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Ask Away: 5 Questions with a Future Mandarin Translator


We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success. For some, languages have been the key to job opportunities and promotion; for others, they have opened doors to lifelong friendships. For each of our interviewees, language skills and cultural awareness have led to adventure and fulfillment, both overseas and here in the States.

Meet Evangelista, a senior at the University of Delaware, who’s pursuing a Chinese major and German minor and has studied abroad in China. 

Ask Away graphic, Evangelista photo

1. When did you start learning Mandarin, and what first sparked your interest in languages?

I’ve been interested in languages for as long as I can remember. When I was little, I used to try to make up my own alphabets, and I always loved the fortune cookie fortunes with Chinese vocabulary words on the backs. I finally started learning Mandarin in ninth grade. I was actually originally registered to take Japanese starting in the spring, but I had the opportunity to attend a weekend program for Mandarin through Duke TIP, and I discovered I really liked it, so I asked my guidance counselor to switch my language. Now it’s almost eight years later, and I’m really glad I made that decision!

2. You’ve compiled an impressive list of links to other National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) bloggers learning numerous languages on your blog, Adventures of a Laowai. Can you tell us a little about your own NSLI-Y experience during high school?

My NSLI-Y experience had an amazing impact on both my personal growth and language skills. Even though I had been studying Mandarin for about two and a half years beforehand, I was never really able to use the language well before NSLI-Y. Between the intensive classes and living full-time with a host family, I gained a lot of knowledge about Chinese language and culture and confidence to actually speak the language. Even now, five years later, NSLI-Y is very important and special to me and is definitely an experience that I consider extremely formative to me as a Chinese language learner.

3. How has speaking Mandarin abroad made an impact on your understanding of the language or of Chinese culture?

Being able to actually speak Mandarin while in China is definitely a huge advantage. It has allowed me to interact much more meaningfully with the local people and integrate more easily into the community and culture. For example, it’s a lot easier for me to get around and explore because I can read the names of bus stops, talk to taxi drivers, and order interesting new foods to try.

I can also converse with and learn from people I wouldn’t be able to otherwise, such as my NSLI-Y host family or some of my friends’ parents. Many middle-aged and elderly people in China speak no English or only a little bit, but I’ve found people in those age groups have a lot of knowledge to share about Chinese culture and society that is different from what my peers can teach me, and I’ve been able to use my Chinese skills to listen and learn.

4. How do you imagine languages figuring in your career and future plans?

I would like to use my languages to become a translator. I’m not quite sure exactly what kind of field I’d like to work in yet; generally I say I’d prefer not to work in academia or politics, but for now I think it’s best to keep as many options open as possible.

5. What has most surprised you about learning languages?

I suppose for me the biggest surprise is how simultaneously helpful and unhelpful learning multiple languages at once is. What I mean is, having learned Mandarin for several years before I started German really helped me go into it already knowing what kinds of study methods worked for me. It also gave me more confidence to speak up in class; I was already used to using a foreign language and making mistakes and having people understand me anyway, so I never felt afraid to answer my German professor’s questions.

On the other hand, language interference is definitely a problem. I often forget entire words in one language or another, sometimes even in English. It takes effort and constant practice to keep up with multiple languages and try to keep them separate from one another. I’d say it’s worth it, though!

Bonus Question: What is your response to those who have heard that Mandarin is a “difficult” language to learn?

The thing is, every language has aspects that are hard and aspects that are easy; what really matters is how willing a particular learner is to deal with the particular difficulties of a given language. Mandarin pronunciation is quite different from English and requires a lot of attention at the outset, and of course characters are a challenge, even sometimes for native speakers. But Mandarin has no conjugation, no declension, no articles (a, an, the), no plurals, no cases, no tenses, no grammatical genders, and fairly flexible topic-comment sentence structures.

So if you’re interested in learning Mandarin, just go for it! Learning ANY language is hard, so you might as well choose one you actually like!

Thinking of how languages can kick start your next adventure, or perhaps the start of an exciting career? Check out our Lead with Chinese and Lead with German pages for information on programs, scholarship opportunities, and other blogs by students (including Evangelista!)—or find your language here!  You can also follow Evangelista abroad by visiting her blog, Tumblr, or Instagram.

Does one of these questions speak to you? Share your answer by joining the conversation @LeadWLanguages on social media!