World Languages and Cultures

President Ron Liebowitz: ‘My Language-Learning Journey’

Even a university president has to work at becoming proficient in a language.

president liebowitz greets parent of incoming student in her carPresident Liebowitz greets the parent of an incoming student on move-in day.

President Ron Liebowitz, the ninth president of Brandeis University and the former president of Middlebury College, has clearly demonstrated his belief in the value of languages in higher education. He oversaw, for example, the addition of three language programs to Middlebury's renowned Institute of International Studies, yet he himself had to struggle to learn Russian as a graduate student.

Claiming that he was "just not good at languages," Liebowitz talks with great admiration about his grandfather, a speaker of Yiddish, Polish, German and Russian, who, after emigrating to the United States at 17, learned English, and, thanks to his work as a restaurateur, Spanish.

As a youngster, Liebowitz went to Hebrew school, and in junior high and high school he took Spanish, but he did not pursue his language studies. Later, as a graduate student planning to specialize in the political geography of what was then the Soviet Union, he realized that he would need to gain proficiency in Russian to succeed academically.

According to Liebowitz, the most influential and memorable aspect of his journey to advance his skills in Russian was his participation in the Middlebury Summer Intensive Language Program, one that he still refers to as "nine weeks of terror" and "the gulag." Every day, students spent four hours in class, took a quick lunch break, passed four hours in a language-lab booth while listening to Russian and answering questions, and then went back to their rooms to labor over homework for four hours. The program was essential to his enrollment in the doctoral program at Columbia University. He signed up and took the famous Middlebury language pledge that required students to express themselves for the duration of the summer program only in the target language.

"You start with no Russian and you sign a pledge to not speak English. How much can you say?!" Liebowitz recalled, incredulous. Fortunately, his work-study assignment placed him in the "stolovaya," the dining hall, where at first he was unable to answer questions or participate in conversations with faculty, staff or students. But this initial obstacle became a grand opportunity. He first learned to say "ovoschi," vegetables, since they were regularly on the menu. Every day, he memorized another vegetable. Not surprisingly, perhaps, some of the fluent-speaking children of the Russian professors would tease him, calling him "gospodin ovoshch," Mr. Vegetable Man.

Liebowitz distinctly remembers sitting in the music library, listening to Russian music and contemplating his escape: to call the U.S. Department of Education and complain that Middlebury's intensive course of study was "nuts and somebody had best come and investigate, and perhaps close it down." But in retrospect, Liebowitz said that his experience there "was probably the best educational program from the perspective that you can see your progress." In the end, he did far better on the Middlebury exit exam than his performance over the course of the summer would have predicted, more on the exceptions in Russian grammar than a typical exit exam, and as a result, he was placed into third-year Russian at Columbia.

The following year, when the dean of the Middlebury Language Schools wrote to him and asked him to return, Liebowitz threw the letter away: "I wasn't going back there!" But after the Dean called him and offered a scholarship, Liebowitz, still stunned that "they wanted [him] back," decided that it would be a worthwhile educational experience. The second summer program in Middlebury advanced his skills further, and eventually his success in learning the language enabled him to complete his dissertation work, and later, to accompany his students on several occasions to Russia on academic programs.

Although he remains astonished that college students can master languages while also taking other subjects, such as economics, chemistry and history, he describes eloquently the importance of learning a language, which, "however cliché, opens a window, however narrow, to a culture. You can appreciate so much more, knowing the uses or choices of words, and you feel a closeness to the society by knowing the language, even if it's not native or your knowledge is not as deep as you'd like." Liebowitz says that after his journey to learn Russian, he experienced a certain "warmth" when taking a trip to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn (a Russian-speaking enclave in New York City), sitting down in the Restaurant Kafkaz, and ordering Russian food. He is convinced that "you learn more about yourself and you see America in a different way by engaging with people from a different culture in a different language. I think that's possible even at an elementary and intermediate level [of language proficiency]."

President Liebowitz has retained his ability to read and understand Russian, but he wishes he had maintained his other skills in the language. His spoken Russian has suffered the most from lack of practice and continual engagement. His wife Jessica has mentioned her desire to enroll in Middlebury's intensive Hebrew program, prompting Liebowitz to consider re-enrolling in the Russian program and embarking on yet another leg of his journey to master the language.

This interview was conducted in 2018-19 by Diana Filar, PhD'21.