My Speech to Students at the Awards Ceremony

On April 23rd I was fortunate enough to give my last speech in my official capacity as German professor and founding director of UT Arlington’s new Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. Here’s what I said to students in Modern Languages, who were receiving awards for achievement in the various language programs.

Today is a day of celebration. You are being celebrated for the excellence of your performance in your language classes. Many of you have made this day possible, through persistence and hard work, through external or internal motivation, and through your love of languages, and we commend you for it.

You and I are in different stages of life: many of you are at the beginning of your adult life, on the brink of whatever career path or paths you will take. I am at the end of my career path – at least in its present form. – I’m graduating after 40 years in college! But we have one thing in common – the enjoyment we derive from languages and their study.

I want to take the next few minutes to tell you four things, that I hope you’ll consider as you continue on your language-learning journey.

One: you have to be persistent, which also means, you have to be bad before you are good. They go hand in hand. You have shown that with languages. You have persisted through the difficult parts, and you know that in learning a language, it’s like a baby learning to walk. That baby has to be bad at walking – falling down, getting up again – before he or she is any good at it, but we don’t call it being bad. We call it learning to walk. The same goes for learning languages. We don’t call it being bad when you make mistakes. We call it learning a language or speaking your inter-language, and most of us, no matter how proficient we are in a language into which we were not born, have some sort of inter-language characteristics.

I’ll tell you a story about being bad before you can be good. My sister became a ventriloquist-singer-comedian and worked for about 20 years as an entertainer on cruise ships. But she started off at Vaudeville Pizza in Houston, Texas. She had a blast at Vaudeville Pizza, but looking back, she says, “I was soooo bad.” But she had to start someplace, she kept doing it, she learned, and she sailed the world. And ever since that time, whenever we think of Vaudeville Pizza, we say, “You’ve got to be bad before you are good.”

Another story I want to tell you is about persistence. Years ago I was in the shoe business. I started out by selling shoes, and I was not good! I’m not a born salesperson by any means, but I stuck with it while the manager shook his head in dismay, I persisted, and I eventually became a top salesperson, was promoted to assistant manager, then acting manager – and then they offered me a store – twice, but I turned them down both times, because I wanted something different. … which leads to a second story.

So then I went back to graduate school, and when I began again I was – again – bad! I’d been away from things German for seven years – it had been a long time since I had been in school, and I didn’t know how to write the academic journal article at all. But again, as professors shook their heads, I persisted, I found good mentoring, I learned, I successfully wrote a conference paper, a journal article, and a textbook, ended up with a tenure-track position as a German professor, and found my dream career – here at UTA – at the age of 38. You have to persist, because you have to be bad before you are good! Does the baby give up when he or she falls? No.

Two: find your mentors. Your parents were your first mentors, and after that maybe others in your family. And then maybe along came a teacher or two, or a professor or two, who helped you along to the next step. Keep finding those mentors, at the university, in your work, and in your personal life — those who will help show you the way. They are also key to your success.

Three: be happy. What makes you happy? Researchers in psychology today have gathered information on people who are happy, defined what that means, and actually quantified their data. Guess how much of your happiness comes from money, image, and status. 80%? 50%? No! A mere 10%. What researchers have found is that you do need a certain amount of food, clothing, and shelter to be happy, so the person who tries to live on 5,000 a year will certainly be unhappier than the person who lives on 50,000. But what is astonishing are 2 points: a: someone making 50 K is about as happy as someone making 50 million! And b: those making a lot of money tend to be unhappier, because they tend to focus on money, status, and image. I guess they never have enough! So what about the other 90% that makes us happy? Well, 50% comes from our genetic make-up, they say. So it is the 40% that is crucial: it is called intentional activity, and it is what you make of your life.

There are several kinds of activities that make people the happiest, and they probably come as no surprise to you: 1) being involved in personal growth – that’s what you are doing here at UTA, for example, 2) community – friends, family, a sense of belonging, 3) helping others, and 4) being in flow with what you are doing. Let me talk a little about flow.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a researcher in psychology, flow is a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. You are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Time stops, and your troubles melt away. Flow, rather than money, status, and image, is what makes our days good. I have noticed that when I concentrate on money, or compare myself to others in any way because they have a better image or greater status, I feel upset – unhappy, even inadequate. But when I am in flow, following that which is my passion, I feel good, and work doesn’t even feel like work.

That leads to #4, which is this: find and follow your passions – you probably have more than one – and those things for which you have intrinsic – internal – motivation … and basically what I want to say today is this: if one of your passions is languages or anything about them, if you derive pleasure from any aspect of language study, never let that passion go. Maybe you just love learning languages. Maybe you want to travel and see the world – or understand your own backyard better. Maybe you love playing with words and meanings, or writing poems or short stories or novels or something else – Whether you love studying cultures or literature or linguistics, whatever it is about languages that gives you pleasure and enjoyment, continue on with that. Nurture that passion, you will continue to thrive as you are now, you will be in flow, and you will be happy.

As for careers, the globalized world needs bicultural and bilingual individuals in such fields as the burgeoning localization and translation industry, in interpretation, teaching, publishing, and other areas. International business and non-profits need people who understand intercultural communication and that my meaning may not be yours. They need people who understand similarities and differences across cultures and sub-cultures here at home, who know that the meaning of practically every word that comes out of our mouths is steeped in our own experience and the culture or cultures from which we come.

So be you. Even be different. Have your priorities straight, and the rest of your life will follow that trajectory.

I wish you all the best wherever you and life take you.

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