Matt LaRose speaks Spanish, French, some German, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese and dabbles in the Russian.
This polyglot doesn't work for an international Fortune 500 company or the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He's a Williams college sophomore from Holyoke studying computer science as his major.
Over the weekend, he made his first trip to New York City to compete at the junior level in the Hong Kong Cup Chinese Speech Contest organized by Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office New York (HKETONY), now celebrating its 30th anniversary in the city.
LaRose was one of 16 contestants from a total of 10 colleges and universities (Brown University, Cornell University, Harvard University, Hunter College, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, SUNY New Paltz, Swarthmore College, Wesleyan University, and Williams College) invited to participate in the final contest.
The theme of the Chinese-language public speaking contest was "How To Enhance Hong Kong-U.S. Relations."
Though LaRose's best friend from home is Chinese, it wasn't until arriving to Williams as a freshman that he became interested in adding Mandarin to his list of languages to study.
"I just really like studying languages," he said. "My grandmother is from Austria and, when we were younger, she spoke a lot of German around us. Living in Holyoke, there is also a lot of Spanish spoken around there."
But mostly, he said, the drive to learn so many languages comes from a personal passion.
LaRose studied French and Spanish in high school, but he's taught himself other languages on his own. He said he frequents materials developed by the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, which can be found online for free in the public domain. Additional resources can also be found online at the U.S. Education Resources Information Center (eric.ed.gov).
He credited his professors from last year and this year -- including Nini Li, Li Yu, and language fellows I-Ting Chao and Mo Zhang -- for leading him to learn about and participate in Saturday's Hong Kong Cup Chinese Speech Contest, held at the SUNY Global Centre.
Speakers were asked to develop a three-minute speech in response to the prompt: "Best Way to Promote Understanding and Exchanges between Hong Kong and the USA," specifically citing a pathway through the area of either arts/entertainment, education, environmental protection. After giving their speech, a panel of judges were also able to ask students questions about their topic, which students responded to in Chinese.
LaRose gave a speech in the arts/entertainment category, referring to the potential of Chinese cartoons and pop culture engaging U.S. consumers in a similar way that Japanese animation and film has.
Last year, Williams student Jared Hallet was a second-runner up in the competition, earning a round-trip ticket to travel to Hong Kong and participate in cultural heritage tours and programs.
LaRose, who said many of his competitors had previously spent time studying Mandarin in China, earned a silver medal award this year for "Most Promising Speaker" in his contest division. He took home a new Kindle, as well as other gift cards and prizes, and of course the experience.
He said he's not sure he'll compete in next year's contest, but LaRose said he appreciated the experience and the challenge.
"All the people I met were really nice, which kept me relaxed come competition time," he said. "It's always nice to take anything you've done or learned and use it properly. This was a big help in improving my Chinese."
Ultimately, LaRose is interested in a career in machine translation, a computational field that investigates how software can translate speech or text from one language into another. "Having a lot of other languages under my belt is a significant help with want I want to do," he said.
Though he said he will still mix up languages from time to time, it's not stopped him from trying to figure out how to learn more -- Italian, Swedish and Finnish being among his prospective picks. "Eventually I'd like to speak 20 languages," he said.