If intelligence is measured in the number of languages one speaks, bilingual and trilingual people are smart. But for Paul Keim, who speaks seven languages, a better word to describe him might be brilliant. Or intelligente. Or sprachbegabt.
Keim is a polyglot; he speaks English, German and Polish with considerable fluency. With lesser fluency, he can speak Spanish, French, Modern Hebrew and Arabic (Egyptian).
When I met him for the first time, he spoke to me in my language. I am from Mauritania, in which Arabic is the official language. When my friend—Madi Ouedraogo—from Burkina Faso met him, Keim talked to my friend in French. In class, he talks to his students in English.
When I came to Goshen, I lived on campus for a year. After that, I moved to Keim’s house on 8th Street. He rented the rooms on the second floor to students. I moved in during summer, and I lived upstairs. During the school year, I lived on the first floor with Keim and his family. This gave me a chance to know Keim and his family better. I noticed that German is used in their house almost as much as English.
Keim always wanted to know about my country, my language and my culture. He would ask me a question and sit there and listen patiently to me till I was done. Sometimes, his wife, Julie, would be cooking; his son, Ian, would be playing video games; my housemates and I would be hanging out; but Keim would be reading. He reads all the time! Keim also has two daughters, Anna Beth and Naomi; his parents are still alive, and he is the oldest of five siblings.
Although Keim liked to read as a child and learned the Bible at a young age, he did more than read. He spent most of youth playing basketball and tennis. “It wasn’t until I got to Goshen College that academics and the life of the mind really opened up to me,” Keim said.
Keim’s capacity for language is not limited to speaking seven languages. He can read at least 15 ancient and modern languages.
Knowing about his facility with languages might suggest that Keim grew up surrounded by people speaking all these languages.
He grew up speaking English, but Pennsylvania Dutch was spoken at home as well. He started studying Hebrew, Greek and Latin on his own when he was a student at Goshen College. Later, Keim added Aramaic and most of Semitic languages to his list.
Keim discovered his passion for language when he was in high school. He took German, and in his junior year, Keim won a scholarship to participate in a state-sponsored summer study program in Germany. “By the time I got back I could speak fairly fluent German and realized it was a passion,” he said.
Keim grew up in countryside between Goshen and Elkhart, and in 1973, he moved to Goshen to go to Goshen College, where he spent four and a half years. Goshen College was appealing for Keim not only because it was a Mennonite college (his denomination), but also because the college had “a strong academic reputation in the areas of study I was interested in: foreign languages and theology,” Keim said.
As a student, Keim was very pleased with the time he spent at Goshen College. “I was able to find and pursue my passions, among those who became lifelong friends,” he explained. Keim remembers how much he loved the Bible classes he took with Stanley Shenk and Dennis MacDonald. And even though German was just his minor, Keim said that he liked German classes he took with Gerhard Reimer and Marion Wenger.
Keim was also able to pursue his passion in graduate school. In 1992, he received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Near Eastern languages and civilization. After graduation from Harvard, Keim lived shortly in Charleston, S.C., and Hesston, Kan.
Keim describes his time at Harvard University as a wonderful experience. “The emphasis on ancient languages and literatures suited me very well,” he said.
On one hand, Keim’s experience at Harvard University was hard; he had to spend a lot of time at the Harvard Divinity School Library studying. On the other hand, the experience gave Keim a chance to “learn from some of the towering figures of ancient Near Eastern and Old Testament studies of the latter half of the 20th century,” he said. He was even given the opportunity to assist some of these professors as a graduate teaching colleague.
Keim returned to Goshen College in 1997 to serve as the academic dean for four years; some of his former Goshen teachers were still teaching when he became the dean. And in 2001, Keim started teaching Bible, religion, theology and foreign languages (Hebrew, Greek, German, Arabic, French and Latin).
Keim says that going through ancient texts, reading them, and making sense of them gives him an animating feeling of how wonderful it would be if could travel through time and “communicate with people who lived centuries ago.”
As for modern languages, Keim says that learning a language is a way to learn about a culture, and getting to know other cultures “is a means of getting to know people very different from me, resulting in a broader sense of what it means to be human.”
Keim added to his knowledge of the world’s cultures by having traveled to many countries, like Germany, Egypt, Morocco, Switzerland, Jordan, Poland and England. He went to some of these countries as a Study-Service Term leader for Goshen College, most recently in Morocco earlier this year. These travels gave Keim a chance to meet others and learn from them.
As a teacher, Keim describes Goshen College as “a wonderful community of scholars and students who support and challenge” each other. For him, this community has been very generous; he mentions SST and the chance to “meet amazing international students from around the world.”
Keim admitted that he has “had a few opportunities to consider going elsewhere.” But the question for him is: “Where else could I go and have these kinds of opportunities?”
Keim was not the first person to go to college in his family; both his father and his uncle did as well. When Keim’s father was in seminary, which was then on the Goshen College campus, Keim spent a lot of time around campus. He remembers that one of his uncles once asked him where God lived.
“My serious reply was: up at the college,” Keim said.