One of the greatest human urges is to communicate. At an early stage, our toddlers demonstrate the frustration they feel when their meaning or intents are not understood for lack of language skills—sippy cups are thrown to the floor; food is flung from the high chair. The message is clear: we want to be understood!
So no wonder language, as every human being’s most expedient expression, conveys personalities, cultures, nuances and fundamental values the world over.
As many of you know, Academic Travel Abroad, Inc. is not only an educational travel company; it is also a study abroad organization. We currently send approximately 1,000 US college students overseas every year to study in China, the Czech Republic, Italy, Spain and Vietnam (and as of this summer, Japan and Syria!) on our CET Academic Programs (www.cetacademicprograms.com).
CET’s education abroad philosophy is rooted in the value of cultural and language immersion. It is clear speaking to anyone who has ever lived or studied abroad that immersion—a real break with one’s own cultural environment, contacts and language—brings understanding and broadens horizons.
So while beginning the learning process early and undertaking a serious commitment to foreign language study is ideal in order to transcend cultural barriers, I firmly believe that the process is valuable at any age and at any level of engagement.
Embarking on a trip to a foreign land, few dispute the value of picking up a phrase book before departure. This is a practical step. Yet how many view a look at the language of the destination as an essential part of their introduction to that culture? As important as the study of the country’s history, society, art, and politics is, a basic introduction to the language can teach us so much.
For example, few written languages paint pictures and convey cultural lessons as plainly as Chinese. Some characters are logical, with the stone radical associating with hard, strong, fundamental concepts, the heart radical expressing feelings, and the hand radical describing actions and gestures. Yet other characters betray social preconceptions: peace is a woman under a roof; home is a pig under a roof, precious is jade under a roof… And a woman with a son is just plain good. It doesn’t take long to realize the rich cultural lessons hidden in every pictogram.
Then there’s French. How many nations boast an Académie Française dating to the 17th century in which “immortals” rule on all matters pertaining to the glory of the language? Here is a culture that drills its young with daily “dictées” of complex paragraphs to test the subject-verb accords, feminin-masculin mastery and subjunctive conjugations, in addition to requiring excruciating “explication de textes”—pulling apart and analyzing a text, word by word, line by line. So whether you master the classic lines like plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (‘the more things change, the more they stay the same”) or the common exclamation ça va pas, non?! (“You are not well, are you?!”), some dabbling in French is not only fun but can reveal much about this rich culture.
On a recent business trip to Japan, I had the good fortune to be accompanied by two fluent Japanese speakers. On the plane ride over, I asked that they review the basics of polite Japanese phrases for me: from dozo and arigato gozaimashita, to an often-used phrase—dozo yorushuku onegai shimasu. The latter was translated for me as “please forgive me for any trouble I will ever cause you.” It’s a mouthful, and it’s spoken very rapidly by native speakers, but it is used constantly. To me, it revealed much about the culture I was about to visit. The extreme politesse and consideration the Japanese extend to each other are ubiquitous.
I still remember the delight one of my China travelers expressed when a phrase I had taught her had the desired effect—a smile and a grateful nod from a proud Chinese mother. “Hen ke ai!” this American traveler had said, admiring a toddler with rosy cheeks in Shanghai. “Very cute!”
So next time you’re heading abroad, I encourage you to look at the language as more than a practical portal, but as a window onto greater cultural understanding and meaningful interaction. As few as three syllables can make the difference between being a passive observer and being an active participant in your discovery of the world.