Living Language

March 14, 2013—More than half the world’s population is bilingual. Josh Rivera (C’15), a former Marine and recent transfer student to Georgetown, is the rare person who qualifies as ‘octolingual.’

Rivera is fluent in English, Arabic, Hebrew, German, Spanish, and Italian, and proficient in the Farsi and Dari Persian dialects. He is also currently learning Mandarin for a business internship in Beijing this summer. He has been “passionate” about learning language since he was a child. Once, when his uncle sent him a postcard written in different languages, he studied it for weeks.

And while his two brothers did not start “speaking clearly” until they were five or six years old, Rivera showed advanced linguistic skill as a toddler.

“After you pick up three or four languages, you know how to pick up another one,” said Rivera, an Arabic major and economics minor. “One thing that is always a challenge is getting the accent, the pronunciation, and the tone correct; getting the emphasis of a word right and mastering that; and then moving on and practicing it—because if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

English has always been the “living language” for Rivera, who became proficient in other languages as he traveled the world in his late teens and early twenties.

His senior year of high school was spent in Germany, learning both piano and the native tongue at E.T.A. Hoffmann-Gymnasium Bamberg. Afterward, he lived in Jerusalem for four months, inspired by his Jewish heritage to experience Israeli culture and gain fluency in Hebrew.

“When I lived in Germany and did not speak English for a year, I dreamt in German and I thought in German. It’s all about your surroundings,” Rivera explained. “I think that’s how the linguistic brain works, or maybe any brain. It becomes a sponge and takes in anything around it—blends in like a chameleon.”

In 2007, Rivera joined the Marine Corps, with the goal of helping the United States win its politically complex war in the Middle East. Stationed in Delaram, Afghanistan, he worked in military intelligence, supporting combat teams by translating languages foreign to most American soldiers.

“I wanted to help the United States in wartime,” said Rivera, who achieved the rank of sergeant. “I had that call of duty that’s cultural and spiritual.”

During his service, Rivera also enrolled in the Defense Language Institute, the only federally accredited body that trains members of American intelligence agencies and the Armed Forces in learning foreign languages. He excelled at learning Arabic.

But, despite his success, by serving in the Marine Corps Rivera was also forced to reevaluate notions he had long held about combat.

“This is a huge political opinion of mine—and I love the American military and the United States—but I don’t think American lives are worth being lost for the causes we are supposedly fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Rivera explained.

“But there are two sides to every story. When I was in Afghanistan, I acquainted myself with the locals and asked them, ‘What do you think about Americans?’” he said. “We feel that everyone hates us, but the majority love us. Many Afghans are saddened that the United States will withdraw because when we came, it improved their lives. In that regard, our being there was justified.”

Questioning the war effort, Rivera left the Marines in 2011 and began work as a foreign language consultant for the U.S. government. When this job proved lucrative but unfulfilling, he refocused on his education, looking into prestigious colleges and universities that were impressed by his military experience and linguistic skills.

Rivera chose to attend Georgetown, his first choice, which valued his experience at the Defense Language Institute and recognized credits other universities did not.

“I love Georgetown. I think it’s a magnificent institution,” said Rivera, who gratefully receives support from the Georgetown Scholarship Program, which covers some expenses not met by the G.I. Bill.

“Georgetown is inspiring. It has provided me with a lot of insight into things that I wouldn’t have learned if I hadn’t come here. The Arabic department is exceptional,” he said. “And Washington, DC, reminds me of Europe. It has a very international presence and a lot of culture.”

—Brittany Coombs