“English was my first language. Then I learned Yupik from my grandma. Then Russian,” explained Jalen Konukpeok. “Then the languages started to build up.”
A first-year student at UAA, Jalen now speaks five languages fluently, plus he knows key words and phrases in at least eight more (including Alutiiq, Tlingit, Unangan and Greek).
Jalen is from New Stuyahok, 50 miles northeast of Dillingham on the Nushagak River. But as a UAA student, he’s now living in one of the most diverse cities in the country, greeting Uber drivers in Tagalog and overhearing Korean conversations at the cash register.
“You have people coming in from all over the world,” he said. “You have a chance of meeting new people and speaking in their language. It’s a pretty diverse university,” he said. “I really enjoy it.”
Jalen credits Saint Innocent of Alaska—the first Russian Orthodox bishop in the Americas—for inspiring his language interests. A missionary in the 1820s, Saint Innocent learned to speak several indigenous languages and created the first written alphabet for the Aleut and Tlingit. Hearing these stories, Jalen decided to learn Russian at age 8. He taught himself the 33-letter alphabet first, then started bugging his parents for a copy of Rosetta Stone.
Those Russian skills opened up the meaning of a few songs in church, but really came in useful when he enrolled at Sitka’s Mount Edgecumbe High School. With Saint Michael’s Cathedral sitting in the middle of the main street, the city is literally centered around Russian culture.
In Sitka, Jalen met Russian tourists for the first time, and connected with more Orthodox priests. He learned Inupiaq from close friends, and enrolled in Mandarin classes in school. He befriended the Filipino staff in the residence hall and insisted they only speak with him in Tagalog until he figured it out (or, in his words, “in-person Rosetta Stone”).
It was difficult, but it worked. By the time he graduated, Jalen could speak Inupiaq and Tagalog fluently, too. And as his language repertoire grew, so did his reputation.
Jalen was selected as the Bristol Bay youth representative from 2015-2016, earning him an invite to the First Alaskans Institute’s Elders & Youth conference in 2015. That year, regional newspaper Arctic Sounder reported on his role and his multilingual abilities. That led to a follow-up story when he graduated, which appeared in Bristol Bay Times and ran on Juneau and Dillingham’s public radio stations. This summer, while working in Dillingham, Jalen sang the Russian national anthem for Dr. Mikhail Malakhov’s team of adventurers. They mailed footage home before their kayak journey to Aniak, and Jalen’s performance turned up on a TV station in Yaroslavl. Now, he’s waiting for his episode of CNN’s The Wonder List to premiere (yes, really).
But in the meantime, he’s at UAA studying small business administration. After class, Jalen goes to his job at the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program, then returns to the residence halls for homework and personal language study.
His current focus is German, but he communicates in various languages every single night. Switching between keyboards in six languages on his iPhone—German, Russian, Inupiaq, Mandarin, English and, of course, emoji—Jalen can call a Filipino family in Sitka, or text with the Romanian friends he met at an International Orthodox conference. 30 minutes in one language, 30 minutes in another. “It doesn’t take that long.”
At UAA, he’s hoping to combine his language skills with his degree program to start a career in international business. He’s also interested in state and Alaska Native politics.
He credits his parents and grandparents for his success. “I also want to thank them for always believing in me,” he said. He’d also like to thank Bob and Betty Allen, who helped him through high school and have, in his eyes, become an extra set of grandparents. “They continue to see my potential that I have,” Jalen said, sharing a bit of Grandpa Bob’s consistent motivation: “Just because it hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”
Jalen knew he wanted to stay in Alaska for college, and he saw the most opportunities at UAA. The best part? He’s still close to his family and his faith in his home state.
“I’m pretty much a flight away from home, but yet I’m here at the university with people from all across the world,” he noted.
And it’s only his first semester. We’ll see what he achieves next.
Until then, Auf Wiedersehen!
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement