Prof-iles: A love of language and cats

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Natasa Masanovic-Courtney, chair of the languages department, knew from the age of nine that she wanted to learn multiple languages. She now speaks her two mother languages Turkish and Greek, as well as English, German and Ancient Greek. Photo credit: Young Kim

Chair of the Department of Languages, professor Natasa Masanovic-Courtney didn’t speak her first word until she was four years old. In the time before she said her first words, Masanovic-Courtney was helping her brothers bring cardboard boxes with old sweaters, food and water to stray cats in her home country of Turkey. Growing up, Masanovic-Courtney had two things on her mind, animals and language. It took her a while, but by the time she decided to utter her first words, she had the ability to speak both her mother tongues of Greek and Turkish.

“I think because I was learning two languages at the time, maybe my brain could not coordinate both, and I was a very late talker,” Masanovic-Courtney said. “It was the end of my fourth year in life when I started talking, and I told my mom an entire fairy tale in Greek. Then after I did that, I had complete sentences in Turkish.”

Masanovic-Courtney teaches German on campus, and she says it is the first foreign language she learned by attending a private Austrian school for eight years. Despite her late start, Masanovic-Courtney now speaks English and German, and studied ancient Greek with a priest in Istanbul, on top of her two mother tongues.

“At about nine years old, I knew exactly that I wanted to learn a third language and a fourth and a fifth,” Masanovic-Courtney said.

The neighborhood Masanovic-Courtney lived in was filled with languages. All around her she could hear Italian, French, Hebrew, German, Armenian, Serbian, Turkish and Kurdish. She knew at a young age that comparing languages was important to her, and her parents realized that Masanovic-Courtney had a passion to nourish. They sent her to an Austrian immersion school where, in four months, Masanovic-Courtney had learned the basics of German. In the summer, her German and Greek-speaking cousin of the same age would visit her family in Turkey, and German became a secret code language that only the two understood.

Language is Masanovic-Courtney’s passion and career, but her hobby has always been helping cats. Helping stray cats is one of earliest memories, and today Masanovic-Courtney has a large collection of cat figurines at home. The reason she came to Anchorage in the first place had to do with a cat she was rescuing. After finishing her Ph.D. at Purdue University, Masanovic-Courtney became a visiting assistant professor of German at DePauw University.

While she was there, she stumbled upon a starving stray Siamese cat. Masanovic-Courtney, who had grown up volunteering at the animal shelter, adopted the cat and took him to a veterinarian to address the cat’s breathing problems. She was told the cat needed a colder climate to breathe, and so after deciding she wanted to work elsewhere, Masanovic-Courtney applied for a job in Anchorage and moved here for her cat.

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“I was trying to decide for places that would be cooler for him,” Masanovic-Courtney said. “I thought Alaska would be good for my cat. When I said yes to this job, it was only as term professor for one year.”

Her cat, Agamemnon, like many of Masanovic-Courtney’s cats, was named after a Greek king in Homer’s The Iliad. Moving for her cat’s health ended up working out for Masanovic-Courtney because after her first year she was directly hired as an assistant professor. Since coming to UAA, Masanovic-Courtney has helped 20 students apply and receive prestigious scholarships to Germany.

“What drives me is my belief in my students,” Masanovic-Courtney said. “I don’t think I have met any individual, in my career, who didn’t have the potential to do it. But what needs to be there is this willingness and readiness to do it.”

Outside of her passion, what attracts Masanovic-Courtney to her profession is her love of teaching. As a little girl, she would use a blackboard she had received as a Christmas present to teach her two brothers when they let her.

“I had this passion for sharing knowledge with people, but, in particular, comparing languages was important to me,” Masanovic-Courtney said.

Masanovic-Courtney has won numerous awards celebrating her profession, like the 2012 UAA Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Diversity, the 2014 YWCA Women of Achievement Award and the 2011 AATG Duden Award for Excellence in German Instruction, but at the end of the day, Masanovic-Courtney says her career has always been about showing others the beauty of language and helping those who are passionate to study it.