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Gabrielle, History student at UIC, meets family in Germany

Gabrielle, UIC B.A in History, 2022

My language story is one that has accumulated through bits and pieces. Although I can only speak English fluently, I get very excited when something I’m doing or learning about concerns languages or linguistics in any way. I’ve formally studied Spanish, ASL and German and in my spare time I have been slowly learning some Polish, Russian, Japanese and Korean on my own. This is why there is a sticker on my laptop that reads: “studies languages (fluent in none of them).” Language is remarkable to me because of the special connections you can make among words and ideas between languages and people. While I have a life-long fondness for learning about other languages, an amazing opportunity last year has made me more committed to becoming fluent.

I grew up spending time with my great-grandmother from Germany. She was very close to my mom and I am so fortunate to have been able to spend time with her. Everyone in the family affectionately called her Oma, as if it were her first name. My mom jokes that she was once shocked to learn that other people use the word “oma” to refer to their grandmas. My favorite memory with Oma was when we would sit at the computer and look at GoogleEarth together. Oma loved maps and this is something that we shared. My interest in language originates in these moments hearing Oma’s stories and from spending hours looking at maps. I soon became interested in genealogy and from this, the fascinating story of how my great-grandparents met and found their way to Chicago made me passionate about history. I started to become obsessed with all things history, culture and language. Starting with a hobby called “Postcrossing” (we are a worldwide network of postcard traders) is where I have been introduced to many different countries. On our postcards we include the local weather and time, affix beautifully significant stamps, discuss life in our countries and write in different languages. It is a fantastic way to travel and a wonderful way to meet new people with a similar passion for embracing the world.

I think a lot of people are stopped in their language-learning journey because they are afraid that people will not understand them or that they will make a mistake. But the best piece of advice I ever received is: “just talk to people.” It is for this reason that I can still remember every instance where I connected with someone in another language. Because I have the most experience in Spanish, these memories are usually when I put that advice to use and ended up connecting with amazing people who were excited to talk to someone in Spanish about Spanish.

Last December, I had the opportunity to visit Germany for the very first time and was able to spend time with Oma’s family, who still live in the small town in Hessen where she was from. My eighty-year old cousin picked me up from the train station with her sister and we drove into that small town. No one in the family spoke English and I was less than prepared to speak German out loud for the first time. But my extended family members were so warm and accepting. I was fully immersed in German, a language that I had always admired because of my heritage but was still scared to fully learn because everyone around me said that it was too “difficult”. The better word is “challenging.” Sitting in the house where Oma grew up, I used GoogleTranslate to communicate with family members and explain how grateful I was to be there and how much Oma had meant to my family back in the United States. Although it was a short time that I spent there, little connections started to prove themselves useful just like when I had finally tried speaking Spanish for the first time. My cousin tried teaching me words, and one in particular, the word “regenschirm” (umbrella), stuck with me my entire trip. Whenever we saw a “regenschirm,” my cousin would point it out and we would laugh. Moments like these are what make language a steady force in my life because they are the foundation of communication and connections among all people. For the first time in my life the leaves on my family tree and the pictures on my postcards had come alive.

Because of this experience, my interest in learning language has come with me to UIC, where I hope to incorporate a deeper understanding of Spanish and German into a career in history. All that I have learned through traveling, postcrossing and listening to others has fueled my passion. If you have ever wanted to travel, I would encourage you to try postcrossing. If you have ever been intrigued by a language, I would encourage you to start by learning its writing system and a few words in one category. For some reason, I have always started by studying the words for fruits and vegetables. (Which is why I’m a lot of fun at the grocery store). But above all, talk to people. You never know the stories someone has or the perspective another’s language can bring until you take that step towards making a connection. Now I'm taking German 101 here at UIC and loving it!