How to: Learn a Language
February 28, 2011  |  by Catherine Pierre

Robert Rivkin, A&S ’61, is trying to learn his 10th language: Turkish. He already knows English (his native tongue), French, German, Latin, Italian, Greek, ancient Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese. Rivkin graduated from Johns Hopkins with a double degree in biological sciences and Romance languages. He then launched what would turn into a 49-year career (so far) as a language teacher, first in Baltimore City and County public schools (where he created a course titled Introduction to Latin, Linguistics, and Etymology for the Bilingually Oriented) and now at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. If anyone is qualified to guide a would-be language learner, it’s Rivkin.

And so we ask him: Comment apprendre une langue étrangère?

Spring 2011

Find a good reason to want to learn a language. Rivkin learned Spanish as a child because he wanted to be able to talk to his cousins, who were visiting from Peru. He learned Italian because he and some high school buddies wanted to understand opera. Find a way to immerse yourself. Take classes. Buy some tapes. Listen to foreign broadcasts or watch foreign movies. And of course, travel if you can. But in any case, practice, practice, practice. “It’s not a spectator event,” Rivkin advises. “The more you use it, the more likely you are to keep it.”
Learn more languages. The second foreign language you learn, Rivkin says, will take about half as much time as the first did. Your third language will take about half as much time as the second. Mission accomplished? Rivkin says you know you’re fluent in a language when it becomes the language you count in or the language you dream in.

Illustrations by Wesley Bedrosian


  1. Having known Bob Rivkin for MANY years, I can vouch for his incredible teaching expertise, his kindness, and his supreme interest in the welfare and learning of his students. May he learn a half-dozen more languages! I hope he has the opportunity to visit all of the countries where natives speak the languages he has learned!

  2. I have known Bob Rivkin for nearly 45 years–and for many of the early years
    happened both to live next door and to teach German across the hall from him. During those years he was nominated for and achieved the runner-up slot for National Teacher of the Year. Among the many stories I can still recall, none rivals an ongoing scene where members of the Milford Mill football team would emerge from his French classes singing arias like “Avant de quitter ces lieux” from Faust.

  3. If I am not mistaken, I think I had Mr. Rivkin as my student teacher when I was in the 12th grade at City College in 1961-62. As I recall, he was trying to decide whether to become a language teacher or a physician and had trouble making up his mind. Our regular teacher was Mr. William Yanuzzi (later the rehearsal pianist for the Baltimore Opera) who made fun of the prospect of becoming a pianist by claiming that in the future, the Us would follow the practice of the Soviet Union, and have physicians be mostly women. Yanuzzi was off in his prediction by a half century, but he was apparently convincing. Mr. Rivkin was an excellent teacher as a student. I am sure a half century later, he realizes that he made the right decision.

  4. Bravo, Roberto!
    Sei uno bravo insegnatore ed amico favoloso. Tanti auguri!

  5. Sarah Ashman Gillespie

    Way back in high school when I hated pretty much everything, I loved Mr. Rifkin’s class – and fondly remember a fractured French skit in which a few of us acted out a meeting of Faust with his shrink.

  6. Esther Siegel Jacobson

    I was lucky enough to be one of Mr. Rivkin’s many French students at Milford Mill, and also fortunate to have taken his Introduction to Latin, Linguistics and Etymology for the Bilingually Oriented (or as we called it, ILLELB)in its first and second years. Today I am finally realizing a long time dream of studying Italian, and am thankful to have the foundations that I learned in Mr. Rivkin’s classroom. Ave Magister!

  7. Bons conselhos! Espero conseguir alcançar minha segunda linguagem logo.

  8. Obrigado. Boa sorte em seu estudo da segunda linguagem. Que língua você escolheu?


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