Speaking in Tongues

Michael Cooperson '87

Michael Cooperson '87 says his childhood was "just not normal. My Mom sang Greek hymns in the kitchen. At one point my Dad went around speaking Yiddish to everyone, even though we couldn't understand him at all."

As a child, his parents indulged his fascination with the exotic by reading him stories of the Arabian Nights. A few years later he was poring over foreign comic books.

Today, Cooperson speaks five languages fluently, including French, Modern Greek, Arabic and Hebrew, and he has some knowledge of Spanish and German. An honors concentrator in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Cooperson has taken a literature class in Greek, a philosophy class in Hebrew, and is currently studying classical Arabic.

Preceptor in Modern Greek Diana Haas describes Cooperson as an outstanding student with "an incredible capacity for learning a lot very fast. I have the highest regard for him as a student and a person," she says.

The Quincy House senior works at Logan Airport, translating in the International Bureau for Immigration, and for customs officials. Cooperson divides his duties at the airport into two categories: helping people understand paperwork and procedures, which he enjoys, and assisting with arrests and deportations, which he describes as being awful, but necessary.

"When you're an interpreter, it's like you're in a bubble with the person. All the emotions of the situation are being channeled through you. It's very weird," he says.

Last August Cooperson translated rights and procedures for a Lebanese man in Federal Court, after he was caught at the airport smuggling drugs into this country. "He told me he was a used-car salesman visiting friends in Worcester. Then we started pulling bags of heroin out of his jacket."

Not all encounters are as sinister. Cooperson recalls a large group of Portugese, "all dressed like extras from a '40's movie and smelling of garlic. They were afraid of the escalator and wouldn't go down it. And none of them could stand in line." Cooperson says they were found to be carrying fruit. When told to get rid of it, they began gobbling it down as fast as possible, and milling around in an uproar. "I hid in a corner," says Cooperson.

Cooperson is fascinated by the eccentricities of each culture's language, as well as the foreign personalities. In Hawaiian, he says, there's no difference between nouns and verbs. So, for instance, the word for "chair" and the word for "sit" would be the same. In Arabic countries, time is thought of as unfolding behind one, the opposite of "facing" the future. The phrase "I have alot of chores behind me" takes on a whole new meaning, says Cooperson.

"I like to be privy to everyone else's weird thoughts and ways of looking at things," says Cooperson, in explanation of his love of languages. A tangential interest is drawing--in particular creating cartoons--again reflecting his sense of the offbeat. Last year he helped put together a cartoon book, and he has done the graphics for several of the house T-shirts. Cooperson jokingly traces this interest in the unusual back to his hometown: Wilmington, Delaware. "It's so small and American. I needed the exotic."

Cooperson says that a French teacher he had in high school was a big inspiration to him. "She's from New Jersey. When she was in France, she was mistaken for a native. I figured, if someone from New Jersey can do it, someone from Delaware can, too."

At first, says Cooperson, it seemed almost inconceivable that people could read a language like Arabic which looked "like gibberish. I thought it was a plot to sell language textbooks. I thought that if you shook them awake in the middle of the night they'd speak English."

The fair, softspoken senior has a shelf full of textbooks himself. Although he has spent time in Greece and Jordan, most of his knowledge has been acquired academically. His senior year of high school was spent studying nothing but languages at the University of Delaware. "That was the year I went wild," he says. In fact, adds Cooperson, he hopes eventually to become a translator of literature.

Travelling is also a high priority. Two summers ago Cooperson went on an archaeological dig in Jordan. He recounts fasting all day, waking up at 3:30 a.m. to pray, and learning the many required phrases of social interchange. "Something specific is said when one takes a shower, or drinks a glass of water. Also, they recite alot of poetry instead of telling anecdotes like we do in this country."

"In other countries they look at the world totally different from the way we do...I think it would be stifling to see things through just one window," he explains.

Cooperson compares the five languages he knows well to having five good friends. "People ask me how I can keep them all straight. To me, mixing them up would be like mixing up the names of your best friends. It's just not something that could happen."