Enjoying the early fall, junior George Gabriel was sitting on the porch of the Multicultural House on Bull Street where students are required to speak in Spanish or French. A German and French double major, Portuguese and Global Trade double minor, and peer tutor, Gabriel was taking a few moments to relax after a hectic day. Incredibly, the three languages he studies are just the surface of his linguistic knowledge. Gabriel speaks German, Polish, Portuguese, French and Spanish, and hopes, one day, to know over 10 different languages.
“Ultimately, I want to get a master’s degree in Germany or France,” he says. “I just want to work abroad, perhaps as a translator, I don’t know really, but that sounds pretty good right now.”
Gabriel’s interest in languages began at a very young age with his grandmother. She spoke to him in both German and Polish, along with his mother who knows a little of each language from her upbringing.
“We went to the library together, read books, and spoke in her native languages from the time I could read,” he says.
He continued his German studies in high school and fell in love with the language, leading him to travel to the country on an exchange. After German and Polish came Portuguese.
“I started using an app called ‘Hello Talk’ to meet people around the world,” he says. “People use it to try to learn a language. I really loved it so I went to the library and took a bunch of courses and books to teach myself.”
During his freshman year at the College of Charleston in 2015, Gabriel met many Brazilian exchange students, began hanging out with them and was surprised by how much he understood. Being around native speakers in combination with joining Portuguese Club gave Gabriel the confidence to go to Brazil for a study abroad. “People kind of thought I was crazy because I was a German major in Brazil, but the way I see it, you gotta take college by the horns and do what makes you happy.”
Listening to Gabriel’s story, one can’t help but ask: How does he do it?
“When learning a new language, I try to find certain books that fit my learning style. I found the Michel Thomas Method, which includes auditory courses that focus on the structure of grammar,” he says.
Gabriel took advantage of his local library for most of the disks and books, but once he started getting more advanced, he invested in more on his own dime.
“After doing that, going to the country and immersing yourself is one of the best things you can do,” he says. “Take every opportunity to speak because native speakers will correct you if you want them to and, at the same time, they’ll appreciate your effort.”
Gabriel also strongly encourages reading and watching movies in another language because leisure activities make immersive learning less stressful. Intrinsic motivation is also a large component. Gabriel’s motivation developed from playing classical piano and cello, making him “kind of a perfectionist in learning.” He aims to achieve perfect pronunciation and grammar, but at the end of the day, he feels best when he can have a conversation with a native speaker and feel as comfortable speaking to them in their language as he does in English. He believes that each new language he learns improves the ones he already knows, be it through grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation.
“Conversational fluidity gives me a jolt of adrenaline and makes learning the language so worth it,” he says.
Gabriel says his love for languages stems not only from his childhood, but from his development as an adult: “Your personality kind of changes with each language. It’s pretty cool to see how I am when I’m speaking French versus when I’m speaking, say, German.”
The most rewarding aspect for Gabriel is his ability to understand the culture and mentality of natives. For example, he says, “German is a very specific language and the rules are very logical. I feel like that reflects their mentality and behavior. Whereas the romance languages are kind of flowy and reflect the Southern, amorous lifestyles like, ‘Ahhhh, I’m going to take a siesta’. The languages alone each give me a different perspective on the mentality of those who speak them.”
No matter what language he is speaking, Gabriel understands that the desire to create a better world is universal and he hopes that he can continue to communicate this message wherever he ends up.
Lauren Vega is a junior from Huntington, West Virginia, studying arts management and international studies in the Honors College at the College of Charleston. She is also a National Merit Scholar, a scholar in the International Studies Program, and a 200-hour registered yoga teacher.