Passport to Success
by Kami L. Rice
photos by Mark Cornelison
Gifted early on with an ease in learning new languages, Haralambos Symeonidis began travelling the world well before he got his first passport stamped.
Born and raised in the town of Drama in the Macedonia region of northern Greece, Symeonidis began his lifelong foray into languages naturally enough, by learning his native tongue. From that beginning, though, there has been little pause in his acquisition of new grammatical forms and vocabulary lists.
In his youth, Symeonidis decided to learn English after watching television shows broadcast in the language, and then he moved on to formal education and six years of studying French. During these school years, Symeonidis was also required to take courses in classical Greek, and he also learned Latin.
When Symeonidis headed off to college, he “just wanted to learn languages and to study something related to languages.” He didn’t know about linguistics yet when he arrived over twenty years ago at the University of Münster in Germany. Before he could dive into a degree at the university, he had to learn German. He accomplished in one semester of German language study what normally takes two years.
Still, it took Symeonidis some time to find just the right fit within this world of language exploration. He was taking both linguistics and language courses at the same time, but it wasn’t until he followed a friend’s suggestion that he learn Spanish that the pieces started coming together. As Symeonidis notes, choices like this, followed almost on a whim, have opened up opportunities again and again throughout his academic career.
At this time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Spanish culture was an unexplored novelty for Symeonidis. He loved the whole philosophy of the language and the culture. In 1991, while working on his masters degree, he studied in Granada, Spain for a semester, an experience that improved his Spanish so much he sounded like a native speaker. Spanish also played into his doctoral research on how contact with Greek had affected the Judeo-Spanish language of the displaced Spanish Jews who had lived in Thessalonica, Greece, for centuries.
“I’m fascinated to know how and why languages change,” Symeonidis explained. “My main field of research is how languages get in contact with each other and what happens when they do.” These days he is primarily pursuing that fascination through his research on the Guaraní language, an indigenous language spoken primarily in Paraguay, northern Argentina, and small parts of Brazil.
Once again, Symeonidis’ introduction to this work came almost by accident. During the last year of his Ph.D. work, he took a Guaraní language course because he thought it would be interesting to learn the structure of an indigenous language. “I found it fascinating how different the language was from Western languages,” he enthused.
As he wrapped up his Ph.D. work and began teaching at the University of Münster, in 1999 Symeonidis also began working as a researcher on the Atlas Lingüístico Guaraní-Románico (Guaraní-Romance Linguistic Atlas) linguistic project. He got the job as researcher because they needed someone who already knew Guaraní to conduct field work. In 2006, based on the strength of his research, Symeonidis was invited to join Wolf Dietrich and Harald Thun as a co-director of the project.
The project’s goal has been to produce a multi-volume linguistic atlas, which is a series of linguistic maps that show summaries of the characteristics of a language, and display how linguistic variety is spread over a geographic region. For example, do Guaraní speakers in northern Paraguay use the same word for “crooked” as speakers in Brazil? The linguistic atlas helps in understanding how the language has been influenced by various factors, including, in this case, by Spanish or Portuguese, the region’s primary languages.
Typically, linguistic atlases portray the linguistic qualities of a particular country. Instead, the ALGR covers the region where Guaraní is spoken and is not limited to national borders. Also, Symeonidis explained, “for the first time in language geography research, an indigenous language is included in a linguistic map.”
Symeonidis noted, “these kinds of projects do have impact, but it takes years.” However, the ongoing work on ALGR has already provided some visible political and cultural impacts. In Paraguay, where Guaraní is one of two official languages, and in Argentina, in particular, Guaraní speakers were surprised that people from the outside were coming to study their language.
“During our field work people were alerted about the importance of their own culture and language,” Symeonidis said. The Paraguayan Ministry of Education has been following the results of the research because they affect bilingual education in the country.
Based on the ALGR research, a member of the Parliament in the Corrientes province in northeastern Argentina initiated the eventual declaration of Guaraní as one of the province’s official languages. Linguists and politicians of Corrientes are currently working to establish a bilingual education project.
Now nearly half-way through his third year of teaching at UK, Symeonidis regularly encourages his students to go abroad for at least one semester. He explains to them that they will learn the language better and the culture but, more importantly, they will broaden their horizons. He says he sees students who act on his advice return different and more mature after the time away.
Symeonidis loves the teaching responsibilities that accompany research work in the academy. “You have an opportunity to transmit your knowledge that you’ve been learning all these years,” he explained. Students are wise to be transformed by that knowledge and by the love of languages that has been Symeonidis’ passport to learning throughout his career.