The most formative years of my childhood were spent in Shanghai, China. Since I was a kid, I picked the language up quite quickly and was able to speak Chinese competently enough to communicate with the local community. I would always be talking to taxi drivers, street vendors, and the mostly non-english speaking staff at my pre-school. I’ve always been a talker and to be able to do it in a language that was not my own always felt super rewarding; not only had I learned something, but it allowed me to be included with the culture and community of the place I was living in. Through my constant relocation (meaning having to learn a different language or not having the opportunity to practice my Chinese) I eventually lost the fluency I once had, and when I speak it now, I feel a pang of loss but also a spark of hope. Both for a lost connection and one that could be rekindled.
       As such, when I was presented with the opportunity to take an online mandarin ab initio course, I took the opportunity and ran with it (much against the advice of my IB coordinator). I often fantasise about having taken the easy route, with a teacher and peers to interact with and learn from, but I think my decision to take a course that is loaded with risk and demands at least 100% helps me be an inter-cultural communicator on the most personal and engaged level I can be.
       I think it is important to learn a language. Studies show that it definitely benefits you cognitively, but I think it helps one connect to a culture- I can personally say this is true in terms of my past experiences with mandarin and my experiences now. When I lived in China, I connected to it on a superficial level since I was not at an age where I was cognisant enough to form more advanced outlooks on things like culture, tradition… global things. Most of what I understand about China (even today) is from my parents’ interpretation of it. Because my family is from the west, I think they (and me too, probably) struggle to appreciate some of the nuances in culture that are not very familiar to us or the opposite of what we practice in our own lives. Through learning the language with a course that is also teaching me about the culture, I hope to gain my own understanding of what makes up the China of today.  

      Foreigners can very easily isolate themselves and avoid the local people in favour of comfort and those you can communicate with. Having a unique lifestyle and small pool of people to choose from can sometimes make people feel like they are special or exempt from having to adjust, but I think when you recognise how small you are in comparison to the rest of the area, you can either isolate yourself further or be inspired to learn more about the place you are in.
       If you want to learn more about the world, though, connect with more people, and grow to be open-minded and knowledgeable about different cultures being “in the mix”- being a part of the culture- is the best and most authentic way to do so and language learning opens lots of doors to truly understanding a culture and customs of a place. Even if a person is not from the place they are in nor belongs to the culture on an ethnic level, you can see (and experience) that language is the easiest way to become a part of something.

       As an international kid, being able to integrate into another culture is vital to thriving (or at least surviving) during your time in a foreign country. In Singapore I experienced this on a cultural level as I found it difficult to adjust my values to those of the city, but I became more aware of how language impacted this when I moved to South Africa. The shared language there is English, but there are many many others that are recognised as the national language. It was amazing to see the way in which social groups were formed based off of which language people were able to speak (though it could also have had to do with thousands of years of systematic racism and segregation). Although I could get by in day-to-day life, I found it very difficult to feel adjusted socially as friend groups were often formed based on a language, which I thought I would have no chance at learning in a year.
       It is easy to tell yourself that you will not be able to learn a new language, or that it is hopeless to even try because “of the time frame given”, “the difficulty of it”, or even “the frequent rejection when you try to speak”. Being committed to a language on any level is important to acquisition, the skills from which allow you to connect to others from the culture you are in. This is not only important to a global understanding, but a sense of personal belonging. Though it sometimes is easier to fall back on those you can connect with more easily, living in a foreign country does not allow for that. Think of it as being a guest in somebody’s home. It is ridiculous to expect the host to be gracious towards you when you fail to speak to them. You went to that dinner party- that country- so you should be the one trying to be a part of that culture. Not the other way around.