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Jenny X. '13

Jan 10, 2013

Falling in Love with a Language at MIT

Posted in: Miscellaneous, Life & Culture

I met Will and Kristina in very different parts of campus. I was psetting at Next House during spring semester of freshman year when Will popped up and started speaking to my friend in Chinese. I hardly even got his name, but in my mind, he was already The Hispanic Guy Who Speaks Really Good Chinese. I got to know him better last January on an IAP trip to Korea - during which he still brought out his workbooks to study Chinese...

Kristina and I were teammates on the MIT Sport Taekwondo team. While we all waited to fight at tournaments, Kristina would do her Chinese homework, sometimes asking me for help. When I see Chinese-language updates on Facebook, Gchat, or Tumblr, there’s a good chance it’s from her.

I came to America from China in 2000, having just finished second grade. The next time I took a Chinese class would be at MIT - and I ended up taking three more to fulfill the concentration requirement. While my speaking, writing, and reading abilities have all improved through these classes, I have a sneaky suspicion that if I just stop using Chinese (which has been the case since I finished Chinese IV last spring...), my language skills will once again hover at second-grade level. 

When I see Will and Kristina display so much enthusiasm for a foreign language, I feel ashamed. Past the guilt, however, I can't help but feel inspired to hold on to my native language.

Here, Will and Kristina talk about how they fell in love with Chinese at MIT. 

And for a soundtrack - press play on this video of Will (CubanCrescendo!) singing JJ Lin’s “我很想爱她”, recorded right here on campus in Maseeh Hall:

(Really, this guy did not know Chinese before coming to MIT.)

How did you first become interested in the language?

Kristina: My mom had a career with the State Department, during which she learned several languages. Growing up, she told me stories of being able to connect with people when she spoke to them in their native language. That connection drew me to language in general. I decided to learn Mandarin because it's the official language of the most populous country of the world, and also because it connects the speaker to a rich history spanning millennia.

Will: Before I got to MIT, I basically had 0 Mandarin-speaking friends. My high school friends were mainly Spanish speakers, some people from the Philippines, some Cantonese speakers, but I'm talking like maybe 7-8 or so close friends fit this category. When I got to MIT, and especially when I got to Next House, let's be real....all I heard was Chinese. I remember my closest friends freshmen year were Chinese-Americans, but they spoke to their families in Chinese on the phone. I would just sit and listen as they spoke to their moms and dads on the phone and continually wondered what the heck they were saying. I started remember parts of their conversations and then I would go up to random Chinese friends I had to practice and they would laugh so hard at me because I thought I was saying certain things right, but they were so wrong! Now it's not so much like that, now i get more respect for the amount of stuff I know.

But anyways, I participated in the Student Leadership Program (SLP) through China Development Initiative (CDI) and so I had the opportunity to go to Shenzhen and I think that was when I was really really really really really really interested and wanted to keep studying it. It was so fun being around the language and watching native Chinese faces with their look of surprise at how much I knew. But after coming back from that 2 week trip to China, I immediately emailed the Chinese department at MIT and explained my interest! Overall, it was definitely a combination embracing my “culture shock” and see how fast of a learner I was. I'm sort of a perfectionist when it comes to language, so when my Chinese friends told me things like "it's close enough", I never settled for that. I'd say the same word over and over and over again till it sounded spot on. I think the drive to sound more authentic was definitely a big factor.

How much Chinese did you know before coming to MIT? What about now?

Kristina: I didn't know any Chinese (not even 你好 - nihao!) before coming to MIT. Now, I'd say I'm somewhere between conversationally fluent and being able to speak Mandarin in a professional setting.

Will: Before MIT, I can recall one character that a Cantonese friend of mine taught me in high school, 冬(dōng), which means winter or cold. I don't even remember how we started talking about the character, but I never forgot it. Aside from that character and my unyielding belief that Panda Express was the best "Chinese" food in the world, I basically had no idea what Chinese people, language or culture was like.

Now my view is unbelievably different even to the point where some of my American Chinese friends tell me "you're more Chinese than I am!". That's always funny, but at the same time, it feels really good because to me it shows that my hard work has paid off. I'm starting to be recognized linguistically and culturally by the Chinese-speaking population. People often describe me as "fluent", but to be honest, I am nowhere near that level. In fact, that's one thing that I've always loved about the language is that I feel like I'll need another 5 or 10 years before I even feel close to fluent, so there's so much left to learn and explore. It's something I had never felt while studying another language before (I studied German and Portuguese before I began my Chinese adventure). I can say that I've definitely grown much more comfortable with my Chinese over the last few years. I've gotten to a point where it's not really about learning the language itself anymore, now it's more so about continually practicing all the skills I've already acquired. I'd say I'm pretty conversational, I can read and understand most of what I write. (Having the chinese version of Facebook really helps).

How did your time at MIT contribute to you learning the language? 

