One of my favourite books is Spring, the second book in the Torrents trilogy, by Ba Jin. While the first book in the series has been translated into English, neither of the sequels has. Likewise, one of my favourite tv series has never been given English subtitles. I have friends who do not speak English, and my university is taught entirely. in Chinese. When I travel through
, my knowledge of Chinese history and culture – gained largely alongside my study of thelanguage, has made me feel more connected to the places I visit. Even my daily life is made more pleasant through my numerous small interactions with the people I run into. Needless to say, my life today would not be possible had I never studied Chinese. China
Studying Chinese has opened up avenues for me. Not so much in terms of what I do – after all, I can still watch television, read books and make friends without speaking the language – but instead with the range of people I can do that with. Speaking Chinese gives me over a billion potential friends, and it opens up a pathway for me to explore their culture and media.
Studying Chinese has also made me feel as though I’m a part of a community. Feeling a part of a community is much more than merely having friends. It is also the daily small talk you have with the lady who works at the convenience store, and the chat you have with the person next to you on the bus. It is also being able to talk with your friends’ family. These simple aspects of community are easily underappreciated, until one day you find yourself cut off from them. I realised this visiting my boyfriend’s family for Chinese New Year. His grandmother only speaks Malay, which I do not yet speak, and while the family did their best to keep me in the loop when they spoke with her, I still felt left out of the conversation. I know that my boyfriend’s grandmother is a kind and wonderful woman, who has had a great impact on his life, however our lack of a common language is a barrier that keeps me from getting to know her better. For me, this was a strong impetus to begin to learn Malay.
One interesting thing to note about these reasons to learn a language is that in most cases I only discovered that these benefits existed long after I studied. While today I value my friends, and can’t imagine living without Chinese books, television and music, had I never studied, I would never have known what I was missing. Indeed, it was many years into my study before I started speaking Chinese and immersing myself in the culture. Prior to this study, I was studying blind. I can completely understand why those who have never studied a foreign language can disregard its benefits, because I once did that too. When beginning language study, it seems like a long journey from zero proficiency to reading a novel or watching a movie without subtitles, and to compound this, without the right cultural context, it can be almost impossible to even know that the media you enjoy even exists.
Of course, on top of these reasons for study, there are the more “practical” reasons for learning: business, school grades, and so on, however learning a language is ultimately about people and cultures. Language connects you with people, like no other thing in this world, and I have found that by having a strong grasp of a second language, I have enriched my world – not just through the addition of new music, books and other media, but through the addition of new people to my life. The value that these people have added to my life is priceless, and without a doubt makes every second that I studied my languages worthwhile.