PHS Profile: Karen Parker

Photo by Zhenia Dementyev

Photo by Zhenia Dementyev

In addition to the United States, Karen Parker has lived in France and Belgium. She is also multilingual; besides English and French, she also speaks Russian and Japanese. Now in her second year of teaching at PHS, Parker teaches French IV and V, Advanced French IV, and Advanced French VI (le Cinéma Francophone), using her experiences as a native French speaker to educate students in the French language and culture. Outside of the classroom, she enjoys activities such as traveling, listening to music, watching films, and reading.

When and why did you decide to devote yourself to the French language?

It’s not so much devot[ing] myself to French. I’ve been speaking it ever since I [learned to]  speak, but I teach it because I think, if you’re going to teach a language, you should be very comfortable [with] it, and since it’s my native language, I’d rather teach it than the other languages that I’ve studied.

What is the most rewarding aspect about teaching French? What is the most challenging aspect?

[The most rewarding aspect is] to be able to help people talk to other people that they couldn’t talk to before studying French, so it opens up a whole new group of people they can talk to. [The most challenging thing] is that you don’t have a chance to practice in real life around here. If I were teaching in Europe, [students] could just go to France and practice. Here, it’s really difficult unless you go on the Internet and listen to things, but you don’t get a whole lot of real life practice, so that makes it a little harder.

Do you add any personal touches to your classes, or do you follow the curriculum?

One of the nice things about Princeton is that [for classes like] the [Advanced French VI] cinema class, there isn’t really a curriculum. I sort of [develop] what I do in my class so that gives a lot of latitude to make it interesting for the kids. In terms of personal touches, [given] the fact that my family’s in France, I’m able to use information that’s current from there [such as the French] report cards that my students use in class.

What was it like to work for the National Security Agency, and what was the transition like from working there to being a teacher?

Well, I can’t say a whole lot about what I did there, but it was interesting … well, it was really different because I was in the military when I was there, so the transition was more from military to civilian than from government to teaching. I was a Russian linguist. I had terrible hours in my job because we worked [with] intelligence. It wasn’t really a day job because intelligence is all the time. We worked four swings, which was 4 [a.m.] to midnight; then, we had 24 hours off; then, we worked midnight to 8 [p.m.]; then we had 24 hours off; then, we had four days [of] 8 [a.m.] to 4 [p.m.]; then, we had 72 hours off; then; we started again. You really never knew if it was day or night—you just sort of went with it. Then, whenever you had your three days, you [spent it] exploring and doing stuff, which was sort of fun.

How challenging was working with the NSA?

It was challenging because things [happen] very fast in the intelligence business and so, when you’re working with another language, you have to think really fast and be on your feet. Everybody I worked with was very competent … so it worked well [and] was fun and interesting.

Why did you choose to learn multiple languages such as Russian and Japanese?

I learned Russian when I was in the Air Force because I was a cryptologic linguist and Russian linguist for the NSA … There was a list of languages you could pick [to learn], and, depending on your score, you got to pick in first or second order. I got a good score, so I picked first, [and] I got Russian. There were some other languages that just didn’t interest me … I chose Russian because it was during the Cold War, and Russian was pretty much the most useful at that time … I was stationed in [Japan] for a year and a half so since I had a Jeep and got lost a lot, I had to learn enough Japanese to get around.

How did you learn Russian and Japanese?

[I went] to a yearlong school, [which had Russian] all day every day. That’s all we did, was go to school. After that we had follow up schools where we learned [about] the military [and] the intelligence aspect of [Russian, such as] the technical stuff we had to know about our jobs … Almost nobody in the countryside of [Japan] … knew English. So to get directions, to [ask] how to get to places, to order food, even to [travel] in the metro … I had to ask people and they were very helpful. They would answer in Japanese and then make sure I had understood correctly.

Where did you grow up? Did you have any challenges when you first came to America?

I grew up in Paris and Brussels before coming to America. I guess the schools were easier here, but the [other students] made fun of [me] because I spoke French when I played [games during lunch], so that was sort of hard, but I got over that.

What was it like moving to Japan?

I was an adult and was in the Air Force already when I moved there. It was fun actually because since I’ve traveled and moved around all my life, for me it was sort of like a big adventure. There’s always stuff you have to learn, but it was more fun learning how to get along in that culture than it was intimidating.

What was it like moving to and living in so many countries?

The largest difference was [between] Japan compared to any of the [western] countries. From France to Belgium, there were some differences but not massive. From Europe to the States [there were big differences] because the lifestyles are different [between] the two countries.