By Michelle Samuels

At Boston University, you can learn Turkish, study German literature, examine how languages work on a scientific level – or, like Alex Williams (CAS ’14), you can do all three.

Alex Williams

Like plenty of freshmen, Alex considered five or more possible majors –from international relations to physics to Russian literature – before the end of his first semester. “After having a kind of existential student crisis I wandered over to the Linguistics department,” he recalls. Crisis over.

“I came into myself and realized that I really like language,” Alex says. At the same time, he also began learning Turkish. He was getting his language-learning fix, and studying how languages work on a scientific level through courses in linguistics, but Alex wasn’t content yet. “I missed the literature culture aspect of language as well,” he recalls. An easy fix: he had a strong background in German, from both family and high school classes, so he added a second major, German literature and culture.

Bringing his different areas of study together was also easy, with plenty of students straddling the linguistics and Modern Languages & Comparative Literature departments. Linguistics professor Jonathan Barnes “is actually well known for his work on Turkish,” Alex notes. “I kind of lucked out there.”

He also lucked out with German faculty. “For example, the final project I did in linguistics was on the prosody of the German language.” Prosody is the pattern of stress and intonation, he explains, so “we recorded sentences, slightly lengthened some stressed or unstressed syllables, and recorded to see how well native speakers were able to discern the differences between the syllable lengths.” Those native speakers included his German professors, “so I actually had quite literal overlap,” he says.

Looking back, Alex says he’s most thankful all of his excellent professors – and the programs that allowed him to study abroad in both Ankara, Turkey, and Dresden, Germany. Fresh out of BU, Alex is now on a Fulbright back in Turkey, teaching English, and finishing up co-creating a Turkish course for English speakers on the free language-learning platform Duolingo. Not surprisingly, he’s now thinking about creating another Duolingo course, this one to help Turks learn German.

One more big area of overlap: Germany has a massive Turkish population. “There’s actually a big joke that Berlin is the fourth or fifth biggest Turkish city on earth.” Studying both Turkish and German, it turns out, was a very practical thing to do.

Still, Alex says that’s not the way to approach language. “Learn the language that motivates you,” he says. Interest and curiosity are what matters.