Ask Away: 5 Questions on a Teen’s Mandarin, French, Korean & English “Polyglot Toolbox”
We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…
Meet Jacquelyn—a high school senior, heritage learner, and student of 4 languages. Think she’s done it all? She’s just getting started!
1. As a child, you spoke Mandarin with your mother and English with your father: Can you tell us about growing up with two languages?
I don’t think I realized my mom could speak English until I was about 5 years old! Even after I discovered that she could, in fact, speak Mandarin back to me if I spoke to her in English, she would pretend she didn’t hear me.
I think it was hard on my dad because he couldn’t speak or understand Mandarin, but my mom was adamant in ensuring that my sister and I would be bilingual. The fact that our maternal grandparents don’t really speak English was a major motivating factor for her. As you can imagine, dinner conversations were all over the place:
“I would ask my mom to pass the pepper in Mandarin and ask my dad to pass the salt in English.”
My mom faced a lot of backlash from the community around her in Kentucky for deciding to raise me and my sister (who is a year younger than I am) bilingual. Even medical professionals told her that exposure to multiple languages would confuse us! My other sister is turning one this month, and when she was born, the doctor encouraged my mother to speak Mandarin at home. It’s so interesting to see how the times have changed!
2. You are a student of four languages! What inspires and motivates you to learn additional languages?
I’ve just genuinely fallen in love with the beauty of languages!
My absolute favorite moments of my language studies are those in which I unearth words that are unable to be translated. These words carry an emotional weight and connotation so rooted in the culture of the language that they are thus impossible to be arbitrarily translated for the sake of definition. These words are just one of the ways by which one begins to understand that language and culture are truly inseparable entities, as culture fosters the perspective necessary for the communication facilitated by language.
It’s almost unbelievable to me that we’ve managed to assign meaning to these otherwise random sounds produced by the vibrations of our vocal cords, and I think that’s a pretty fascinating and beautiful thing.
3. Could you tell us about some of your travel or immersion experiences and the impact they’ve had on you?
I’m so grateful that my family placed such great importance on cultural experiences and that I had the opportunity to travel abroad a few times when I was in middle school. These experiences showed me how vast and diverse our world is: There’s so much to see and learn!
I credit my immersion experiences at Concordia’s Korean Language Village as one of the major catalysts for my passion for language learning. There’s something pretty magical that happens when you bring together such amazing staff to teach in the middle of the woods. At the language villages, all of the students are there for the purpose of learning about the target language and culture, and the enthusiasm creates an incredibly positive and fun learning environment.
Through the U.S. State Department-funded NSLI-Y scholarship, I was also granted the opportunity to intensively study Korean while immersed in the culture and language for six weeks.
“Learning through immersion forces you to apply what you’ve learned. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes, or you just won’t be able to talk at all! The goal of language is communication, and making mistakes is part of the learning process.”
Although I formally studied French for many years and can write full essays in French, I am actually much more comfortable speaking Korean! I know so many French grammar rules that I tend to overthink my sentences and hesitate when speaking. Because I learned Korean through immersion, I am much more willing to put myself out there, even if I do make occasional mistakes.
4. What are some language learning activities or techniques you’ve found super helpful that other students could adopt? Any tips?
Find a friend to join you in your language learning endeavor!
At my school, we could choose between Spanish, French, and Mandarin when we started middle school. My best friend was adopted from China and raised in a bilingual household of English and French, so she chose Mandarin, and I chose French! Having that kind of connection with a friend was definitely a fun motivating factor when I first started on this language learning journey. If your friend is studying the same language, challenge each other to converse in the target language. You’ll have fun together and push each other to improve!
Delve into an interest unique to the target culture!
Find something to fall in love with. For Arabic or Chinese, that something might be calligraphy. For Korean or Japanese, maybe it’s K-Pop or anime. Whatever it is, you’ll be even more motivated to learn about how the language is related to that interest, and you’ll also be learning language in context!
My biggest tip: Create your own immersion environment!
Not everyone has the resources to travel abroad or attend an immersion program, but that doesn’t mean everyone can’t study in a mini immersion environment! Change the language on your electronic devices to the target language. (This may be extra challenging for languages without alphabets!) Expose yourself to media in the target language: listen to music, watch movies and TV shows, read the news, etc. This was how exactly how I studied Korean while not at the Korean Language Village! You’ll be surprised at how much you learn just by virtue of constantly hearing and seeing the language.
5. Do you know what professional field you’d like to enter? What role do you see languages playing in your college and/or career plans?
I intend to study international relations and public policy to pursue a career in law! I haven’t quite decided if I’d like to work in the public or private sector yet, but I’m leaning towards working with or starting my own social justice NGO/non-profit.
I will definitely continue studying new languages in college as I add more languages to my polyglot toolbox. The beauty of languages is that they are applicable in any field! I’ll be able to use my language skills to connect with diverse individuals I’ll encounter in all of my endeavors. More than the language itself, however, I think the global perspectives fostered by learning about another language and culture are even more important and impactful.
Have you explored immersion opportunities like summer language programs or federal scholarships—many of which are available to high school students in addition to those at the university level? Be sure to check out the listings on our site as a starting point, as well as our Languages & Careers page for ideas on the importance of language and global competence to future roles in a variety of sectors, including government.
Does one of the above questions speak to you? Share your answer by joining the conversation @LeadWLanguages on social media!