Speaking the language of the north

Feb 12th, 2014

Janet Harron

Speaking the language of the north

Polar sovereignty, oil and gas exploration, northern sea routes, Arctic ecology, the Arctic Council, Russian-Canadian co-operation and controversy, and now the Winter Olympics in Russia – Russian is truly a language of northern significance.

Jon Mankow is living a lot of people’s dream right now. The Russian language student is in Sochi, Russia, volunteering at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

Mr. Mankow is acting as an assistant to a member of the International Olympic Committee, ensuring that his client makes it to meetings and events on time.

“I use Russian to communicate with drivers and English to communicate with my client. We are also responsible for their families. For example, if my client's partner wishes to go shopping or find a nice restaurant, I would arrange that. Some of us are fortunate enough to attend sporting events with our clients. We are required to be extremely flexible, because with anything that runs at this scale, you need to allow for error,” he explained in an email from Sochi.

Originally from Western Canada and with a Russian background -- his family immigrated to Canada in the early 20th century -- Mr. Mankow studied Russian at a language school affliated with Moscow State University for six months prior to coming to Memorial last fall to commence his university studies.

“Being immersed in the language during my time in Russia helped me pick it up quicker. By the end of the six-month program, I was in classes with foreign students majoring in Russian language,” wrote Mr. Mankow.

The first-year business student is currently enrolled in two Russian language courses at Memorial and will return to St. John’s on Feb. 26.

Mr. Mankow is an outspoken advocate for learning a foreign language. His experience in Sochi demonstrates that proficiency in a foreign language, in this case Russian, is not only a means of understanding our northern neighbours but also for gaining a broader understanding of the world in general. Mr. Mankow rhymed off numerous reasons to learn a second language, including basic communication betweem people who don't share a language, translating for others professionally or as a courtesy, gaining another element of thought process and re-evaluating concepts and habits typically taken for granted by speakers of one language. Then there are the opportunities, such as volunteering in Sochi, or practical reasons like improving one's CV.

“Second language proficiency isn't just about self-improvement,” wrote Mr. Mankow. “In business, and in many other professions, being able to communicate clearly in a language other than English is an asset. I chose Russian because after having travelled around the world I was particularly interested in the politics, culture and future of Russia. Believe it or not, Russia is still a superpower and has an emerging economy.” 

Mr. Mankow first got the idea of volunteering at Sochi after working at the 2012 Vancouver Olympics with the Canadian Forces. Since he was travelling in Russia in the summer of 2012, he was able to attend an in-person interview in Moscow to determine his suitability for volunteering. There are currently more than 25,000 volunteers at Sochi, 130 of which are from Canada. 

When off-duty in Sochi, Mr. Mankow plans to attend the mogul skiing, figure skating and speed skating events.