Now in its third year, the Babbel Language Scholarship is our way of giving one (or two!) promising students the chance to take their language studies to the next level, and ultimately, to thrive in their foreign language education.
In 2022, our submissions were so good that we picked two U.S. winners for a prize of up to $2,500 to put toward an undergraduate language degree, a study abroad program or a language program outside of their regular courses, plus access to all of Babbel’s language courses for one year.
Christina Schafer and Vitalina Mikhalev are the winners of this year’s Babbel Language Scholarship. Hailing from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Vitalina is a senior at Drexel University majoring in nursing and minoring in Spanish. Christina is from Carson City, Michigan, and is majoring in public health sciences with a dual degree in statistics at the University of Michigan. We spoke with them about their journey as language learners, and their dreams for the future.
Photo: Vitalina Mikhalev (left), Christina Schafer (right)
Which languages do you speak or are you currently studying? How has that been going?
Christina: I’m currently studying Spanish. Studying a language that I would have otherwise learned in my childhood is difficult for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most prominent is the emotional challenge. I’m part of a small group of Mexican-American children who Spanish wasn’t passed down to, sometimes for assimilation purposes and sometimes just because it was thought that it wouldn’t be valuable here. Sitting in a classroom struggling over certain grammar concepts can get frustrating when I remember that. But when I visit my grandmother and I can speak to her in my broken Spanish, it feels worth it, and I would do it a hundred times over.
Vitalina: I am a native Russian speaker and can speak, read and write fluently. I’m currently studying Spanish in college and thoroughly enjoying it. I am also studying Polish through different language apps, podcasts and family friends. It’s been going great! I finished a truly engaging and serious class last semester on the Mexican border crisis and am excited for a new change of pace in my upcoming Spanish class in the fall about Latin American representation in the media.
When did you first become aware that knowing another language would enrich your life?
Christina: Like most younger siblings, I always felt the need to copy my older siblings. I wanted to be like them because I thought they must be the coolest people in the world. So when my brother started learning Spanish, I had to try it. He could talk to my mom, he could order at Mexican restaurants in Spanish, and he even moved to Spain for a while.
I realized that although not being taught Spanish natively was a barrier to me, my family had learned English without ever having the option to take a $1,000 college course. And although I was in classes with students who had had the privilege to learn it in their more well-funded and comprehensive high schools, my connection to the language, however broken, was ultimately most important to me.
Vitalina: Because I learned English after Russian, my brain was already wired to learn new languages. I started learning Spanish in elementary school and was super excited to learn it came relatively easy to me. I also realized I could make friends with children in my class who spoke Russian and share stories, toys and playdates. At that developmental age, connection with classmates was most enriching for me.
It’s also easy to lose a language when you spend so much time speaking English with friends, in class, and in the professional world. Staying fluent in Russian has been so important to me to continue communicating with my family and my grandmothers, to stay in touch with them and share our life experiences. Family enriches your life in many ways, and I hope to continue that blessing for many more years to come.
How has your relationship to languages changed since you first began studying them?
Christina: I feel more connected to a side of me that I tried to reject for so long while I lived in a small town with a small mindset. I love being able to chat with my mother and grandmother. I no longer feel the need to assimilate and I embrace my heritage, indulging it with curiosity and passion. Learning the language has opened doors to learning more about the culture and traditions, immigration, and Mexico overall.
Vitalina: My relationship with languages has changed over a long period of time, and only for the better. I started out being genuinely curious to learn something new and give my brain a challenge, and it has evolved into a strategy for connecting with my patients in the hospital on a professional and personal level. I strive to be a nurse who can provide the best care I can for each patient, and that starts with being able to communicate with them on their most comfortable level.
What are your favorite and most effective language learning strategies?
Christina: Languages at their root are communication tools. I’ve found that the best way to learn is when I’m having fun with others. I have a close friend I made on the first day of Spanish class, and I learn best when we study and converse together. My mother has been a big help in letting me speak and correcting me when needed. During exam season, I prefer handwritten notes for better retention, and flashcards are a classic.
Vitalina: I have really enjoyed Babbel due to its clean visuals, little grammar lessons and easy application to the real world, but I’ve also watched shows and telenovelas in Spanish, listened to podcasts and learned from others. My boyfriend is a native Polish speaker, which has been my driving force behind learning Polish. By learning from him and his family, I can work towards easier and more enjoyable connections. Sometimes the easiest way to learn a language is by listening to music! Our brains are naturally wired to remember words and phrases when they’re spoken in rhyme or to a tune (because yes, I have more song lyrics memorized than class notes).
How will you be using your Babbel scholarship?
Christina: I’m planning to put my Babbel scholarship toward another year of Spanish studies. The books and online tools come with a lofty price tag, and this reward will help offset the cost so I can continue pursuing all of my dreams and making my family proud.
Vitalina: My scholarship will be going towards my college education, where I can put my best foot forward to serve my community and those around me on my clinical rotations and in everyday life.
What is your current dream version of your multilingual future?
Christina: What’s most important to me is connecting to the language as I have been doing. I want to be able to visit my grandfather in Mexico and have a real conversation with him. I want to get to know my mother in Spanish. They say that everyone’s personality is a little bit different in every language they speak — I want to discover who I am as a Spanish speaker.
Vitalina: I hope to become conversationally fluent in Polish in the way that I am in Spanish, and continue to speak Russian and Spanish at home and in a clinical setting. The goal is making patients comfortable, making them feel heard, and providing the best nursing care I can. My dream eventually is to become a women’s health nurse practitioner, where it will be even more vital to be able to communicate with my patients to ensure the best care, and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for me.
What is one thing you wish more people knew about language learning?
Christina: Language learning is much more than memorizing words or learning grammar. It’s equally important to make an effort to understand the culture and people around the language. They add so much to what is otherwise a string of words and phrases. The people and culture are the lifeline of the language, and it is a privilege to be able to learn and share their language.
Vitalina: It’s important to stress that while yes, learning a language can be challenging but rewarding, to me the most important part is learning about the culture and way of life. It’s one thing to be able to speak Spanish, but a completely different point of view when you learn about a culture, its traditions, its food and music, and truly respect a different way of life from the one you are used to.
I also wish more people realized that language learning can be super fun and mentally stimulating, but that the most rewarding part of it is applying it in the real world, building confidence in yourself to step outside your comfort zone to speak with others, and learning about people you never would have been able to meet before.
This interview has been edited for clarity.