Ever since college started, for the first time in my life I decided that I wanted to improve my Chinese. I’m Taiwanese and my family is Taiwanese and Chinese, but I’ve lived in Peru before I mumbled my first word. My parents made sure we only spoke Chinese at home, so I’m fortunately able to speak Chinese quite fluently at a conversational level, but I’m pretty much illiterate. What’s more, living in a predominantly Spanish and English-speaking environment made my focus my attention in attaining fluency in these two languages before some language that I only spoke at home. Chinese didn’t seem important, and the only teaching method my parents knew how to teach me was memorization of Chinese characters – which I found too hard and tedious.
Regardless, I learned some basic Chinese characters when I was really young (and still docile), but later attempts to improve my Chinese were futile. It wasn’t until the year before I went to college that I reevaluated my goals and realized that I needed, and wanted, to become fully proficient in Chinese. I didn’t want to be able to just speak conversational Chinese, I wanted to be able to read, write and be fluent in it. I wanted to talk to my parents about more complex issues without stumbling on every other word, listen to the news and understand the heck they were saying, and simply be more cognizant of the culture that defines so much of me. So, I sent my mind to learning Chinese in college, and my goal is still as strong two years later.
Learning a language goes beyond just learning to handle the language. You don’t just learn to “translate” a language, you learn the nuances in the language and the varying interpretations that are not translatable. You cannot go to a country with an automatic translator in hand, and expect to understand and be understood by the other party. It doesn’t work that way, and for good reasons. A language is rich in years of history and meaning, and you get to brush the tip of that when you learn a new language.
When you learn a new language, you’re essentially becoming a child again. When you have enough vocabulary and grammar to formulate basic sentences, you have to set your dignity aside and put your knowledge into practice in the real world. Your pronunciation might be off, your tones might be wacky, and you may stumble a lot – but that’s how you improve. You really have to shed your “I’m a perfectionist” attitude aside and be a fool in front of others. You need to get rid of the self-imposed shame that comes when you’re in the lifelong process of learning a language. My Chinese-learning process is different in that I grew up speaking the language, so I haven’t had to make (as much of) a fool of myself when talking to others. But, with this blessing I’ve also picked up some poor habits that are costing me to get rid of.
A small portion of learning a language takes place in a class. You may learn all the basic stuff in class, but the real learning happens when you take these foundations and put them to use in the actual world. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they’ve taken 4 years of Spanish in high school, only to be too shy to practice it with me or to say that they’ve forgotten everything. Like any other skill, it’s useless unless you embrace it as part of you. This realization has made me see that this class-life connection is necessary for any other thing you learn and want as part of your life.
The best way of learning a language is, of course, when you immerse yourself in that environment. I’ve spoken Chinese at home ever since I was born, and I’ve taken 2 years of Chinese in college already – but I still can’t read the menu and order food. I may be able to read like a few words here and there on the menu, but to be frank – I barely even try. I’ve grown used to just relying on my parents to order what I want, but this summer things changed. I came to China to study at a language intensive program, and I’m struggling to do a lot of the mundane things I didn’t have to bother with before. I’m struggling and slowly learning to read the menu, the food labels, and street names. These are things that I need to learn to live a very basic life here, things that you will never learn in a classroom.
Continuing my learning in Chinese is particularly important to me because it essentially helps me understand the way I am. There are things, some customs and traditions that are passed down from each generation, that I’m slowly getting to understand better as I learn more about my culture. Some I’m also learning that there are a lot of things that go unspoken in my culture, but are nevertheless important gestures in my culture – which makes them important to me.
Knowing that my Chinese proficiency is gradually but surely improving gives me the comfort in knowing that I will have more freedom to choose where I can live and work in the foreseeable future. Reducing the language and cultural barrier is a something that will enable me to travel more and find new homes. I love getting to know a new country by living in it for an extended period of time, rather than just traveling for a short period and only seeing the beauty places. I don’t like being a tourist, in part because I find squeezing all the touristy places into a 3-day schedule too exhausting, and in part because visiting these places tells me nothing about the actual, present place in itself. I like to see the place one step at a time, preferably disguised as a local. It gives me time to soak in the new environment and to formulate new ideas from daily interactions.
So, I urge you to learn a language, if and when you can. I urge you to set it as one of your lifelong goals. I urge you to make it a priority in your life. You may think that you’re all that because you know English (or whatever language you grew up in), but I’m here to tell you that you couldn’t be more wrong. Learning a language is a way to understand that you, and the language and culture that you’re currently immersed in, is not the center of the world. To learn a new language means to learn a new way of thought, a way to understand others more intimately, a richer way to live life.