Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Tell me your motivation for participating in an exchange program. I am hoping to write a novel for young adults about the exchange experience, and while I know what motivated me, I’d like to find out others’ reasons for taking the plunge and heading overseas.

Here is a poll to get you started. If you have further thoughts, I’d appreciate comments.


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People often ask me why I chose to study Mandarin Chinese in university. My rationale for undertaking an “exotic” language was that I had some faint ideas about pursuing a career in diplomacy. Somewhere I had picked up the notion that I would be more employable with an Asian language under my belt.
My plan did not eventuate, mainly because first I had to get through the Foreign Service Exam and I’d never done well on multiple choice tests. But exams aside, I had hardly any idea what work in the State Department entailed; I found very little joy in politics; and I had no natural aptitude in political science. The closest I came to a government career was an interview with an American government spy agency. (They informed they did not hire people who were in relationships with “foreign nationals,” so, being madly in love with an Aussie, I gave them the flick.) There was also an offer of an interview with a New York Senator whose constituency included Little Italy and Chinatown in NYC. (How perfect is that?) I forfeited both for the more desirable opportunity to travel in Taiwan and hopefully to nail down Mandarin.  As you do when you are 21.
Life has, in fact, taken a course as far removed from diplomacy as you could imagine. My hard-earned language skills have corroded from disuse, sadly. A rare and memorable opportunity to speak Chinese presented itself in 2005, when Brother Yun whose story is featured in the book The Heavenly Man came to speak at my church.  I will never forget his unique combination of intensity and gentleness as we prayed together with a few other pastors in his hotel room. He was very gracious, politely putting up with my terrible pronunciation and halting speech.  Despite the glory of rubbing shoulders with such a great and humble Christian, it was a sad day for me: 15 years after leaving Taiwan with fluent “taxi Chinese” I found I could no longer speak coherently.

I had a similar experience with Italian last year. I had invited an elderly Sicilian lady over for lunch and she kindly encouraged me to speak in Italian to her. However, the more I spoke, the more stubborn everyday words and simple phrases became, obstinately refusing to emerge from their hidey holes in the deep recesses of my brain. It was frustrating and tragic. I was crushed to find out just how badly my Italian had deteriorated; I felt far sadder at the loss of Italian than I had felt about losing Mandarin.
Given the sad state of my once illustrious linguistic prowess, do I see my years of toil in foreign language as a waste of time? On the contrary, I am quite grateful for the ancillary competencies I gained—how to apply myself to challenges, how to study, a fundamental understanding of grammar and syntax, a richer vocabulary, memorable encounters with people, a love for words, and so on. I’m quite hopeful that, given the right environment and a little encouragement, I could resuscitate both languages, which would be great because I still hold that language learning is good for my soul.


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Language learning must be addictive. Success at one language seemingly obliges the acquisition of another. That was my experience after spending a year in Italy as an exchange student. I returned to America, newly competent and confident, and began my university studies. I had no real direction or goals; I only knew I seemed to have a knack for language learning. 

I decided to tackle an “exotic” language, choosing Mandarin Chinese as my next target language. Language learning at a tertiary level was a far cry from the simplistic (and tedious) strategies employed in secondary language classrooms of the 80’s. The new approaches to language acquisition required stamina: lessons happened five days a week, sometimes twice a day, with a focus on functional language. Fully appraising the importance of an enriched environment in language acquisition, I supplemented my formal studies with my own form of immersion: I took a part-time job in a Chinese restaurant.

In my third year, still buoyant with confidence from conquering Italian, I applied for and won a scholarship for summer study at the Peking University. It was an opportunity that was quite unique, as Mainland China had been open to foreigners for only a few years at that time (1986). Unfortunately, while there, I squandered the language opportunity, choosing instead to maximise the social (read: romantic) opportunities, meeting the (Australian) man I would eventually marry. I returned to the US to finish university, after which I spent 2 years in Taiwan working for the YMCA. In both countries, it was my experience in the Chinese restaurant that paid off–even more than the rigours of university language learning. There wasn’t a menu I couldn’t decipher; my non-Chinese friends regularly availed themselves of my culinary vocabulary skills in order to get a good feed.

Most of my practice with Mandarin came from taxi rides around Taipei. I had that particular conversation down pat, so much so, that the drivers inevitably would scrutinise my face in the rear view mirror and ask, “Is one of your parents Chinese?” (No, but after two years I began to wonder…) Actually, it was only that particular conversation, where I wanted to go, what I was doing in Taiwan, my aptitude with chopsticks, what religion I believed in—the usual taxi driver stuff—that I was good at. Fluency with Chinese was elusive. I came to the unhappy conclusion that a lifetime would be required to master it and therefore resigned myself to “taxi chinese” as the zenith of my linguistic pursuit.

Nevertheless, there were those times when knowing the language was potent, like the time I was in a shop with one of my university friends who had studied Chinese too. When two young Taiwanese shop assistants cattily commented on the width of my friend’s backside, we both spun around and glared at them. The look of astonishment and embarrassment on their faces was priceless. Local people just didn’t expect Caucasians to understand Chinese.

