Nerd Guy of the Month
Meet Rob, a Language Nerd
Interview by Terra Olsen
What are you nerdy for?
This is a tough question. I am definitely a nerd, but although almost everything I do and like is nerdy, I’m not quite as into it as the people who are REALLY into it. I love board games, from Monopoly and Risk to Diplomacy, Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride etc. I used to play Magic the Gathering too… I’m also a computer video game fan, though lack of a top-notch computer and the time to really dig in have meant that I only play occasionally any more. I used to play World of Warcraft a lot, now I play League of Legends occasionally. I’m a Greek myth nerd, I would check out D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths over and over again as a kid, and have a 4’x3′ family tree of Greek myth in my office now that I bought after taking myth in college. I was even involved in a livejournal-based role-play of the Trojan War (that actually never got quite as far as the war starting, but was nevertheless fun.) I played Agamemnon, Diomedes, and Priam.
But I guess my ultimate nerd-dom now is probably languages. I know at least a sizable chunk of 10 languages: English (natively), Ancient Greek and Latin, French, German, Italian, Modern Greek, Japanese, Middle Kingdom (Hieroglyphic) Egyptian and Demotic Egyptian.
How did you discover languages?
I took French in high school, and it was alright; I enjoyed it but it never really sparked me. Once my love of myth (and a great set of instructors) turned me from a Chem major to a Classics major, I was required to take some language. Even then, I wasn’t immediately wowed. I enjoyed learning Ancient Greek, but I wasn’t a great student–I just wasn’t diligent enough. By the time I took Latin the following year, I had learned better study habits, and a better conceptual framework for learning language, and it started to come more easily. Once learning language was fun and not just memorizing list of vocab, I was hooked. It didn’t hurt, of course, that as a Classicist, you HAVE to learn to read French, German, and Italian in addition to Greek and Latin.
What about languages sparked the nerd in you?
I’m not sure how to explain the alchemy of language. At it’s best, it’s like Alice’s Looking Glass. It’s like there’s this other world that’s a lot like your world, but it’s also different in weird and fascinating ways. When you’re thinking about grammar or word lists or whatever it’s sometimes hard to see it, but occasionally you read or hear something that’s just so odd, something that you’d never say but that somehow is either simple in its brilliance or fascinatingly weird that just hooks you. I feel like movies about mathematicians always have that moment where the filmmaker tries to let you see how the mathematician sees the whole world as math. That’s kind of what it’s like for me, language(s) are just everywhere and like Alice, you’re left to explore the fascinating but potentially scary mirror world of other people’s minds.
How have languages impacted your life, and how do you incorporate them into your life?
Being a professor of Classics means I read SOMETHING in a foreign language (mostly Greek and Latin) almost every day. It’s a professional skill, but it’s also, this great pleasure. Whether it’s the French on a menu, or the German name of the silly monsters on “Grimm” or the Latin motto of Hogwarts, it’s like there’s all of these secret messages out there and you get to read them and share them with friends/family.
What do you want to do with languages in the future? More?!
Well, I’m so busy now I can’t imagine really adding more languages in the near near future, but…. my list of languages to learn includes Coptic (a late form of Ancient Egyptian, written with a Greek-based Alphabet), Russian, Arabic, and Mandarin. I’d also love to improve my Japanese which used to be pretty good but has gotten rusty since I don’t use it very often since I moved back from Japan to the US in 2004.
Favorite moment or memory involving languages?
I’m not sure why, but I can’t think of any good stories about my nerding out over languages. One memorable moment was when I was trying to tell the members of my a cappella group in Osaka (Osakapella) a story that happened that morning. I had a very basic ability to speak Japanese then and I kept starting my sentence over and over again with the word “kasa” (which I thought meant “this morning”). Unfortunately, Kasa is actually “umbrella” while “this morning” is “kesa”. So it was basically five minutes of me saying “umbrella” over and over again and them staring it at me uncomprehendingly.
A child of the upper Midwest, Rob Groves lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota before graduating high school. After graduating with a B.S. in Classics from the University of Wisconsin, he taught English in Osaka, Japan from 2002-2004, before returning to the U.S. for graduate school. Rob Groves is currently a Lecturer in Classics at UCLA, where he won the 2011 Distinguished Teaching Assistant Award and completed his Ph.D. last spring. He currently lives in the Macarthur park area of Los Angeles with his boyfriend Hector and Taiwanese mountain dog, Andromeda (Andie). Keep an eye out for him on Jeopardy! on March 15, 2013!Do you know a self-proclaimed nerd we should interview? If so, please contact Terra at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us about them.