Chris Matthews poses for a photo at the Global Hub in Posvar Hall.
Chris Matthews poses for a photo at the Global Hub in Posvar Hall.
Alex Jurkuta | Staff Photographer

Chris Matthews: Inspiring language learners at home and abroad

Most people could never imagine themselves going grocery shopping in a foreign country with the equivalent of one US dollar to their name and only four days’ worth of practice in a new language. For Chris Matthews, however, occurrences like these are a tangible reality. 

Having studied abroad in Italy and Tanzania, Matthews has used his broad knowledge of languages to positively impact the lives of others in both the Pitt community and internationally.

Matthews, a senior linguistics and Italian major, serves as the student engagement specialist for the Less-Commonly-Taught Languages Center at Pitt. Gretchen Aiyangar, the LCTL program coordinator, highlighted Matthews’ many contributions to the program.

“Chris works every day to make sure students on Pitt’s campus are aware of the amazing opportunities that exist in the LCTL Center,” Aiyangar said. “He sees and appreciates our programs and faculty, notices the care and effort that LCTL instructors put into bringing language and culture to their students and adeptly, creatively and passionately opens students’ eyes to the existence of these incredible programs hiding in plain sight in the Cathedral of Learning.”

Matthews’ love of language learning dates back to his first Spanish lesson pre-kindergarten, which led him to continue taking Spanish lessons through middle school.

“I always liked it, but then when I started taking more formal Spanish in sixth grade, I was hooked,” Matthews said. “I took Chinese in ninth grade, and then I did two languages the whole way through high school. Through comparing those, [I knew] that was something I wanted to do forever, and that linguistics was for me when I went to college.”

While his passion for learning has prevailed throughout his entire academic career, learning a new language often poses challenges even after years of experience.

“One [challenge] is adapting to different teaching styles, professors or teachers,” Matthews said. “The strategy that I prefer is just as much speaking as possible. In my Quechua class, [the professor] started on day one [with] no English, just Quechua, and we figured out all the grammar rules on our own [after] never learning them explicitly, which I thought was very cool.” 

Ashley Feiler, a senior linguistics and education major, first met Matthews in a Zoom-based education class during the COVID-19 pandemic in her first year at Pitt, where they bonded over their shared interests in linguistics and education.

Feiler said Matthews has used his love for language learning to positively impact members of Pitt’s campus. 

“Through his work with LCTL, Chris has shared his passion for language and facilitating communication across the world with the entire campus,” Feiler said. “His joy and passion for language are contagious. If you have no previous interest in learning a language, talk to Chris for a few minutes and you’ll be signing up to take Quechua, Italian or Swahili 1 the next semester.”

A large part of Matthews’ work as the LCTL student engagement specialist is to help organize the annual LCTL Center Language Coffeehouse, which is hosted by the Department of Linguistics. Aiyangar said after two years of not hosting the coffeehouse due to the pandemic hiatus, Matthews’ enthusiasm and drive helped bring the event back to life.

“He knew the students needed to feel the sense of connection and empowerment that Coffeehouse brings, and he fought to make it happen,” Aiyangar said. “He has had a million brilliant ideas, and he’s made many of them come to life, bringing students together to make things happen in ways we didn’t even realize were possible.”

One reason Matthews is able to excel at his role is his ability to get out of his comfort zone and leave a positive impact on others. 

“In Pittsburgh, I always strive to make connections with everyone that I meet and not be afraid of embarrassing myself or making the wrong impression,” Matthews said. “I find if you just live authentically, typically people are going to like you, and if they don’t, that’s their problem. I try to put myself out of my comfort zone by giving strangers compliments or waving to [someone] on the street, even if I’ve only met [that person] one time.”

Feiler said Matthews’ outgoing and dedicated nature makes him a role model for others.

“Chris is passionate, devoted and energetic,” Feiler said. “He is incredibly sociable and open, which makes him easy to talk to and is a great quality of any leader.”

Matthews has also coordinated a student-run and student-taught Mini Language Lessons event, where students introduced each other to LCTL Center languages through micro-teaching. Additionally, he is working on a podcast for the LCTL Center titled “Less is More,” in which he interviews other LCTL students about their language learning experiences and preserves insights for prospective students.

Matthews said his involvement with the linguistics program has opened up a variety of career options related to helping others receive the tools and support to learn a second language. 

“I [have] many routes that I can see myself going down, but all of them are related to education,” Matthews said. “I don’t necessarily want to be a language teacher, but I want to help make language teachers more successful. So, I’ve taken courses about second language acquisition, and I’m really interested in how people learn different languages.”

In addition to improving language education programs, Matthews said he hopes to work towards making study abroad programs more accessible for students. 

“I think that if you’re paying for study abroad [completely out of pocket] you’re doing it the wrong way, because [there are] so many resources out there,” Matthews said. “I want to be someone not only that can connect students to resources and the program that suits them best, but also develop new programs with countries that are less-commonly traveled to.”

Above all, Matthews believes language learning is not only a means to communicate, but a tool to connect with others on a deeper level. Matthews said learning a second language can not only help Americans broaden their horizons, but become better people as well. 

“I think that if you’re only learning English, you’re really limiting yourself,” Matthews said. “There are studies out there that say the language that you speak influences the way you think, and I think that is true to a degree. When you learn to think like someone else, you’re going to become a more empathetic person in the long run.”