At Babbel, we believe that language learning is a key to unlocking new possibilities to connect with the world. We created the Babbel Language Scholarship to help students make the most of their language learning endeavors in and outside of the classroom. The scholarship offers one person the chance to take their language education to the next level with a cash prize of $2,500 and one year of access to all of Babbel’s language courses.
Ben Pickert is the winner of this year’s Babbel Language Scholarship. Ben is from De Soto, Kansas, and he’s a senior at Indiana University Bloomington, where he majors in International Studies and double minors in the German and Norwegian languages. He’s currently spending his semester studying abroad in Berlin, home of Babbel’s headquarters.
We spoke with Ben about his journey as a language learner from his beginnings in grade school to his dreams and goals for the future.
How did you develop a passion for learning new languages?
My passion for language learning sprouted from a whim! In 2014, toward the end of my seventh grade year, I was preparing for summer vacation and decided I would give learning Italian a try. Much to my surprise and joy, I absolutely loved it. The language felt like a puzzle to me that every time I sat down to learn, a few more pieces fell into place. A year later I had finished my Italian course and knew I wanted to start learning other languages. My passion has only exploded from there!
When you decide you want to start studying a new language, how do you go about it?
To me, the most critical element to the success of learning another language is passion. Being passionate about the culture and the history and the food will take you much further than any class. Choosing a language you are passionate about is the most important (and first!) step on any language learning journey.
Once I have chosen a language, there are several things I do to help me on the way to confident use. There are many different resources I use when learning. Online programs such as Babbel have taught me so much, and are a wonderful tool, though I don’t think they shouldn’t be the only thing I should use! A diverse collection of resources such as books, shows, and podcasts, too, are crucial to become confident. And, of course, speaking the language as much as possible is the most important part! Whenever I can find a conversation group or practice partner, I try to take advantage of that possibility!
What are your favorite and most effective language learning strategies?
In my experience, the most important thing you can do to learn a language is use the language! Be it listening to music, watching TV or having a conversation partner, the most important thing is to let your mind live in the language. It can actually be quite a challenge, especially at the beginning, but the joy of the “eureka!” moments you have when you finally are able to understand something is unlike anything else.
What languages have you learned so far? Which ones have come the easiest to you, and which have been the most challenging?
So far, I am proud to say I have learned a number of languages. I started with Italian, and over the course of high school also learned Spanish — with the help of a wonderful teacher (and copious amounts of self-study) — and Esperanto. When coming to college, I knew I wanted to continue my language journey, but wanted to study something new. As a result, I have spent my time at Indiana University very focused on learning Germanic languages, specifically getting minors in German and Norwegian, as well as taking some Dutch classes for fun on the side.
Among all the languages I have studied, Esperanto and Norwegian have been the easiest. I suppose this is not much of a surprise since they have blessedly simple grammars and their vocabularies have a lot of cognates with English. I was also lucky to have such amazing professors at Indiana University who pushed me to use the language as much as possible and who grew my confidence in speaking, even when I made many mistakes.
However, I have been very aware that all my languages are all in the “European bubble” as I call it. When I was picking my next language, I wanted to pick one that was interesting, exciting, and non-European. As a result, I have recently been spending a lot of time working on my Arabic, which has been by far the most challenging language I have ever studied. (Before that, it was German.) Getting used to not only a completely new set of rules but also a new script has been equally daunting and rewarding. I am not sure if Arabic will be the next language I study to conversational fluency, but I see no signs of stopping!
Where do you want language learning to take you in the future?
In the future, I hope my language learning will help guide me into careers where I can aid people around the world as part of an NGO, non-profit or a governmental position in the State Department.
What is one thing you wish more people knew about language learning?
Oftentimes when talking about language learning, people joke about not having “the language learning gene.” And while it’s funny, it’s also not true! There is no language learning gene! Or rather, you as a human already have it. Our minds are designed for language, and you use it every day. It is challenging to use another language, especially at first. You will make mistakes and say the wrong word. But it’s okay! Because every mistake brings you a little closer to confidence. Also, the excitement and kindness people show when you attempt to use their language, even when it is clear you are not a native speaker, is wonderful. As Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Stay tuned for more information about next year’s application cycle for the Babbel Language Scholarship!