Reflections on Language and Culture

For the entirety of my college career (three years so far, plus change) I’ve made studying Chinese Language and Culture my focus. In doing so, I’ve come to know many other students undertaking the same path of study, both at my home institution and at others around the United States. Many of them root their interest in Chinese culture in prior experience of that culture, whether as part of their own upbringing or through past travel opportunities. When I chose my major, I lacked that sort of background – in fact, prior to my arrival in Taiwan in June, I’d never even travelled in Asia. As such, TISLP represents for me not only an opportunity to improve my language skills, but a “first encounter” with a culture that I’ve only known until now through the veil of media, textbooks, and academic jargon.

A language learned outside of a society that uses it is like a fish out of water – though you may grasp it, you lack the medium through which the language can move, change, and grow into a life of its own. In the United States, I learned Mandarin as a subject, and thus I learned Mandarin to accomplish goals. Homework, quizzes, tests, essays, etc. Although these goals drove my studies, they also bounded them – small, distant ponds of grammar and vocabulary, dotting the landscape of my everyday life. This isn’t to say my teachers were bad or ineffective. In truth, Zhang Laoshi and Li Laoshi are wonderful, talented language teachers, whose ability I can only hope to one day come close to. However, no amount of teaching ability can change the fact that an American college, more often than not, is part of a society that relies upon and expects the English language before any other. That’s terribly poor soil for another language to grow from.

Mandarin flows through Tainan, not on it’s lonesome, but still in full presence. The language teachers at Chengda are wonderful, yes, but an equally important teacher is the city itself. Walking down Tainan’s streets, a student of Chinese language is constantly challenged. Chinese language is built into the very infrastructure of this place. Street signs call out on every corner, up and down every building. Idle chatter, radio sneaks into your ears, while every new conversation pushes the limits of your speaking ability. In the space of challenges like this, your Mandarin can step out of the textbook, the test, and stretch its legs. That’s what really brings you closer to fluency, what really gets a kid from Tampa, Florida to, every now and then, find themselves truly and unconsciously thinking in a new language.

Culture also flounders without a place it calls its own. Higher education in the United States, especially at the undergraduate level, has a particular problem with making Chinese culture appear monolithic. I would argue this problem, at least as it persists into the modern day, arises not from flawed curricula, but instead from the cultural distance that separates the typical American student from the communities that sustain and develop what we lump together as Chinese culture. Coming to Tainan is, to a certain extent, a way to reduce that distance. Though a foreign student here still remains separated from the culture around them, that culture is not inaccessible. Conversation and careful observation can suggest how the characters, stories, and social phenomena taught in textbooks have real impacts on living minds. More importantly, the differences between Chinese culture as its taught and such cultures (Tainanese, Gaoxiongese, etc) as they’re lived instills a very important lesson – this culture cannot be completely described with one name, or with any number of words. As a foreign student of Chinese language and culture, one is constantly trying to understand something which, in the end, can only be understood through real people and their relationships.

The study abroad opportunity TISLP represents offers a first step towards this kind of understanding and, through its intense language study, the tools you will need to make the most of it.

By: Derek Otis

Program: Taiwan Intensive Summer Language Program

Term: Summer 2018

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