Where’s the Bathroom?: Breaking the Language Barrier

About a year before coming to Taipei for my ACIE program, I visited Beijing for a research trip. I had been learning Mandarin on my own for about a year before then, mostly through the use of language learning apps and textbooks from my school’s library. I figured that my language skills would be sufficient to at least convey the general idea of what I was desperately trying to say—“Here’s what I want to eat. One ticket, please. Where is the bathroom?!” To put it mildly, I was very wrong. I overestimated my abilities, and had a really difficult time trying to communicate with any of Beijing’s 21 million residents.

Arriving in Taiwan, however, and once again being immersed in Mandarin, proved to be an entirely different experience. With the support of the Chinese class in the program, I could see how rapidly my Mandarin skills were improving. Granted, I had an additional year of self-teaching under my belt, but the confidence that comes from the praise of Peggy, your Chinese teacher, can’t be replicated by any app or textbook. The timidity that always came from any interaction that required me to speak in my broken Mandarin was slowly starting to wane. I became more comfortable ordering food, apologizing to people after bumping into them on Taipei’s clean and efficient metro, or even talking about how I am an American student in Taiwan for the summer after a local would be surprised that I could speak some Mandarin.

Those were my favorite interactions: the ones where I could surprise someone with my language skills. It became a personal goal to try and impress locals that this six-foot tall white guy could speak passable Mandarin. Occasionally this would backfire when my new conversation partner would want to speak to me in rapid-fire Mandarin that my still meager comprehension skills were completely unprepared for. I would have to apologize profusely and respond with “I only speak a little Mandarin and I am still learning.” But I could still walk away with a small sense of pride, knowing that even for just a few sentences, I came across as a successful Mandarin speaker.

There is no doubt that the time dedicated to language-learning at the Tradition and Modernity in Taiwan program has greatly helped me feel more comfortable in my Mandarin skills. In just the few short weeks that I’ve been here, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in my ability and my confidence. I’m sure that if I were here for a semester program, or even a year-long exchange, the immersive nature of living in Taipei and the support that came from my class at National Chengchi University would help me feel far more comfortable with talking to anyone I bumped into on the subway. There’s a level of familiarity with a language that can only come from the kind of regular use that comes with walking the streets of Taipei and interacting with locals to purchase food, barter for trinkets, and of course, to ask where the bathroom is.

By: Colton Ames

Program: Tradition and Modernity in Taiwan, Taipei, Taiwan

Term: Summer 2019

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