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‘Seeing the world through the eyes of someone else’

Meet the Future: George Murphy

Name: George Murphy
School/grade level: East Grand Rapids High School, Class of 2023
Passion: World languages

East Grand Rapids — Whether it’s reading ancient Greek texts in their original language or discovering how one’s native language can affect perspective, everything about language is intriguing to senior George Murphy. The avid linguist has taught himself several languages and has many more on his to-learn list. 

When did studying and learning languages become something you were interested in? George credits attending a “really, really diverse preschool” as the spark: “I had classmates whose parents knew and spoke all kinds of different languages, and as a kid I just loved listening to the sounds of these languages — not even necessarily trying to speak them, but just getting to hear what they sounded like. 

“In middle and high school, I had the opportunity to start taking language classes and really enjoyed that. It slowly became more and more of a hobby until it just became part of my life, whether in or out of school.”

George said he also was intrigued by the ideas presented in the Sapir-Whorf linguistic hypothesis, which suggests that a person thinks and understands things differently based on their first, or native, language: 

“The basic gist is that somebody whose first language is, say, Mandarin Chinese, is going to kind of look at the world differently than somebody whose native language is, like, Italian. There’s some really interesting examples of this — like ancient Egyptians didn’t have a word for the color blue, so they don’t prioritize that color or really think about it much, and you can see (that) in paintings and such. … And there are lots of differences in (how different languages address) time and tense, and I think that’s really interesting. Those are the kinds of things that interest me about (language).”  

A few related accomplishments: George is now proficient, to varying levels, in four languages other than English. Two of them, Spanish and Latin, he’s studied in school, while he has taught himself both ancient Greek and French in his spare time. He considers himself the most knowledgeable in Spanish, which he can read and speak well; he’s at a reading-knowledge level with both Latin and Greek and hopes to build upon his French skills this summer. 

“The big achievement in this for me is being able to actually read something that was written, like, 5,000 years ago. That possibility is what really set me on the path and what really excited me about these languages from the beginning.” 

Senior George Murphy, back row, right, with classmates at the Latin Club beach day (courtesy)

How did you choose these first four languages? “Spanish and Latin both kind of just happened because they were what was offered in school. With ancient Greek, I’ve had an interest in ancient Greek literature and culture since I was a kid, and I wanted to be able to interact with those texts in the original language. 

“With French, I was thinking about the languages that I still want to learn, and I knew French would be easier, given my background in romance languages. I thought it might be a little more fun to focus on a language that I can get faster results in now, and save the more difficult languages like Arabic for college.” 

Is there a teacher or other adults who have had a big impact on you in this area? “We have some fantastic teachers here, and one that has really made a big impact has been (Kim) Ibara — she really guided and encouraged me to embrace the idea of speaking multiple languages. … She’s been invaluable in helping me with conversation practice and giving me resources to help study. Mr. (Jason) Albaugh, too, has helped me with Greek and Latin, giving me lots of extra resources.” 

Do you plan to pursue this professionally? “My dream would be to work as a curator in an art museum, and so for that you do need to have reading knowledge of whatever cultures you’re working with. And in a lot of academic fields, you’re expected to have a reading knowledge of different languages. So I guess if my museum interest doesn’t quite go my way, I’d definitely be interested in working abroad, looking at opportunities like in foreign service. … I’m hoping (language) will be a big part of my life and career going forward, no matter what.” 

Next year, George will attend Columbia University, majoring in art history and studying Arabic as the next language on his list. After that, he’ll be “hopefully taking as many language classes as I can,” with German, Italian, Turkish and Persian on his radar. 

The biggest lesson you have learned from your involvement in this is… “It’s taught me that people are both super similar and super different at the same time. … Getting to see those differences has been a real treat — getting to see the world through the eyes of someone else, reading the literature in their own words and really embracing those different perspectives has been incredible.” 

Other hobbies/interests: “In my spare time — I don’t have much of it — but I love to read. I run cross-country and track, so I love running and spending time outside with my friends. I’m also a big amateur astronomer; I have a telescope and I love to go look at stuff outside.” 

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is associate editor, reporter and copy editor. She is an award-winning journalist who got her professional start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate and proud former Chimes editor, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio


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