Conversing with Others in a New Language

I came to Taiwan this summer primarily in order to raise my language level to assist with my research. However, what I treasure most about studying Chinese is not the professional benefits, but the opportunity to communicate with people. The struggles of learning a new language cannot compare with the wonder I have experienced of unexpected and eye-opening interactions and conversations with others in my second language.

One of the most special communication experiences that I have had thus far this summer happened as a result of the spur of the moment trip to McDonalds. It was July 4th, late, and I had not yet had dinner. On a whim, I decided to celebrate Independence Day by eating at the fast food chain that is probably most emblematic of America to the world. While ordering my food, my eyes fell on two robed figures on their way out of the restaurant—two Catholic priests. I quickly made my way over to introduce myself.

Now, one of these priests was Taiwanese, while the other was clearly not Taiwanese (I later learned that he was French). Recently, I had been making an effort to use Chinese with other foreigners out of respect for both our language pledge and host country, so I started up the conversation with them in Chinese— “請問一下,你們是天主教的神父嗎?我也是天主教的!” In English this translates as, “Excuse me, are you Catholic priests? I’m also Catholic!” This kicked off an exchange, all in Chinese, where I learned that the French priest was actually in charge of a Catholic Young Adult Center just down the road.

The following Friday, I headed over to the Young Adult Center for the first time. The priest, two Taiwanese young adults around my age, and I had dinner together, and then afterwards we were joined by a number of Taiwanese Catholics in their 20s-30s for a lesson led by the priest and discussion.

Throughout the evening I was awed by this French priest’s Chinese ability. He translated Laozi’s (老子) ancient philosophy into modern Chinese with ease for the benefit of us young adults. And I was surprised with myself for being able to keep up with and contribute to the evening’s conversation on faith, reason, and philosophy. For the first time this summer I was using Chinese to discuss topics closest to my heart, and I was overjoyed to experience how meaningful language study becomes when it is used in such passionate exchange with other people.

This experience served as a deep motivator for me to continue studying Chinese—yes, my Chinese is “good enough” right now, but how amazing would it be to get to the same point as this priest, able to read and explain ancient Chinese philosophy? The others at the Young Adult Center have invited me to spend the summer attending center events and hanging out with them, so I am excited to have this new group of Taiwanese friends with whom my Chinese level and understanding of local culture will grow.

By: Tiffany Barron

Program: Taiwan Intensive Summer Language Program

Term: Summer 2019

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