Meeting people from various cultures and ethnicities can help others become better informed of other countries, as well as discredit preconceived stereotypes. While attending the Community College of Baltimore County, I was fortunate enough to meet Ruth Coradin during a student service trip to Atlanta, GA for Alternative Spring Break helping refugee families.
I asked her all about her background in computer science, linguistics, and moving to the United States.
Lauren Wheatley: So, what made you come to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic and how did you get there?
Ruth Coradin: My father lived here and always planned for me to move to the U.S. so even when I was in secondary school, the plan was for me to move here as soon as I graduated. I arrived here with a residency card and recently became a citizen
LW: Your major at CCBC was computer science right? Why choose that as your major?
RC: It was. I went to a private school on a scholarship back in DR where we were fortunate enough to have a computer lab. Our computer teacher tried to teach the class HTML basic codes. Most hated it but I was totally hooked. Then “The Matrix” movie came out and I so wanted to be like Trinity. So when I got my first computer at age 12, I tried to learn as much code as possible. Once I moved to the states, and it was time to choose a major, I picked computer engineering. But my advisor at CCBC saw that my background was heavily computer programming and suggested computer science and I went with it.
LW: Did you learn enough coding to understand the coding in “The Matrix?”
RC: No. The coding in the matrix is unrealistic. The characters in the movie can instantly read this fictional rain of code. It has numbers and Latin letters and stuff like that, but it’s not like programming code we see today.
LW: It’s still impressive that computer programmers can take an idea and bring it to life.
LW: So after receiving your Associates Degree in Computer Science, did you transfer to another college or university?
RC: Yes, I transferred to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
LW: And what is your major at UMBC and what do you hope to use your degree for?
RC: At UMBC, I am pursuing a dual degree in computer science and applied linguistics. I honestly have no idea what I want to do yet. I know I will be coding. I just hope for whatever it is I’ll do to be productive and beneficial to humans.
LW: You could use coding to program software to help people understand the languages you’re learning or ones you already know.
RC: That sounds like a cool idea. My semesters are never dull.
LW: What languages do you already know? It’s good to hear that you’re staying interested at school and not feeling like your education is a chore.
RC: I was fortunate enough to learn French back in DR (Dominican Republic) and Spanish is my first language. I’ve been studying other languages such as Japanese and Catalan.
LW: Hehe, it’s okay, I think you can use computer sciences in both ways. One to act as a translation program. The other to create programs for other people to teach themselves. I was just curious as to what languages you had to learn for linguistics. Was it easy for you to learn new languages?
RC: One misconception about studying linguistics is that one must know more than one language. For example, we certainly could study the syntax of Korean without necessarily being able to speak or read it. Linguistics is such a broad field. People could focus on computational linguistics or psycho linguistics for instance. There are people who study regional variations within their countries, which means they wouldn’t necessarily have to learn a new language. But honestly, most linguists I have met are so interested in language that one language does not satisfy their curiosity.
LW: I see, so since one can learn about the syntax of a language without having to be able to read or write it makes one want to learn many. What culture speaks Catalan language?
RC: Exactly, once you understand how human languages work, it sort of becomes easier to learn them. Knowing IPA for example gives the ability to learn sounds that might not exist in your language. The ‘r’ in ‘merci’ sounds very different from the ‘r’ in ‘carro’, but if you can recreate the sounds you’ve learned from IPA, it should be no trouble.
Catalan is a language spoken in Spain and parts of France. It is mostly spoken in Valencia, Catalonia, and the Balearic islands. It is a fascinating language. People who speak Spanish and French have a smoother transition into Catalan. For my linguistics 450 class, we elicit data from informants of a certain language. We have been studying Catalan and next we will be looking at Mongolian.
LW: Interesting, so you could travel the world using technology to help other people better understand their native language, but also those that are similar to it? I find the different languages a culture uses fascinating and wish I could learn at least one, preferably Spanish.
RC: Yes. Typically, it is easier for children younger than 13 to 14 to learn and master a language’s native sound because of the brain’s plasticity. But I have seen many cases where people learn and master languages after their 30s.
If we could isolate these cases and figure out why they are able to easily learn them, we could use that to teach languages. There was a man with autism who could easily speak a ridiculous number of languages. Linguists want to know why this is and how we can apply it. I always think that if we could all be able to learn every language in the world, there would be more understanding of different cultures. We would all be more connected.
LW: I agree, I think most of the disconnect comes from misunderstanding of cultures if not from just stereotypes shown in the media. I know for children their brain works as a sponge to easily learn language between 2-7 years. Even in comics and cartoons language can be a barrier if there’s an issue with translation or comprehension of the culture it’s from.
RC: Yes. There are many language programs that attempt to teach us a language the way children acquire their first language because it seems more natural. The problem is we become critical as we grow up. When you hear the word apple in Spanish, you might be thinking of the word “apple” itself because English is your first language and an apple will always be an apple in your mind. We start translating words so we are not really acquiring vocabulary the way a 2-year-old child would.
LW: Hmm… I think as adults we try to overthink or tend to analyze the meaning of what we see rather than appreciate the simplicity of it?
RC: Yes! With translation, there is input from the translator. When we translate a piece of art such as a book or a poem, it no longer becomes to one author. It belongs to both the original author and the translator. The translator has to decide which word or expression best fits the idea the original author is trying to portray. Therefore, they tend to be interpreting the work the way they see fit. Our database is already overloaded with ideas so we can no longer learn languages the same way.
But there is something really interesting happening when pidgins are being created. Pidgins sound very much like children language. They both have similar syntax which suggests that we have the ability to acquire languages that way. We just need to find a way to understand what is happening in our brains at that moment.
LW: Right, so instead of the interpreter relying the message they’re adding their own interpretation of it which changes the meaning of it confusing their client or giving them the wrong information.
RC: Yes. That’s why if we could speak all languages, you know sort of load the languages into our database like they would in the matrix, we could read works of art and watch movies in their original language. We could really appreciate the author’s work.
LW: That would be pretty amazing. I know a lot of people including myself despite loving “Sailor Moon” aren’t watching the reboot of “Sailor Moon Crystal” simply because they fail to understand Japanese and it has yet to be dubbed into English.
RC: We miss out on so much.
LW: I think people miss out on so much, and fail to see what they could have enjoyed by broadening their horizon.
RC: Humans will hopefully evolved to somehow appreciate each other more.
LW: I think a good step is acknowledging that you can benefit from learning other cultures.
LW: I know for me before meeting you I knew very little about the DR and the type of culture that exists there.
RC: Humans are so focused on making money and power that traveling is an expensive privilege. We put up borders and say “this side is mine. If you cross, you’re illegal.” I find it so unnatural, as if it wasn’t meant to be that way. I might be watching too much doctor who, but if we could only go back in time and change that ideology, I wonder where we would be today. I wish I could freely go and explore without anyone asking for my passport or my visa and some silly tourist fee.
LW: Exactly! Maybe the idea of racism might not be as big a problem as it is now, not that it might ever go away, but race and isolating people for their gender or culture alienates that group of people for borders that shouldn’t exist. I think people should be judged on their actions not if they’re from another country, race, gender, etc.
LW: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
RC: No problem. If you have any questions for Ruth Cordian, feel free to contact her via Facebook.