EAST PROVIDENCE — Dilara Ozdemir describes her profound passion for languages — she speaks five, not counting Latin — by quoting the great South African leader Nelson Mandela.
“If you teach a man a language he understands, that will go to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
Ozdemir came here from Turkey in eighth grade, an observant Muslim who spoke little English but already had a fascination with the sounds of foreign words, which are, after all, a form of music, like birds chatting in the trees.
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“When I was three years old, my aunt asked me what the color of a nearby bridge was, and I replied “blue” in English, even though at that time the only language I could speak was Turkish,” Ozdemir wrote in an essay. “When I was five years old, I would claim that I knew Chinese, just because I knew how to say “Ni Hao,” which means “Hello.”
Honored for the 'breadth and depth of her interest in languages'
Last week, Ozdemir was one of two students to receive the Student of the Year award from the Rhode Island Foreign Language Association.
The association wrote, “Ms. Ozdemir impressed the Awards Committee with the breadth and depth of her interest in languages. She has been in the U.S. for four years, learning English, and yet she has taken on Latin, French, American Sign Language, Arabic and Spanish. ... One of her teachers describes her as a 'linguist' who ‘always wants to know more about language — whether discrete grammar points, the etymology of certain words or the connections of language and culture."
The other Student of the Year is Chiara Andrews, a Westerly High School senior who has studied French, Spanish and AP Italian. She is also studying German on her own.
Ozdemir and her family belong to a community called Hizmet, which is dedicated to doing acts of goodwill, such as building schools. In Turkey, the group was reviled by the ruling class and ultimately blamed for staging a coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who then ordered the arrests of women and children and the terrorizing of members of the community, she said.
Worried they might be targeted, Ozdemir’s parents obtained visas and escaped to the United States, where they stayed with a friend in Rhode Island. The family settled in Riverside, which reminds her of her native country because of its proximity to the ocean.
'She’s fearless and determined'
“Last year, every single day I’d get up and bike for an hour to clear my head,” she said. Thursday. “My family is from the northeast part of Turkey near the Black Sea. It really feels like home here, being near the ocean.”
When Ozdemir arrived, she was assigned to classes for multi-language learners. Today, she is enrolled in three Advanced Placement classes and three honors classes.
Jessica D’Orsi, who teaches English and multi-language learners at East Providence High School, said that in her 15 years of teaching she has never met a student like Ozdemir.
“She’s fearless and determined. What I admire most is she will take on any challenge. She has this passion for learning about people and culture.”
The feeling is mutual. Ozdemir visits Miss D’Orsi every morning.
“She always believed in me,” she said. “I was very stressed out about taking all these AP classes. She told me, ‘You’re going to do fine.’”
Then, D’Orsi told her AP teachers, “Don’t go easy on her. She can do it.”
“We bonded over love of reading,” D’Orsi said. “We shared books.”
A math major — for now
Nothing is too daunting for Ozdemir. She has applied to 13 colleges and universities, including Brown, Harvard, MIT, Boston College and Wellesley. Math is her major, for now at least.
“Until I was eight, I wanted to be a pediatrician. Then I wanted to be a math teacher," she said. “Then I figured I didn’t have the patience to work with kids. I’m thinking of being a math professor now.”
Math has much in common with language: they both have highly structured rules. Math, at its most rarified, approaches poetry.
While it is Ozdemir’s mind that first captures new friends’ attention, it is her heart that leaves the most lasting impression.
One recent Thursday morning, she said hello to a new student and he responded in Turkish, something she taught him.
“One of my biggest dreams is to be able to speak many languages so I can touch people’s hearts," she said. "And this passion of learning languages helps me get closer to my dream every day.”
Linda Borg covers education for The Journal.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI ESL high school student now speaks five languages — plus Latin