by Lauren Pitts
IN THIS COLLABORATION BETWEEN UNIVERSIDAD HUMANITAS, CAPITEL AND CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, LAUREN PITTS INTERVIEWS GREEK-AMERICAN AUTHOR AND BUSINESSWOMAN ARIANNA HUFFINGTON TO FIND OUT JUST HOW FAR A COMBINATION OF DETERMINATION AND LINGUISTIC COMPETENCE CAN GET YOU.
Arianna Huffington moved to England when she was 16 and graduated from Cambridge University with an M.A. in Economics. At 21, she became president of the famed debating society, the Cambridge Union. She’s the founder of The Huffington Post, founder and CEO of Thrive Global and author of 15 books (after initially thinking she wouldn’t know how to write a book!).
AIMING HIGH AND WORKING HARD
You grew up in Athens, Greece, where you learnt English as a second language. How important was it for you to learn English at the time?
It was very important. My mother spoke four languages. One of her favorite sayings was “give yourself a hundred percent to whatever you are doing”. I started learning English when I was 15, after I happened to see a photo of Cambridge while I was walking home from school one day. The photo spoke to me in a deep way, and I was convinced I absolutely had to go there.
So when I got home, I told my mother. It was a ridiculous goal for many reasons. We didn’t have any money, I’d never even been out of Greece and, worst of all, I spoke no English. But instead of laughing at me, like most people did, my mother’s reaction was: let’s make it happen. So she found an intensive class for me to start learning English. And because of her unconditional love and support, and a lot of hard work, it did happen.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience of learning English?
At 16 I came to America as part of a program called the Experiment in International Living. Later, when I was in England, I would literally watch everything, including pop-culture shows like ‘Laugh-In’. And I did the same when I moved to New York. I made a point of studying what I had missed. I moved from Athens to London with my mother and sister so that I could take the entrance exams for Cambridge. Finally, one afternoon, a telegram arrived: ‘awarded. Girton. exhibition’. Neither me nor my mother understood the term ‘exhibition’, so we called my tutor, who explained that it was a form of scholarship.
Wow, all your hard work had clearly been recognised!
How does speaking these two languages contribute to your sense of identity?
I feel completely Greek, but also by the time I left London I felt thoroughly British – I had strong opinions about tea, I’d say “sorry, sorry,” for no reason, and I’d get upset when someone didn’t queue up properly, which is not something Greeks normally notice. I consider both Athens and London home, which is exactly how I feel the second I touch down in either place.
You moved from Greece to England at 16 years old. What were the pros and cons of moving to a new country as a teenager?
Moving to a new country compounds the awkwardness and turbulence of being a teenager, I think. But the advantage is you’re in such a formative period — you soak up new languages, cultures and customs much faster than if you were a full-grown adult.
Did you experience a big culture shock and were there particular times that you struggled to communicate?
When I was elected president of Cambridge Union debating society, there could be snobbery around accents. When I first stood up to speak, I was a terrible speaker. I was reading every word, and I had this heavy accent. But I persevered just because I really loved it.
Photo by Albert H. Teich vía Shutterstock.com.
YOUR FUTURE’S ALWAYS UP FOR DEBATE!
As you’ve mentioned, you studied at Girton College, University of Cambridge. How significant were your language skills in terms of higher education opportunities?
There were difficult moments, when I was painfully aware of not speaking like everyone else. One day in class, I said something in a group like “horseback riding,” which made people laugh. “What other kind of riding is there? Donkey riding?”
And my involvement with the debating society led to one of the biggest opportunities of my life. A British publisher, who had published Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, happened to see me on television debating the importance of women not throwing, so to speak, the baby out with the bathwater, and sent me a letter asking if I would be interested in writing a book on my views.
I was in my last year at Cambridge and was planning to leave the next year to get a graduate degree at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. So I sent him a letter saying, thank you, but I don’t know how to write a book. He wrote back: Can you have lunch? Thinking of all my friends wandering around looking for a home for their manuscript, I decided it was at least worth a train ride to London. By the end of lunch, Reg Davis-Poynter had offered me a contract and a modest advance. And that contract marked a new beginning in my life.
You were the first president of the debating society, Cambridge Union, who wasn’t from the UK or the Commonwealth. Did you see this as an opportunity to develop your language skills, or was your confidence in articulating yourself what motivated you to pursue this?
During a student group fair, I toured the chambers of the university’s debating society. I became obsessed with the Cambridge Union. I loved the idea that you could move people’s hearts and minds just through the sheer power of words and rhetoric.
When I joined the Union, I just threw myself into it. I went to every debate. I sat there spellbound by the spectacle of great speakers and people being moved or angered by their words. And eventually I became president. I was nervous about my accent, but instead of trying to hide it, which would be impossible, I just accepted it and focused on the power of language.
EXPANDING YOUR CAREER AND PERSPECTIVE
You co-founded the Huffington Post, later becoming president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group. How instrumental have your language skills been in your career?
At the Huffington Post, we grew to have 17 international editions, from Canada and Spain to Japan and Australia. My language skills were certainly useful when we launched in Greece. In the countries where I didn’t speak the language, it was always important to me to learn at least a little and honor the cultures and traditions of the countries we worked in.
A global survey conducted by the British Council found that managers worldwide prefer candidates with intercultural skills. It stands to reason that they’d be more adaptable to different cultural contexts and environments. How important do you think language skills are in today’s global economy?
In a world where we’re more interconnected than ever, language skills can be a great differentiator.
Do you think the focus and can-do attitude required to become fluent in a language instils a sense of confidence and determination?
I think it can. Some people have a natural gift for mastering languages, while for others fluency doesn’t come so easily. But whatever your experience, learning a new language expands your perspective in a way few other experiences can.
READ A BOOK BEFORE BED!
Besides exposure to other cultures, what other ways do you think people today could develop global competencies that are so valued in the economy?
There are so many ways to learn a language and develop skills that don’t require physically going to another country. Apps like Duolingo are enormously popular and leverage behavior change technology. We have incredible access to resources that can help us gain exposure to other cultures and build language skills, from YouTube, to low-tech methods like immersing yourself in the literature of a particular culture.
Can you give a word of advice in Greek? (And tell us what it means in English!)
My favorite word is Philotimo, a Greek word I grew up hearing. It means rising above trivialities and living not just for yourself, but something larger than yourself.
Lauren Pitts, Marketing Executive, Cambridge University Press. The World of Better Learning blog of Cambridge University Press.