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A Language Learning Epiphany

Ni Hao!

As the initial culture shock wains little by little and I settle into my life here in China, I have begun to develop more of awareness into how difficult it is to live in a country where you can understand almost nothing. In the area of Xi’an where we live, very few if anyone I have encountered speaks English, and ninety percent of all text is in Chinese Characters. Culturally, this is a true testament to the pride the Chinese people take in celebrating and maintaining their rich and vibrant history! It was eye-opening to recognize my own cultural bias, assuming that there must be some level of Western influence here, furthermore that most people would understand essential English communication. In my past travels, words in unfamiliar languages often shared similarities in letters and sounds, and people were accustomed to frequent interactions with tourists. Thus far, that has not been my experience here. The amount of mental energy that is required to attempt simple tasks like buying groceries, getting a cell phone, doing laundry or reading a map is not something I had anticipated. However, after the initial hurdle, I realized that it was beneficial for me to brought out of my comfort zone in such a way. This environment provides the seeds required for authentic personal growth. Additionally, it offers the opportunity to develop your language skills out of necessity!

The language learning courses have provided me with a whole new perspective regarding what it feels like to be a language learner in a classroom environment. Mandarin is said to be one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn, and it has certainly proven to be a real challenge for me. The courses are taught primarily in Chinese, which means if you don’t understand something, you have the potential to become lost quickly. Often questions will be asked again, but when you don’t have the language background to comprehend them, you can do little except stare back blankly. I witnessed many of the same looks I had experienced when I administered the IELTS test for Chinese students at the international school I am teaching at. These moments provide me with a snapshot into what the ELL population in Canadian classrooms must feel like. My whole experience with language thus far has helped me to develop a new level of empathy for the challenges immigrants across the world face. It has undoubtedly influenced my perspective and approach in the classroom as well!

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