There’s something entirely magical about learning a different language such as being able to understand the nuances of a culture, or trying to get a grasp on things that are lost in translation. Learning a language is the most fundamental way to understand a different culture, but of course, also one of the most difficult.
For seven years, throughout middle school and high school, I learned Mandarin Chinese. “Learned” is a strong word — rather, I struggled through it. And when I say struggled, I mean it. Chinese was consistently my hardest subject. Even after practicing a character 30 times, I still would forget a little stroke in the corner. After repeating the pinyin — or pronunciation of the Chinese word using English phonetics — to myself in my head repeatedly, I would still mix up the second and third tones. There were countless moments when I wanted to quit, and every year, before I had to make my course selection to move onto the next level of Chinese, I said to myself, “Am I really doing this for another year?” I questioned my ability to learn new languages, and I constantly wondered and wondered if I was just bad at learning languages, or if I was bad at learning Chinese.
My teacher tried to assure me that it was neither, and that everyone had things that they found easier and harder when tackling something so unfamiliar. But it often didn’t feel that way.
No matter how difficult it became, every time I was ready to quit, I found myself pulled back. There was something incredibly rewarding about unraveling the mysteries of an unfamiliar language. I loved the satisfaction of having a productive and substantive conversation about politics in Mandarin. I loved trying to overhear and understand the conversations I heard in grocery store lines. And most of all, I loved the immediate connection that was formed with a Mandarin speaker when I tried to speak with them in their native language. The smile on their face made the struggle worth it, and their immediate warmth was palpable.
One of my favorite instances of this was when I did a homestay in rural village near Lijiang, China, during my junior year of high school. We were warned that our homestay hosts may not speak Mandarin, let alone English, and they often only conversed in their local dialect. But I entered the house and my homestay mother immediately welcomed me with open arms, clearly as nervous as I was. The moment I began to speak in Mandarin, hoping with all my heart that there would be some understanding, her face broke into a smile, and the ice was immediately broken. She didn’t understand everything we said, and we certainly didn’t understand everything she said, but the bridge had been built and that was the most important.
I am hoping to study abroad in Shanghai next spring, and I am beyond excited for more experiences like this. My trip to China — the homestay, speaking to shopkeepers in Shanghai and even speaking with international students here at USC — have made me appreciate my seven years of Chinese language education more than ever before. I constantly tell my friends that next on my “list” to learn are Spanish and Arabic. No matter how difficult, the experiences I’ve gained and the connections I’ve made through my fluency remind me of the doors that learning a language can open.
I hope that one day the American education system will make language classes a priority. At a time when cultural competency is more important than ever, languages are, in my opinion, the best way to build bridges. Not only is the physical act of communication incredibly important, but learning a language also shows investment and effort into another culture. Learning Mandarin was one of the most difficult parts of my time in middle and high school, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The impact it has had on my education, my career goals and my world view are larger than I could have hoped for, and I’m ready and more than willing to do it all over again with another language.
Nayanika Kapoor is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political economy. Her column, “In-Transit,” runs every other Friday.