Faculty Series: Language Across Disciplines



On any given morning, you may run into Dr. Slavi Sevov doing stomach crunches and maintaining a nice, steady pace around the indoor track at Notre Dame's recreation center. His pace around the track is analoguous to his consistent and significant contributions to the field of chemistry and his road to being an esteemed professor and researcher of chemistry--inorganic and solid state chemistry to be precise--at the University of Notre Dame. In an interview with Dr. Sevov, he discusses his experiences with foreign languages and their relevance to his field of research. The native of Bulgaria also touches on the international mix of students in his research group, the Sevov Group, and the students' common language.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Bulgaria and lived there until 28 years old.

What is your native or heritage language(s) spoken in the home?
At home, my wife and I speak Bulgarian although we often use English words because it becomes more and more difficult to come up with the proper Bulgarian words. Our kids, on the other hand, prefer to speak to us in English. They are both married to English-speaking spouses. Also, although they were born in Bulgaria, they came here at about 4-5 years of old and grew up in an English-speaking environment.

What was your first exposure to a foreign or second Language–-which language, context, location, and/or program outside the home?
I started learning Russian in 4th or 5th grade in school. This was in days of the Iron curtain, and we were all forced to learn Russian. I had some English only in high school and later as a college student for one year. However, Russian was in the program in all those years.

Which foreign languages do you know (novice to fluent range)?
I understand spoken Russian and can read it as well. For some reason, when I try speaking Russian I end up speaking English after a few words...

Do you ever use (or have you used) a foreign/second language in your instruction or research? Can you describe how you apply (or have applied) the foreign language?
I used to have a few Bulgarian graduate students in my lab, and we would talk sometimes in Bulgarian. However, most of the technical conversations were in English.

Can you talk briefly about the types of studies and articles that are in English versus Russian?
There used to be some chemistry literature exclusively in Russian and then I used my knowledge of the language to read the articles, but nowadays everything is available in translation to English.

Can you speak to how students can apply (or have applied) foreign language in inorganic and solid state chemistry? Perhaps the dominant languages that research in chemistry are written in?
There is really no need of knowing another language in the area of chemistry; everything is available in English. It used to be that some German journals were published only in German, but now they are also available in English.

Would you say you have an international lab? Which languages are most frequently used to communicate? To research?
At one time, about 10 years ago, I had a couple of Bulgarian, one French, and one Spanish students, so we were really international. The French student was pretty good in picking some Bulgarian words, and managed to sometimes understand what the two Bulgarians were talking about in Bulgarian. However, all the communications were done in English in both outside and inside the lab. Currently, I have two American and one Chinese students.

Find out more about Dr. Slavi Sevov