If you ever fumbled your way through French classes or struggled with the subjunctive in high school Spanish, you may understand the difficulty of learning a second language. Many students in the United States spend at least a year or two in foreign language classes, but few continue their linguistic education. For international and cross-cultural students, these classes are only the beginning of language learning.
“People don’t understand how hard it is to learn another language or what it’s like to be immersed in a different culture because they’ve never had to experience it,” Zalena Su’e says.
Zalena first learned to speak English in school in Samoa.
“I never saw it any different from learning science or math,” she said. “I would learn and speak English in school and go right back to Sāmoan at home… It wasn’t too difficult for me to learn English because I started learning it at such a young age.”
Marlina Sorabut also learned English as a student in Indonesia. Her first introduction to the language was not a particularly positive one, though.
“It was difficult because the teacher was mean and horrible to convince me to love the subject,” she said. “I hated English when I was in Middle school and high school… It’s like you learn Spanish here for four years and don’t really practice it, but you know it is there somewhere where you must deal with it.”
Kazuki Tateishi first learned how to write and read English in his native Japan, but didn’t learn speaking or listening until he came to the United States at the age of 19.
“Right now it’s pretty comfortable,” he says of speaking English. “When I speak in front of people, that’s different. I get really nervous.”
Each of these students is learning and living in an environment where few, if any, people can understand or speak their native language.
“No one speaks Japanese here,” Kazuki states.
“Running into anyone that speaks even a little Sāmoan is like running into a family member or long-lost friend,” Zalena states. “It’s immediately evident that there’s an unbreakable bond between us because of our ancestors and the pride we have in our people.”
Although Zalena is confident and experienced in communicating in English, there are still moments of struggle or ideas that she cannot fully express in her second language.
“You don’t understand what true isolation is until you’re surrounded by a group of people that will never truly understand you or be able to communicate with you.”
Each of these students noted that learning culture goes along with learning a language. It is important to not only be able to communicate, but to understand the people you are communicating with.
“I wish people realized that learning a language is learning a culture in same time,” Marlina says, “For me language is about living in the culture, speaking it and listening to it every day.”
“If you study abroad you will learn a lot of stuff culture-wise,” Kazuki notes. “It is important to balance your country and wherever you go.”
Not everyone will have the opportunity to experience what these students live each day. However, there may be chances for American students to travel and be immersed in a new language and culture themselves. What would these students say to anyone who is planning to live and study abroad?
“Don’t be afraid and nervous; don’t even think about failing,” Marlina comments.
“Make a lot of friends who speak the native language. Try everything,” Kazuki says.
“Be open-minded. Embrace the new culture you’re surrounded in. Don’t try to ‘Americanize’ those around you because you’ll definitely want to. Live in your new culture and enjoy it,” Zalena concludes.
Written by Brianna Ashmore
Brianna Ashmore is a junior at Corban University. She is passionate about encouraging Christians to be more engaged internationally.