BEMOWO PISKIE, Poland – Some call him a language maestro. Some call him a genius. Others may call him a cunning linguist. He simply calls himself John.
Language is more than just communicating for U.S. Army Spc. Sean “John” Collins, an intelligence analyst with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, supporting the 4th Infantry Division in Poland. For him, language is a way to connect with centuries of culture.
Collins, the son of a U.S. Soldier of German descent and a Polish immigrant, knows English, Russian, Polish, German, and is currently in the process of mastering French. Collins said he chose to learn these languages because of his fascination with the rich and vibrant history of each language’s cultures.
Collins explained that he’s harbored this fascination with other cultures since he was a child, but this same passion sometimes prevented him from connecting with his peers. Not many of his peers growing up wanted to talk about the histories of countries on the other side of the world. Now, Collins speaks other languages as a way to help him connect to other people from other cultures.
“Most people are used to learning a language just to speak, but for me it's learning the soul of the country and their culture,” Collins said. “It’s more than just learning the language; [it’s about] the people, it’s history, it’s very soul.”
“It’s something for me [that’s] a lot deeper than just being able to communicate with another person,” Collins continued. “It’s coming to understand them below the surface.”
Collins elaborated, talking about how languages carry the history of their culture.
For example, Collins explained, the greeting in Russian, “здравствуйте (zdravstvuyte),” literally translates to, “How is your health?” This originated from a long by-gone era of wishing people good health during times of strife. Now, it is used as a formal greeting.
“Understanding the root of the word, or what it actually means, and coming to understand those words means so much more,” Collins said.
Collins, currently deployed to Poland with NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group, said the best way for him to really learn and appreciate a language is by immersing himself in the country. While he’s out-and-about in Poland, Collins speaks to Polish citizens in their native tongue, which helps him better understand the foundation of the language.
His knowledge of several European languages is paying off now as he serves in the American element of a multinational battle group made up of soldiers from the United Kingdom, Poland, Croatia, and Romania serving on NATO’s eastern flank at Bemowo Piskie Training Area in northeast Poland.
Collins’ personal skills benefit not only himself, but his team – something his former team leader attested to. Staff Sgt. Alexander S. Walters, an intelligence security manager with Headquarters and Headquarters Brigade, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, supporting the 4th Infantry Division, served as Collins’ team lead for the majority of their time in Poland. Walters spoke about Collins’ linguist skills, calling him “a very intelligent guy.”
Walters first met Collins when he was a private first class, and he’s seen him push himself to learn and practice the various languages he’s studied.
“He’s always been diligently studying,” Walters said. Collins’ efforts were invaluable to their work and the relationships they built with their Polish counterparts.
As an intelligence analyst, there is no expectation for Collins to fill the role of an interpreter, but he often applies his skills to the benefit of the battle group. Walters said Collins served as his translator when interacting with Polish locals and servicemembers, and even recalled a time when Collins spoke fluent Polish with a Polish army sergeant major during a mission, helping bridge a gap in communications.
However, with Collins’ skills come some caveats. Knowing languages of Slavic, Latin, and Germanic origin can sometimes throw him off, he explained. He joked that he is sometimes teased by his German relatives when he slips up speaking German. Studying Russian presented its own challenges as well, until he began working with a native-speaking tutor.
Still, Collins doesn’t let the challenges get in the way of learning languages. He hopes to one day be able to speak a more fluent German in order to better communicate with his German grandparents and siblings.
His deployment to Poland afforded him the opportunity to begin learning another language. He began working on his French, which, Collins added, he now finds to be his favorite culture and history to study, with the goal of earning a master’s degree in the language.
Collins won’t stop there though. After mastering French, he plans to tackle Spanish and Italian languages as well.
Walters acknowledged Collins’ passion and its invaluable role in the Army.
“He's a great asset to the armed forces,” he said.
Collins’ passion for learning about other cultures is still propelling him forward, and got him where he is today. In the time he spent musing for the interview, Collins came to a realization.
“That kind of drive for passion for cultures, especially wanting to learn the languages, helped me join the military,” he said, reflecting on his service to his country.
“I want to travel the world and find a home, physically and culturally,” he elaborated. “It was near impossible from the small town that I was living in. I saw the Army gave me the opportunity to travel and possibly find that place.”