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Corban University

November 18, 2019

Loving People Through Language: Christian Shares His Experience as a Linguistics Student

“I learned Cyrillic on the train from Kiev to Chernivtsi,” says Christian Phillips, linguistics and humanities student at Corban University. He speaks matter-of-factly, as if this experience could have happened to anyone. But Christian’s ability to learn languages is a unique gift, and he’s found unique ways to explore it both in Corban’s linguistics program and beyond.

Christian remembers walking into the train compartment in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, during an outreach trip with Young Life. He would be sharing the long train ride with an American and two Ukrainians, and all Christian knew how to say in Ukrainian was, “Do you speak English?”

He immediately asked, “Ty rozmovlyayesh anhliysʹkoyu?”* The Ukrainian passengers shook their heads.

At first, Christian accepted the fact that it would be a quiet ride. But a few hours into their journey, while the American and one of the Ukrainians were sleeping, he looked up and saw the fourth passenger, a young woman, looking at him.

“What’s your name?” he asked. Once again, the woman shook her head.

“Christian,” he said, and pointed to himself.

“Natalia,” she replied.

Seeing Christian’s interest, she began pointing to objects in the train car and naming them in Ukrainian. Christian repeated them after her: Bed, window, cup, pillow, sleep. When she ran out of visible objects, she took out a piece of paper and began drawing pictures. Then she wrote out Cyrillic next to the Roman alphabet and explained each sound.

By the time Christian showed up at the Young Life camp in southwestern Ukraine, he had memorized the Cyrillic alphabet, the building blocks of the Ukrainian language. The local children at the camp were impressed, and immediately wanted to teach Christian more. “They took me with them and taught me more words. They taught me windowpane and doorframe—useless things—but they also taught me table, chair, couch—and friend.”

Since that trip, Christian has found dozens of opportunities to learn new languages. When asked how many languages he can speak, he says it depends on what people mean. “I can get around in Russian, Indonesian, and Farsi,” he says, “But I can read Cyrillic, Greek, Arabic, and Korean, and I can say six or seven sentences in probably 20 languages.”

Christian can only attribute this gift to God. “I feel like God has said, ‘I have this tool. You can borrow it if you want.’” For Christian, learning a language is about more than picking up the sounds and meanings of new words—it’s about opening a door into another culture. It’s a way to love someone.

But learning sounds and meanings could only take Christian so far. Even when he traveled to Russia, once again with Young Life, he could only pick up the Russian words and phrases he was taught—not how the components of the language worked together. “No one taught me anything about how it’s supposed to work.”

It wasn’t until Christian began studying linguistics at Corban University that the puzzle pieces of language began to fall into place—things like grammar, syntax, and morphology.

At first, Christian wasn’t planning to attend Corban. He’d already found a school in Chicago, but his mom had signed him up for Corban Experience, so he decided to check it out. When he arrived on Corban’s campus, “I felt instantly included in this family of guys,” Christian says. “I hadn’t ever experienced that before.” By the end of Christian’s stay, one of the young men even mistook him for a college student. “Oh, you don’t already go here? We were so used to you being here!”

After returning home, Christian struggled to decide between Corban and the school in Chicago he’d already committed to. He began to pray for direction.

Not long after, one of the students he’d stayed with at Corban reached out to him. “I don’t know if you’re planning on coming to Corban in the fall,” he said, “but if you are, do you want to room with me and three other guys in Balyo?”

Christian was blown away that they’d thought of him. “That would be fantastic!” he replied.

“It was a huge answer to prayer,” Christian says, “as if God were saying, ‘This is what I have for you: this community, these people, this family.’”

Christian had also noticed the level of care and attention the faculty gave their students, and he immediately began to experience this in Annette Harrison’s Nature and Structure of the English Language class. One day as he was walking out of class, she stopped him and said, “I’ve noticed you enjoy this class. You should think about this. We have a linguistics program.”

Although Christian had entered Corban as an intercultural studies major, the switch to linguistics felt natural to him, especially with his professor’s encouragement. “I chose linguistics because I’ve always loved languages, but also because Harrison noticed that in me. She said, ‘I think you might like this.’ And I have loved it.” He has since been pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in linguistics and humanities, and plans to graduate in Spring 2020.

Christian immediately found a place to develop his language skills both in and outside the classroom. Classes like Nature and Structure of the English Language helped him understand the components of language and how different languages function. “Linguistics is like a puzzle,” he says. “Now that I have access to the names of the pieces, I can take puzzle pieces apart and put them together the right way.”

Outside the classroom, he’s found ways to put his new knowledge to the test. One summer, he traveled to Greece for one of Corban’s Summer of Service trips and volunteered at a refugee camp. While interacting with a family who spoke Farsi, Christian realized he could piece together the language structures he already knew—like “How old are you?” and the word for “children”—to ask a couple how old their son was. “So I tried it, and they said the number! That was all stuff I’d learned from courses here in the linguistics program.”

Although he still prefers to learn new languages by interacting with native speakers in more informal settings, studying linguistics in the classroom has given Christian the tools he needs to process what he’s learning more effectively.

He’s especially enjoyed one of the hallmarks of Corban’s linguistics program, two summers of coursework at the Canada Institute of Linguistics. “In order to satisfy the requirements of the linguistics degree, you have to take courses at Canada Institute of Linguistics,” Christian explains.

Designed for linguists with a range of backgrounds, including missionaries and Bible translators, the intensive summers in Canada have further shaped Christian’s appreciation of language. “You’re surrounded by likeminded people who love linguistics.” It wasn’t uncommon to meet people who had come straight from the mission field, where they were working with languages like Fulfulde in West Africa. “You get all these different perspectives on languages,” Christian says. “It’s really cool to get together and have that community.”

In addition to connecting with other people, language provides a way for Christian to worship God. “God shows up differently in different cultures,” he says. “If you don’t learn the language, you’re going to miss a lot of things about a culture, but you can also miss aspects of God.”

He gives examples of ways different languages help people view the world and its Creator differently. “In Russian, there are two different words for ‘blue.’ In French, there are different words for ‘love.’” When Christian was learning Farsi, he discovered that people often used a word for “eggs” that actually translates “chicken seeds.” “There’s a lot of imagery in that language,” he says.

Each language paints a picture of the world that just wouldn’t be possible to describe in the English language. The more Christian learns, the more he finds himself able to appreciate other cultures, other people, and God.

When asked what he hopes to do with his degree, Christian describes several possible opportunities, most of which would take him overseas. He’s considering serving with Frontiers, a mission agency that sends teams around the world to work with Muslim people groups. “What’s cool is, they’re in a lot of places where they speak Russian and places where they speak Farsi,” Christian says. Each small team operates like a family, with its own system of living and serving together. The relationship-focused model appeals to Christian, who loves the freedom to build organic relationships with people through language-learning.

“But if I don’t do that, I might work with refugees.” Christian describes several opportunities to work with refugees here in Salem as well as Boise, his hometown. He’s also considering an Arabic immersion program. “So I may just learn Arabic,” he says casually.

Wherever life takes him, Christian knows he’ll continue to find ways to worship God and build relationships with others through language.

Learn more about the linguistics program at Corban University, including a video where Christian shares more of his story!

*Ukrainian phrase is rendered with English characters, not Cyrillic, for convenience; this is a transliteration.