COLUMN: Learning a language is difficult - and worthwhile - when studying abroad


   I have spent a total of nine months in China: once as an intern at the China Daily in Beijing and once through a USAC study abroad program in Chengdu.

I loved my first study abroad experience, but I felt that something was missing. I couldn’t experience the local life as much without speaking the language. 

Though I knew some basics while I was in Beijing, I spent a lot of my time pointing at pictures on menus and showing taxi drivers addresses on my phone. 

I could get by that way, but I went to Chengdu with the goal of learning Chinese. As I tried my hardest to communicate in Chinese, made mistakes and slowly (or maybe it just seemed really slow) made progress throughout my six months there, I could experience even more. I didn’t spend a semester abroad just to get by. 

If you’re an American studying abroad, you probably don’t need to learn the local language in many locations, but I encourage you to try to learn at least a little. Not only does it help you understand more about people and their culture, but it teaches you about the struggle of communicating in a language that you’re not comfortable with. It shows respect and also allows you to be more independent. 

I formed close friendships with college students from Chengdu and explored the city in attempt to practice Chinese. I went to class then spent hours scribbling Chinese characters into my notebook as the same Tibetan song played outside my apartment window again and again. When I met up with my friends, we usually ate spicy Sichuan food, talked about our lives and maybe watched a movie or went to a park. 

This is what I wanted from my study abroad experience — to meet locals, immerse myself in the daily life and learn the language. 

Though I had an incredible time in Beijing last year, the moment when I could understand a decent amount of what was happening around me this time around was amazing. 

Everything suddenly seemed so interesting and exciting because I could understand it: a woman asking me for help connecting to the Wi-Fi at a café, an old man asking me for directions, two women sitting with me at a restaurant and starting a conversation with me, and a taxi driver telling me a story about the one other time he had a foreigner in his car and had to use Baidu (China’s Google) Translate to communicate with him. I laughed at his story, because I’ve also been in that situation many times. 

Studying Chinese made me more conscious of the privilege of speaking English as a first language, and feeling like you have something to fall back on if your words don’t come out right in another language, or maybe feeling like you don’t need to learn another language at all. 

Speaking a language that is not your native language can be embarrassing and make you feel vulnerable. In China, I had my native language to fall back on because many people can speak at least some English and were often willing to try to speak English with me. People who are native speakers of other languages don’t have that same luxury. In some ways, speaking English is “easier” than learning Chinese. The process of learning a language isn’t easy – but once you’ve reached the point that you can use it, at least a little, everything is easier. 

Ordering food with confidence, without pointing at pictures on the menu, was great. Telling taxi drivers where I was going and knowing they understood me was a relief. Being in a difficult situation and being able to ask for help without hopelessly waiting for a helpful English speaker to appear was much more convenient. 

I spent nine months in China, and I would love to go back — again — and continue to improve my language skills. Having a better understanding of the language opens up a whole new world.