ever since watching spy movies as a young girl.

She’s not going just to sightsee, though. She’ll be dunked head-first into the Russian culture for two months, and her main objective is to become fluent in the Russian language.

“My ultimate career goal is to use Russian in linguistics field work,” said Nielsen, who’s studying linguistics and a minor in Russian. “It’s not just a party trick, but an extremely useful skill. Plus I love learning about languages even more than I love speaking them.”

The best part? The trip is completely paid for. Nielsen and four other BYU students were selected for the U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program to study across the globe this summer. Senior Alex Williams took his soccer cleats and harmonica to Tajikistan to study Persian, while Kelly Danforth, Robert Bonn and James Juchau are enjoying the Moroccan coastline while learning Arabic.

The CLS program is a U.S. government effort to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages. The program accepted only 11 percent of its 5,200 student applicants this year. Nielsen doesn’t think she earned the attention of the CLS program on merit alone.

“I’m an investment,” she said. “I have a story and a goal and every intention of making them come true. I think my determination may have sealed the deal for my application.”

It’s perhaps not that surprising that several BYU students would snag such scholarships. BYU teaches more students at the intermediate and advanced levels in more languages than any other university in the country. Sixty-one languages are taught on a regular basis with a course enrollment rate of 32 percent (significantly higher than the national average of 9 percent). Overall, BYU students speak 111 languages.

Additionally, BYU offers a university-wide, competency-based language certificate program – the only one in the nation. Last year, 200 students in more than 60 majors earned the certificate to document their proficiency in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

Other students go straight for the language degree. For instance, Kelly Danforth recently graduated with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies. Her studies became her passion, and from her ventures to the Middle East, she has learned most how language and culture go hand-in-hand.

“Arabs especially love their language,” she said. “It’s sacred to them. You can’t truly understand their culture until you understand their language.”

After this summer’s adventures, Danforth hopes to utilize her passion for language and culture by joining the Foreign Service, working to keep the peace between countries and governments.

Robert Bonn from Henderson, Nevada is excited to trek to Morocco this summer, but it’s not the first time he’s made such a voyage, having already traveled twice to the Middle East with his friend and fellow CLS recipient James Juchau. Bonn is double majoring in Middle East studies and Arabic, while Juchau is double majoring in economics and Arabic.

“Whenever you come in contact with different cultures, your eyes open to all there is to see in the world,” said Juchau, who is most interested in the economic development of the Middle East. “It broadens your perspective on life and ways of thinking. Every time I go, I learn a lot about myself.”

Bonn agrees, adding that he gained a love of culture and sense of adventure through a childhood game he used to play with his dad.

“We had a map on the wall, he’d point to a country, and I had to say what it was,” Bonn said. “The mysteries of the world really built my interest in geography, culture and just everything about those different places.”

The CLS program offers an opportunity to explore such mysteries. The seven- to 10-week, fully-funded, group-based intensive language and culture immersion program takes students to countries all over the world. Students participate in classroom study for five hours a day but are then free to enjoy in-country excursions, community service, or walks downtown.

From this kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience, Bonn hopes to advance his Arabic and acquire a “good sense of the Moroccan culture,” including developing friendships with the native people.

“The best part about traveling is the people you meet,” Bonn said. “I’ve made some really great friendships abroad.”

He’s not all business though. Bonn will “definitely bring home some Aladdin shoes,” and on his down time, he has plans for a camel caravan through the Erg Chebbi with native Moroccan Berbers.

During the same summer months, senior Alex Williams will perfect his Persian language skill by staying in Tajikistan, a country bordering northern Afghanistan. Williams began learning Persian (also known as Farsi) while serving an LDS mission in India for two years. He has also taught himself Hindi and Urdu, languages spoken in India and Pakistan, respectively.

Williams loves the Persian language to the point of writing his own poetry and calligraphy in Persian.

“I love the language most for the people who speak it,” he said. “They’re so welcoming and loving that I love being able to communicate with them. It’s almost as if they accept me as one of them because I’m showing effort to connect with them.”

Williams’ passion for making such connections led him to study international relations in hopes of landing a job overseas in government, translation, or international business. The preparation, however, has not been easy. Middle Eastern languages such as Persian are often considered the hardest to learn.

“The difficulties are more than worth it,” Williams says. “Through learning languages, I’ve had many opportunities to learn about who people really are and to tell the rest of the world. It’s impossible to learn the same things through English alone.”

Williams’ fondness for travel doesn’t overpower his other passions. A music lover, Williams will bring his harmonica to Tajikistan, where he also plans to purchase a Persian drum set and a three-stringed guitar-like instrument called a tar. In addition, his soccer cleats are likely to tag along so he can join in on local games—though the competition is likely to be rough.

“They really love their soccer,” Williams admits. “The main thing, though, is I’m just excited to see that part of the world again and make new friends. It’s remarkable that I get to do something most people never have the chance to do.”

The five scholarship recipients are participating in the CLS program from June 19 to August 22, with all CLS students from across the United States first meeting for orientation in Washington, D.C.

Writer: Kristi Kay McCain

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