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Language learning: a very personal process

July 13, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: Throughout the summer, ASU students studying abroad will be writing back to the states about their overseas adventures. Fostering international student experiences is just one part of ASU's commitment to making a global impact.

Danica's blog:
This week I had a big confidence booster in the subway station on my way home from class. I stopped to re-charge my subway card at a row of automatic ticketing machines and felt someone watching me from a couple machines down. Being a foreigner in China often warrants this type of reaction so I ignored it and went about my business. As I was extracting my card from the machine, however, this person ran over and tapped me on the arm. I turned to see a middle-aged woman holding out a newly purchased subway card.

“I’m so sorry,” she said in Chinese, “but it’s my first time to Beijing, can you help me put money on this?”

I did a mental "Yippee!" before saying “Of course!” and turning to the machine to help her. Although just a tiny incident, it had me smiling the rest of the day. As a nearly 6-foot tall, blue-eyed Caucasian, it is hard not to feel like I stick out like a sore thumb in China. All along I have felt like people look at me and think: giant, naïve foreigner. But here was this woman, a native to China, asking me for help – without even trying to speak English! It was definitely a rewarding experience.

The encounter in the subway station had me reflecting on my language progress so far this summer and although there have been a lot of challenges and frustrations, there are a few signs that I am indeed learning. I have been able to communicate more with the older generation in my host family, for example. When I first came, we mostly just avoided talking to each other because their accents are much stronger than the younger generation and I would completely misunderstand everything they said. This week, however, my host grandmother and my host aunt called me away from my homework one night to help them make dumplings for dinner – the asked me about my hometown and my classes while laughing over my clumsy way of making dumplings. It was nice to finally be interacting with them as opposed to just silently smiling at each other as we passed in the hallway.

All this thinking about my own language learning had my mind churning, so when we received an assignment to conduct a survey on a topic of our choice, I chose just that – language learning. I spent about two hours talking to Chinese people on the street about their opinions on learning foreign languages and was somewhat surprised at the results.

My personal opinion is that, although English is still clearly an important language, its dominance is declining as other countries develop, and it is becoming less of a necessity for a global individual to speak English. Everyone I talked to, however, insisted that English was becoming more and more important and it should definitely be a requirement for students in China to learn English.

When I asked what other foreign languages they thought were important, a few said Japanese and Korean, one said German, and a majority said French. When I asked why, I receive vague answers like, “Because French is an international language.” When I asked about Spanish, many shrugged and replied something like, “Well they only speak that in Spain, right?” I was shocked!

After the first interview like that, I thought I had just encountered a pretty clueless person – but he wasn’t the first. I had conversations with multiple Chinese people who were completely unaware of the fact that Mexico and most of South America speak Spanish. It is surprising how different your perspective can be based on where you live. It was overall very interesting to hear everyone’s opinions and I’m glad we had an opportunity to do more of a hands-on assignment.

Danica Harvey, an international letters and cultures major with an emphases in Chinese and economics, is a student in the Chinese Language Flagship Program and will be a junior this fall. She is studying abroad in China this summer.