A more poignant example of the value of knowing the language happened when I was sitting in the Beijing train station. Seated nearby were a middle-aged woman and a couple of young girls, about 13- or 14-years-old. The most striking feature was that all of the girls were blind. Speaking in Mandarin, I addressed the young girl sitting closest to me. Her face lit up with pleasure and surprise. “You’re a foreigner!” she excitedly whispered. “Yes,” I said, and we chatted a bit about where we were from and so forth. She hesitantly reached out to touch my face. The woman, whom I presumed to be a coach of some description, interrupted then, perhaps thinking this interchange might be a bit irregular. Despite the crabby old communist’s interference, the delight at having connected across the cultural chasm was mutual—blind Chinese girl and amazed American student in a diesel fume-filled station making memories. It made the struggles to master Mandarin worthwhile.

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Learning Italian in situ was everything that the previous dull years of learning French in the classroom was not.  It was challenging and meaningful.  Rather than doing pointless grammar drills and exercises, I practised functional communication. 

The environment was stimulating, even in the far outpost town of Oristano on the central west coast of the island of Sardinia, where I have often quipped that the goats and sheep far outnumbered the human inhabitants. Exiled as an exchange student in this one-story town, far from my romantic expectations of cosmopolitan, continental Italy, I was left to generate language skills from scratch on my own. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast; my very survival depended on it. 

Dredging up words and tenses all day, everyday was exhausting. For the first month I had terrible headaches at the end of the day.  I learned quickly to be frugal with curiosity; I would weigh up how badly I needed to know something with how hard it would be to communicate the question and decode the answer. 

Within four months, I was could hold my own in a conversation with friends. At five months I cheekily mimicked the poor grammar and dialectic pronunciation of the illiterate maid, earning shrieks of disapproval from my highly educated host family. By six months I could follow the news on TV.  After nine months, I was completing similar assignments to my native classmates.   The satisfaction of this achievement surpassed every other accomplishment in my 18 years.

In addition to the pleasure of gaining a command of Italian, I enjoyed a few other benefits.  First, my English vocabulary swelled as I acquired common Italian words like oscillare, potabile, and ondulare.   Up to that point, I was not familiar with their English counterparts: oscilate, potable, and undulate.  Second, my aptitude for study dramatically increased.  Having been a rather lazy student in high school, suddenly in Italy coasting along was not an option: every page of reading, every line of writing I toiled and sweated over.   Necessity taught me how to apply myself, a lesson which proved invaluable later in university.  Third, I developed a deep appreciation for the beauty of language.  There’s no doubt that Italian, with its clear, open vowels and rolling cadence, is the most beautiful sounding language in the world.

Probably the most significant gain, though, was the birth in my psyche of a new sense of personal competence.   In mastering Italian, I felt I had accomplished something significant and special.  I left Italy feeling like a conquistatoreOnce again, language learning was proving good for my soul.

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For some people, there is nothing quite as satisfying as conquering a foreign language. There’s the thrill of mastering the grammar, the buzz of surprising native speakers with one’s linguistic prowess, and the smug satisfaction of being a little more “in” with the locals than the slack tourists who couldn’t be bothered and who are therefore stuck “outside” of the culture.  Admittedly, for others, learning a foreign language is sheer agony, comparable to submitting to a weekly session of water torture. In the 70’s, high school language classes all too often killed off any fledgling passion for the language with interminable, pointless grammar drills.
For the avid language learner, classroom drudgery is a necessary means to a desirable end: the happy day when you manage to connect with someone in a language other than your own. The surprised and appreciative expressions of the native speakers make the antecedent toil all worth while, as do the astonished looks of your friends and family, when they hear you rattle off some curious babble. There is also, of course, the heady power that you the Language Master wield as you save your tribe of backpacker friends from starvation by ordering off the menu written only in Chinese or Thai or Tagalog.

I remember my excitement as a twelve year old when I learned that I would have the opportunity to study French and Spanish in junior high school. It seemed so desirable to learn a language. My grandfather was, as my father described, a polyglot, so I imagine my linguistic genes were eagerly awaiting an enriched environment to switch them on.

My junior high school French teacher did not disappoint. She was an eccentric Jewish lady, with the most outrageous shoe collection I have ever witnessed and flambouyant, loopy handwriting, traits that summed her up perfectly—flambouyant, loopy and well-heeled. She dubbed me, mon petit moineau, her little sparrow, because my twittering attempts pleased her so and because, I suspect, I was at that gawky, awkward age of braces and ravaged skin. She knew that, perhaps more than language training, I required empathy and encouragement. When I complained about having big, skinny feet, she replied, “Darling, don’t you know? Long, slender feet are a sign of aristocracy.” Once I learned what aristocracy meant, I beamed with confidence, braces and all. Learning French with Madame D. did wonders for my tortured, prepubescent soul. <b>
Future high school French teachers could not fill her shoes because, of course, no one else wore such zany shoes(nor would they want to) but also because they just were not as sympathique. There was one brief exception, a quirky Mademoiselle from Quebec, whose accent was divine. She taught us to reply, “Mais non!” with a gentle braying on the “mais,” so that we sounded like a flock of randy sheep. None of us paid attention to the content of the lessons; rather we rapturously listened only to her breathy cadence. Sadly, she left us for better pay in a more prosperous part of the nation. Her replacement was a good-hearted but poorly equipped Spanish teacher from West Virginia, whose accent was…not inspiring. Four years of relentless grammar lessons delivered with a twang nearly extinguished my love affair with French.
But not quite: rather than heading off to university after high school, I enrolled in a student exchange program. With the hopes of redeeming the fruitless five years of French lessons, I requested placement in a French-speaking part of the world (preferably someplace tres chic). My affair with French did come to an abrupt end when I learned I had been placed not in cosmopolitan France but rather in Italy. Sardinia to be exact, which was, I learned, not chic at all.

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