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Meet Michael O’Brien: A Linguistics Mastermind!

HC: Give us a little background on yourself.

Michael: My name is Michael O’Brien. I’m a sophomore German and Russian major at the University of Pittsburgh. I was born and raised in the North Hills, a suburb of the city of Pittsburgh. I am the current vice president of the Rainbow Alliance at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as a member of the University of Pittsburgh Men’s Glee Club.

HC: Any reason you took such an interest in linguistics?

Michael: At first (and this was in middle school) I was really interested in history. I had aspirations toward being a history teacher like my dad, and so I never really thought of doing much else for a while. I grew up in a pretty ethnically German family. My grandmother moved to America from Frankfurt with my grandfather after WWII, and so that sort of was always there. I really liked taking German in school because it was an easy A basically. Then, I started getting a lot of support from my German teachers over the years and languages became a huge passion of mine. I started teaching myself Russian after my sister developed an interest, but I took it further than she did because my grandmother was also Russian and we wanted to be able to speak with her before she passed away. I picked up Chinese my sophomore year of high school, and started learning some Portuguese a year later. I guess it really stems from the positive reaction I got from my language teachers to my progress, and wanting to be able to connect with as many different people as possible.

HC: Why did you choose your majors?

Michael: Right, so I chose my majors because I really couldn’t see myself studying anything else. Languages really are the only thing I’m good at, so I want to be able to take them as far as I’m able to. A lot of it also has to do with going back to my roots. I identify very strongly with my Russian and German heritages, so there’s a lot of wanting to reconnect with that that went into my decision. And, of course I want to be able to find work doing something I love, mainly using my aptitude for language in an engaging way.

HC: What is your dream career?

Michael: My dream career, and the career goal I’m working toward right now, would be guiding tours. I’ve been on three tours now in the past four years and I’ve had nothing but amazing experiences. I’ve had actually a tour guide who was an American expat living in Germany, and that really sealed the deal for me- knowing that there was someone like me, doing something I want to do. It just seems really gratifying to me to know that I can use languages in a way that’s not so formal or officious as interpreting, like at the UN, but just getting to interpret more casually for students or families.

HC: Which language do you know that you plan to improve on?

Michael: Definitely Russian. It’s a beast of a language, but I love it. There’s just a lot you have to remember with it, but the more and more practice I get, the more I love it. I’m especially excited to hopefully be studying in Moscow this summer, so that should definitely help. Then there’s also Portuguese because I think it’s just such a beautiful language; but I feel like getting a hold of a Romance language will be easier than a Slavic one.

HC: Cool, as a Brazilian I speak Portuguese. It is still a very difficult language for a romance language. Which language have you heard of that you wish you knew at all?

Michael: Polish. Hands down. They use the Latin alphabet, but have Slavic sounds which just throws me for a loop every time. But I think Polish is like the French of the Slavic languages. It definitely flows more, and has more nasalized sounds. So probably Polish, or maybe Norwegian because it has a very sing-songy quality. 

HC: What can you say for people trying to learn languages?

Michael: Practice makes perfect. Практика мать знания (practice is the mother of knowledge). But it’s not only practice, it is uninhibited practice. Never be afraid to make mistakes- it’s how you get better, especially if you have a good teacher who will point out what you’re doing wrong constructively. So use the wrong case or the wrong preposition, and never be afraid. Find someone to practice with and make foreign friends. Bridge gaps. It’s endlessly fun to whip out little bits of a foreign language, and you’d be surprised to find soon you’ll end up dreaming in other languages.

HC: I definitely agree. I speak a few languages myself and I would say the same about confidence playing a role in the learning process with languages. It’s a give and take so you can’t learn alone. Michael, thank you so much for doing this interview! Might I say, your linguistic skills aside – your eyes deserve their own campus celebrity article.

Hi, I'm Sarita. I am a senior Communications major at the University of Pittsburgh. My writing topic interests include job acquisition, school survival tips, Latin culture, feminism, fashion, nutrition, and current events.
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