Blog Post
Why Language Learning?

Another Friday, another #KOCorner! This week’s question comes from @israelptx:

What attracts you [to] study languages? Do you think learning different languages may help building one’s social skills?

Man…these questions just keep giving me opportunities to tell more stories! And I looooove it. I’m going to focus mainly on the first part of this question, as I’ve had to think about it a lot :)

In the spring of 2006, the former Chinese President Hu Jintao invited 100 Yalies to go to China, meet him and his cabinet, and travel to Shanghai, Beijing, and Xian to experience the country’s culture and learn about the country’s burgeoning economic development. I applied to the program on a whim because I knew nothing about China, all expenses were paid for, and I had nothing else to do before my summer Physics classes started. I was one of 12 freshman chosen for the program, and on May 15th, 2007 I was on a plane headed straight to China.

It was the first time I was flabbergasted by everything I encountered. I got stared down by Chinese people everywhere I went, and had Chinese children from the nongcun (the countryside) rub my skin and lick their finger yelling qiaokeli ren (chocolate man). I ate foods that didn’t initially mesh with my normal taste palate. On top of all that, I couldn’t read a single character I saw, nor could I understand the words spoken to me. All I heard from Chinese people and my peers was that the language was too difficult for foreigners to learn.

That was the very catalyst that attracted me to study it.

I’ll be honest, I don’t take it too well when someone tells me a task is “too difficult” or “not possible” to accomplish, especially one that’s so heavily stigmatized such as learning a language like Chinese. Don’t get me wrong, memorizing thousands of characters and trying to hear the tonal differences amongst them is not for the faint-hearted. Language learning takes real dedication and perseverance, but I thrive on those challenges especially when it’s deemed as an impossible task. I never want to say I didn’t try. That was the initial reason I started studying Chinese, but the 3 years of classes with an 18 month stint in China on a language fellowship turned that initial spark into a much deeper sense of purpose for why I study languages. If you will, allow me to get a deep for a moment.

In my opinion, understanding a language requires comprehensive study of a country’s rich culture and history so that one may better appreciate their newfound linguistic abilities. For example, China is a country with centuries of illustrious history that has undergone extensive political, economic, and cultural transformation, and the language is a reflection of those changes. As a foreigner with my own set of cultural and political ideas engrained in me from my upbringing in the States, studying Chinese meant taking myself out of my comfort zone and wrapping my mind around these cultural and historic differences so that I truly comprehended the nuance in every character and phrase. That’s why I ended up majoring in East Asian Studies, taking classes such as Chinese Economy, Traditional Chinese Text, and Chinese History, and living there.

Now, you can obviously build linguistic skills without taking time to delve into a country’s culture and history. I believe this happens all the time as young students learn languages in grade school and focus primarily on grammar and pronunciation; they end up speaking the language just fine. Why I’m so enthusiastic about studying these other aspects and enhancing my language skills is that now I can interact with my friends abroad with much more meaningful dialogue. When I lived in China, I made up my mind to open myself up to making strong connections with Chinese people. I made lots of Chinese friends on campus and we’d go out to movies and concerts, dine together, travel, and even attend different cultural events together. I’d go outside and play games with my Chinese neighbors on the weekends, take time to converse with taxi cab drivers, and even performed chamber music with students at the Beijing Conservatory of Music. These interactions not only improved my language skills, but on countless occasions Chinese people expressed their appreciation for my willingness to connect with them because not many foreigners do. From there we could initiate in-depth talks about our differences which afforded me opportunities to dispel so many misconceptions they had about our country, and visa versa. My language skills continued to give me chances to connect on an even larger scale. I performed the cello and spoke in Chinese at the State Department in Washington, D.C. for the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (when Chinese Vice Wang Yang heard me speak, he said that my Chinese was a lot better than his!), I performed for events at the US Embassy in Beijing, and performed on a Chinese Television for their Spring Festival Celebration with Chinese beatboxers. I even spoke in Chinese for Pentatonix when we sang on “The Sing-Off China”. Each instance to utilize my language skills was an opportunity for me to be a cultural diplomat and demonstrate a different side to the United States than what people stereotypically thought. More significantly, these were opportunities to build trust with our foreign friends. And in this globalized world, that’s the most important capital we have if we’re going to meet the 21st century head-on.

In closing, I want to share a quote I read in the magazine The Diplomat recently from a 2011 article called “Power of Languages”:

“Late last year, a senior official from the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing announced that there were now over 40 million foreign learners worldwide studying Chinese. According to The World of Chinese magazine, that means by Chinese government estimates, the number has grown by around 10 million in just half a decade.” 

Language learning is clearly becoming a more prominent factor in being a global citizen in today’s society. If we’re going to build trust with our counterparts abroad so that we can tackle our problems, I think language study is a pretty good place to start.


If you want to read the article ——-> http://thediplomat.com/2011/03/power-of-languages/

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