A New World, A New You

by Yue Zhuang

When studying languages, we often hear that language is a “tool of communication”. This simple definition threatens our desire to learn languages. As a tool, language skills may be replaced by machines, especially with ever more powerful computer technologies. That is why we have seen a drop in learning languages in schools and universities in this country.


But it is a modern myth to think of language as a mere tool of communication, replaceable by computers.   A 2011 article in The Guardian suggests:

The reason why specialist translations, even with the support of all our highly developed technological equipment at the beginning of the twenty-first century, are still produced by real people is simple: computers have not yet managed the subtlety of nuance that mark out real language skills.


Language skills are much, much more than tools. Learning a different language, simply, opens up a new world. It enriches our life experience to a degree that we cannot imagine until we have taken up the challenge.  I remember the thrill when I received the first email reply in English from one of my American teachers when I was a university student in China. “I have got a new friend from the other side of the world!” I thought.  I would never had thought then that over twenty years later, I would be living on the other side of the world teaching Chinese language and culture to my students at the University of Exeter. I learn from my students every day. What an experience learning English opened up for me! 


We are not always conscious that our experiences, our lives are shaped by the language and culture in which we are brought up. Language and culture are very closely bound up together. As we all know so well, to grasp a new language is not simply about word-to-word literal translation. The new language carries with it its own cultural values and ways of thinking. For example, when a Chinese speaker addresses a group of people –in a classroom or a large meeting, we use ‘dajia’ (big family) rather than ‘everyone’, or ‘all’, as in English. This shows the collectivism inherent in Chinese long culture shaped by Confucianism. When referring to the elderly, the Chinese use ‘nin’ (you in a polite form), instead of ‘ni’ (you). In making this differentiation, we learn Chinese culture’s respect for the elderly with their experiences and accrued wisdom. When receiving a compliment, we respond with words of self-effacing modesty, such as nali nali (indicating mild denial), another traditional value that the now modernised China still upholds. So when we learn a new language, we are, consciously, or unconsciously, entering a new culture, and grasping a new way of thinking about the world.


Languages make us more independent thinking minds. We are no longer trapped within our own cultural bubble intolerant of others. With our ability to think in other languages, we gain more independent minds, intellectually and emotionally. We are less susceptible to words, news, knowledge filtered through a third party—a translating agency—or perhaps a propaganda outlet. We can reach, understand and appreciate world literature written by others in their own language, and grasp the essence that is bound to be lost in translation. We will be able to tell and interpret stories and world events—economic, political, environmental – happening all over our world. We form opinions of our own without having our truth being compromised by others’ values and opinions.


Languages make us more tolerant and compassionate. As we take in new languages, and get in touch with their associated cultures, values, and ways of thinking, we shall find ourselves more able to accommodate different ideas, values, and ways of thinking. We are more able to put our feet in other’s shoes, as all of these different ideas and values can be so diverse, and sometimes may even appear contradictory. But as we learn the language, we learn how to listen, to respect, and to reflect. We are less judgmental but more embracing.  Our emotions are so enriched as we make friends on our Year Abroad, our travels, our work in an environment away from home. We may be able to enter the worlds of real people in real lives from a region far away from ours – to know their happiness, their suffering, their anger, their sadness. We live their lives, we feel their feelings.


To learn a new language – learn it well, learn about its cultures, its way of thinking, its ways of expressing emotions because it opens up new worlds and allows us to discover our new selves.

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