How important is it for MIT students to become fluent in new languages as they expand their horizons and prepare to serve the world? Amanda von Goetz's story is a good example: Mastering Russian has proven to be a transformative experience in her life — not just once, but several times over.
Von Goetz, a former professional pianist who graduates from the MIT Sloan School of Management this May, explains: “First, I most certainly would not be at MIT without the experience of learning Russian. The skills and experiences I gained learning a new, challenging language gave me the confidence to be curious about what else there is out in the world."
At MIT since 2012, von Goetz has thrived in classes such as New Enterprises, Linked Data Ventures, and Entrepreneurial Strategy. She also credits her language experiences for helping her develop the art of collaboration — a skill she brings to her first startup project. Along with three other MIT students, von Goetz is working on improving the way people budget and spend our most precious resource: time. Their first product, Thyme.io, is designed to streamline the ways people plan and schedule their time.
“Language is a connector,” says von Goetz. “It has broadened my understanding, has given me insight into how to talk with and collaborate with people from many different backgrounds and cultures. All these experiences have contributed to my ability to co-found the Thyme Labs, and I have learned so much about teamwork through that process as well.”
Noting how prevalent time scheduling issues are, von Goetz says, “Our team spans mechanical engineering, machine learning, music, and management fields. And, whatever our area, we have all experienced the difficulties of coordinating time schedules with many people. We are dedicated to helping solve this issue!”
At MIT, von Goetz has also had a chance to further develop and refine her Russian language skills, the seeds of which go back to her childhood. At age 12, having won several music competitions, she started studying piano with the internationally renowned artist, Alexandre Slobodyanik. Of Ukrainian heritage, Slobodyanik had studied music in Moscow and spoke fluent Russian. “There were always famous Russian musicians, painters, actors and writers at my teacher’s house,” von Goetz recalls. “I heard the sounds of their animated, creative conversations and wanted to understand the language.”
Her study began in earnest when, at the Juilliard School of Music in New York she found herself studying music with and befriending Russian students. “When I said to my friends that I wanted to learn Russian, they were skeptical, implying that it is too difficult for an American to learn that language!” she recalls. For von Goetz, that was a defining moment: She set the goal of becoming proficient in Russian.
“I treated the process of learning the Russian language like preparing for a music performance,” von Goetz says. “I tried to find parallels between the works of literature, art, and music and how it was tied to the way modern Russian people walk, interact, and conduct themselves.” Within a year, von Goetz reached an intermediate level of proficiency in Russian. Her Juilliard friends were delighted, and above all, the personal power von Goetz gained — the capacity to set important goals and meet them — has proved to be crucial for her ongoing education and evolving career.
The mission of languages at MIT: developing global citizens
In the fall 2013, von Goetz joined a Russian III class — taught by lecturer Maria Khotimsky in the SHASS-based Foreign Languages and Literature section — to take her Russian skills to a higher level. She also wanted to learn in a formal class setting with other students who shared an interest and passion for the language.
“The goal of our program is help MIT students become engaged global citizens," explains Professor Ian Condry, head of MIT Foreign Languages and Literatures. “To do this, we emphasize language instruction focused on practical skills, as well as providing diverse courses in culture, media and history.”
MIT students, who want to take their knowledge of a foreign language to the next level, can also travel to over 20 countries of the world from Mexico to Russia through the MISTI program (MIT Science and Technology Initiatives). All MISTI students have several years of study in the language, history, politics and culture of a country before their international internship begins.
Language as a source of innovation and problem-solving
“Everyone can benefit from learning about people and languages in an oversea experience," adds Condry, "because we can come to recognize the diversity of lifestyles, forms of social organization, and local customs. For scientists and engineers who are interested in solving the world's problems, it's vitally important that we recognize the variety of worlds out there.”
Elizabeth Wood, professor of Russian and Soviet history agrees, and speaking about Russian specifically she notes, “It is more important than ever that we teach the Russian language at the Institute. The U.S.-Russia relationship is vital, and we want our MIT students, faculty, and staff to gain a deeper understanding of what is going on in Russia, and betweeen the U.S. and Russia — politically, culturally, and economically.”
Reflecting on the ongoing influence of Russian language in her life, Von Goetz says, "One of the big lessons I have learned through the Russian language is that every experience we have is formative to our character as a person. In learning Russian, I also learned not to be afraid to push the limits, to explore, and try something new. You never know where your curiosities might lead you."