The effect of language on personal growth: A student’s recollection
No man is an island and human interactions are necessary for both our mental and physical health.
As someone who travels quite a bit for work, I’ve learned that the most valuable human interactions happen when you challenge yourself i.e. form connections and make conversations with someone who speaks a different language and comes from a different culture.
The growth comes when you attempt to learn the foreign language AND apply it in real life situations.
As a Scottish mixed Chinese who grew up in Singapore, I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn my mother tongue (Mandarin) in school and successfully use this skill in real life to connect with others.
In this blog article, allow me to share the powerful effects being bilingual has had on my life, why learning a new language allows you access to a new culture, and tips to immerse yourself in a new language without travelling.
How do languages transcend boundaries?
When I was 13, I went on a school trip to Beijing, China. I often got looked over or ignored because I didn’t look like I could speak Mandarin (it’s the strong Scottish genes). As a result, the shopkeepers, tour guides, and even bus drivers would always refer their questions to my friends instead.
After a while, I mustered up courage and conversed with the locals in Mandarin. The look of disbelief on their faces was priceless. In fact, they were so happy and impressed by my ability to speak their language, they would offer me extra discounts or be extra kind and attentive to me.
Key lesson: Speak and practice the language even if it scares you – only good things can come out of it!
Another more relatable scenario would be ordering food at the hawker centre – let’s all agree that hawkers are more patient if you can order in a language they are familiar with. I’m often met with warm smiles and exclamations of, “Wow! You can speak Mandarin? Your Mandarin is so good!”, even though my standard is average at best. It is a huge boost of confidence and often encourages me to better embrace and improve my Mandarin skills.
Key lesson: As humans, we aim to find common ground with the person we’re interacting with, be it languages or life experiences.
Language barriers account for a large number of misunderstandings but once that barrier is removed, the world opens up. Much like discovering a common interest with a new friend, there is something beautiful about someone being able to speak the same language as you – it is both heartwarming and comforting.
Language and its influence on culture
The intimate relationship between language and culture is more powerful than you think. Language and culture cannot be separated as the rules of learning a new language should eventually lead to learning about the culture and customs of a particular country or group.
It is safe to say that your success in learning a new language hinges on how well you understand the culture that the language is linked to.
In that vein, if you are currently taking language courses, it is important that your instructor or curriculum introduces you to culture:
- Are you learning about the country’s traditions and beliefs?
- Beyond mastering new vocab, does your instructor teach you colloquial terms? What’s technically correct on paper may sound unnatural in real life, especially if not practiced by locals.
- Are you introduced to what’s popular and acceptable in the country? For example, females in Thailand tend to refer to themselves in third person e.g. they use their name in replacement of “I”. It takes an experienced instructor to impart such knowledge not often found in textbooks.
This is why immersive language study programmes are becoming increasingly popular. Instead of learning a new language in their new country, more people are willing to travel to learn the language.
But beyond the fun and new experiences, that’s not what immersive language learning is all about. It is about constantly using the new language you are learning, be it through real life conversations with unsuspecting locals or reading.
The gist of the matter is that language and culture are intricately intertwined and in order for you to master the language, you must learn about the culture.
Immersive language learning—ways to do this without travelling
So not everyone has the privilege of travelling to immerse themselves in a new language. The good news is you can still achieve mastery without relocating elsewhere. Here’s how:
1. Local communities
Singapore is a hot pot of people from multiple countries and cultural backgrounds. You can get in touch with the communities and attend social events that act as a training ground for you. Learn about their culture and local slangs as you polish up on your language skills and gain confidence.
There are a plethora of phone applications and other types of software and websites available that can complement learning a new language. I recommend websites where you can find a native speaker to converse with, or platforms where you can submit a sample of your writing to be read and edited by a native speaker.
As with all things in life, mindset is a driver for success. Determination, hard work, and a willingness to learn will get you very far in life – language learning included. One way to practice immersive learning is by going through your day without a word of English to help you. Think, watch, read, and speak in your new language and be amazed by the way your brain catches on and adapts.
4. Get the help of a solid language learning centre
You can learn a new language through self study, but the process can be extremely slow with no guidance of where you stand. To avoid spinning your wheels, I recommend engaging the help of a language school – whether you prefer group or individual classes is up to you, but you should minimally be under the tutelage of a trained instructor.
If you want to put yourself to the test and experience the growth and perspective learning a new language can provide you (as it did for me), there’s no better time to start than now.
For all questions, you may point them to the folks at Lingo School of Knowledge.