Kristina: When I first got to MIT, I jumped right into language classes. I took Chinese I (21F.101) in conjunction with 21F.076, Globalization, the Good, the Bad, and the In Between. In my sophomore year, I participated in MISTI-China's China Educational Technology Initiative (CETI), travelling to Hunan province to teach high school science. This early exposure to language combined with an early opportunity to travel is something that I think is unique to MIT. Being able to apply language and connect with my students when teaching inspired me to continue studying Chinese. I guess it goes along with MIT's "mens et manus" approach to learning. Application is instrumental to learning.

Here, Kristina takes a photo with a CETI student at Zhuzhou No.8 Middle School, after a massive water balloon fight demonstrating projectile motion. 

Will: I think MIT contributed in three major ways:

1. The Chinese department is amazing. I remember after coming back from Shenzhen, I was deciding whether I wanted to take Chinese 1 or Chinese 3 (only the odd classes are offered in the fall, even classes in the spring, so 2 was not an option). I wasn't sure if I had really learned enough in my free time with my friends to cover 2 semesters of college Chinese. I had to go and interview with 张老师 and luckily that experience confirmed that I was ready for the higher level. In Chinese 3, I was the only student that went to office hours weekly to make sure I knew everything from Chinese 1 and 2 as well as all the material we were covering in 3, but 梁老师 encouraged me beyond belief and helped me grow in confidence. I don't even know where to start with 陈老师. He's gotta be one the funniest guys I have ever met and his humor in the classroom and overall belief in my Chinese abilities is what ultimately led me fall more and more in love with the language. There was a Chinese speech and talent competition at U-Mass Boston and he really pushed me to enter saying "I know you'll at least get 3rd place" and I'll never forget the look on his face after I won the entire thing. I owe a lot to him in terms of my Chinese education, he always had faith in me and it's given me the same faith in myself.

2. As I mentioned before, MIT really gave me the Chinese friends that were so essential to practicing my language skills I had never had. I can't tell you how many times I met someone from China or Taiwan and immediately just started practicing with them. I would check almost every homework assignment with a native speaker to get any questions I had out of the way. I definitely owe a great deal to all my friends who pushed me and continued to encourage my love of the language.

3. Here's my advice: If you're serious about doing a language and want to learn it really well, go anywhere and immerse yourself wherever the language is spoken. I mentioned my experience in Shenzhen, but I had the best summer of my life this past year teaching throughout Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China with the CETI program. Not only did I have meet tons of students and friends and experience new places, but it was so fun to rely on the Chinese language to survive. Even now while I am back in America and no longer at MIT, my main method of keeping up with Chinese is by chatting with my students, friends and family in East Asia. I can't express enough how valuable this experience was for me and I really want to do it again (and I encourage you to do it as well). That summer honestly changed my life in more ways than one. It confirmed for me that I wanted to go into Education and gave me a means by which I could practice and improve my Chinese, which I was scared I would lose after leaving MIT.

Will teaching and traveling in Taiwan 

What are your goals for learning more in the future, do you think this love can be sustained after MIT?

Kristina: Now, as I finish my last year here at MIT, I plan on taking advantage of MISTI-China's internship programs to begin building international internship experience between graduation and graduate school. This will help me achieve my goal of using my language skills in a professional setting. Eventually, I'd love to go beyond Mandarin and learn other dialects of Chinese. MIT was instrumental in giving me the tools to take the first steps towards learning Chinese. Learning is a life-long process, and I'm confident in my ability to sustain my passion after graduation.

Will: As for the future, I'm pretty excited for what it holds in terms of Chinese. As I mentioned, I think that this past summer gave me dozens of friends that I will always keep up with. Some of my students want to come to college in America or even just come and visit and I've welcomed and encouraged them to make that their goal. This winter alone, my students from Beijing are coming to visit America and I have every intention of visiting them and showing them a little bit of America the same way they were so willing to welcome me into their country. Building off of the fact that I did not really have many Mandarin speaking friends in my community growing up, I hope I can be able to bring that new part of me back here to Los Angeles. Since returning after graduation, one of the things that my students and friends are most interested in are my travels abroad and so many people are interested in learning the language. I'm currently enrolled in a teaching credential program at USC and hopefully I can be teaching it to students in my area soon. If there's one thing I've learned from studying Chinese it's that the number of opportunities you have after learning it are endless. You make new friends, gain the ability to communicate with about 1/5 of the population, and get exposed to a whole different kind of culture. Chinese has helped me find a new side of myself that I never realized existed before MIT, it has transformed and defined my undergraduate career at the Institute and I already know that it will impact and continue to influence the rest of my life.

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As I try to reach for my own life goals of mastering French and Korean (and keeping at the Chinese), I know I'll continue looking to these two as inspirations.

Let me know if you have any questions about foreign languages and study abroad at MIT... or anything else!   

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