Uruguay Native Became Immersed in English

By Sanina, Mila | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 9, 2015 | Go to article overview

Uruguay Native Became Immersed in English


Sanina, Mila, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Mariana Achugar has always loved to learn. Being a professor, she says, is the closest thing to being a student.

The subjects she teaches are, in many respects, personal. Mariana is a professor of second language acquisition and Hispanic studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

A native of Montevideo, Uruguay, she first came to Pittsburgh when she was 10, during a period when her family had been living abroad because of the civic-military dictatorship in their native Uruguay. Her father was a student at the University of Pittsburgh for a year. That was her first introduction to America, and her full immersion in an English-speaking environment.

"It was a very good, memorable year for Pittsburgh - 1978-79 - that's when the Steelers won, the Pirates won. It was pretty significant," she said, smiling.

It was a memorable year for Mariana, too. She remembers attending Pittsburgh Linden K-5 in Point Breeze, friendships she developed, her friend Natasha from Yugoslavia who lived close to school, touring the city and trips to local parks and Ohiopyle State Park. Most of her memories are positive. The neighborhood feel of Pittsburgh, Mariana said, is something that she remembers and cherishes still - it is one of those things that has not changed and that makes Pittsburgh similar to Latin America. Mariana has a few bitter memories of Pittsburghers unfriendly to immigrants as well, like that of "a guy who threw a pumpkin at our door." Yet those were fewer, Mariana recalled.

When democracy returned to Uruguay, so did Mariana's family. At that point Mariana could speak English quite fluently compared to her peers. It was time to choose a career. "It was right after the dictatorship in Uruguay and I wanted to be a marine biologist," she said, "but that program at the university was closed . so I had to find something else and I went into anthropology and then linguistics and teaching English because I knew how to do it."

Mariana returned to the United States in 2003 to pursue a master's degree at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt., where she met Brian Carpenter. He was a classmate, became a friend and later her husband.

Upon graduation, she continued her education in California, where she earned a doctorate at the University of California, Davis in Spanish Applied Linguistics with an emphasis on Second Language Acquisition and Critical Theory. The family moved to Pittsburgh when Mariana got a job at CMU.

"I knew the city, I had a previous connection, so it worked out," she said.

Mariana's ability to communicate and express herself in English and Spanish helps her understand other ways of seeing and being, she said.

"It's not just about language, it's about a different mentality and the worldview," she said. …

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