Going into college I was sure of two things:
1) I wanted to major in International Relations and Political Science.
2) In order to do that, I was going to have to test out of the intermediate level in a foreign language.
Turns out that second assumption was actually incorrect—yes, I needed proficiency in a foreign language, but I didn’t need it in a third language, knowing Spanish would’ve gotten me out of the language requirement. I didn’t know that at the time, which in hindsight was a lucky oversight that changed everything.
Prior to arriving on campus, I set about deciding which language I’d butcher, I mean, study. The summer before college I received a scholarship to attend a summer language program, STARTALK, designed to give young students access to critical languages. I had always been interested in the Middle East and Arabic seemed like a natural fit, but I’d also grown up with a lot of friends who spoke Mandarin and I felt an affinity to the language that simply wasn’t there with other languages—I also thought my accent would sound more natural in Mandarin than in Arabic (I’ve never been able to do the more guttural sounds…although I’m not convinced my tones in Mandarin are any better). So I went with my gut feeling and chose Chinese, never once thinking how much that would change my life going forward.
I struggled through Chinese 101 and 102. My first professor was a fan of cold-calling and she’d randomly pick on students and make them answer questions—a downright terrifying experience. My roommate would often come into our dorm and find me muttering under my breath. “You sound like you’re choking,” she told me once, laughing at my struggle. It was a sight to see, but I stuck with it and it eventually got easier. I’d never really had to learn a language before and I had to figure out how to study. Through that process, I learned a lot about myself.
If you’re thinking about learning a foreign language, if you even have an inkling of interest, go for it. If you’re not convinced, let me outline a few reasons why I think language learning is an invaluable experience:
1. It helps you become comfortable with making mistakes and not always saying the right thing. In education/psychology there’s a concept called an “affective filter” which refers to a person’s comfort with producing language. For example, someone with a high affective filter is likely to experience high degrees of anxiety when attempting to speak a foreign language, whereas someone with a low affective filter is much more comfortable speaking up. Over the course of the past six years, I’ve become much more willing to make mistakes in front of my peers and learn from them rather than take them as a direct referendum on my abilities. This is a critical life skill.
2. It opens you up to new cultures, ways of thinking, and incredible experiences. I never in a million years thought I’d wind up living in Taiwan of all places. I met some of my best friends during my time abroad. These friendships have enriched my life, supported me through difficult times, and even encouraged me to pursue career opportunities that opened doors to work I’d always wanted to do.
3. You could make extra money or score higher on the State Department’s Foreign Officer Test. Some organizations, such as the military, give you a pay bump if you know a critical language. You can learn more about that here. Want to join the diplomatic corps? You can qualify for bonus points if you know a critical language and pass the test administered by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI).
4. It’s fun! You discover your personality in a different language, you surmount the initial challenge of producing new sounds, you see yourself grow, the language department becomes a second home,—the possibilities are endless!