HomeNews & Views Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Taiwan

Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Taiwan


We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…

Meet John—a Penn State grad who’s learning Mandarin Chinese while teaching in Taiwan. 

"Ask Away: 5 Questions" banner graphic with John's portrait

 1. What was your first experience learning a language other than English—when did you start and how?

I was familiar with the process of learning another language since I took German in middle school and continued learning it in college.

John working with studentsI had a different language learning experience when I began taking my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate in Ecuador. I was really surprised and excited to see how much progress I made learning Spanish while I was living there for a couple of weeks.

When I moved to Taiwan for my Fulbright, I started learning Mandarin Chinese and am motivated to continue learning the language.

Being in a country where the language is spoken is definitely my motivation when I choose to learn another language. Since I’m staying in Taiwan, I’m motivated to improve my Mandarin skills so I can keep meeting and talking to people in Chinese.

2. Have there been times you struggled with aspects of learning a new language, and how did you overcome them?

All the time! When I was in Ecuador taking my TEFL, I was really nervous to speak Spanish because of the fear of messing up. I overcame my nervousness to speak in another language by taking on the mindset that mistakes are going to happen, and that’s just how it is to learn another language. From then on, I would just try to talk to as many strangers as possible to practice.

3. You currently live near a city where a lot of people speak English, and where some foreigners have said they’ve ‘gotten by’ without learning the language. Why do you think it’s important to learn Chinese?

I think it’s really important to be able to talk face-to-face and have that human connection with people who don’t speak the same native language that you do.

It shows them that you care enough to learn their language and culture. A lot of people try to talk to others by translating phrases and then showing their screen to the other person. While this does help “communicate,” it doesn’t have the same effect that speaking and interacting without a screen does.

4. What role do language and cultural skills play in your current occupation?

John doing a headstand in a classroomUsing my students’ native language in the classroom and being very open with my students about my developing language skills has shown my students that it’s possible to improve your language skills. My students seeing me struggle and improve has almost served as an equalizer—I teach my students English, and they also teach me Chinese.

5. You’ve shared a lot about your experiences in learning to speak in another language, but what about reading? How did you learn how to read Chinese characters?

At first, I just wanted to have conversational skills in Chinese. Then, a few months after moving to Taiwan, I realized that without knowing Chinese characters I was completely illiterate! Now, I text a lot in Chinese and read a lot of bilingual children’s books.

BONUS QUESTION: What’s your favorite word or expression in another language?

The first word that comes to mind is the word for “mermaid,” which is 美人鱼 and literally translates to “beautiful person fish.” I also like that the word for “university,” which is 大学 translates to “big study.” It just shows how logical Chinese is.

What’s next for John?

John is staying in Taiwan for another year to teach more English, this time in a more urban area where he’ll teach at a private kindergarten. He’s excited to keep developing a community of friends and practicing his Chinese.


Check out our Lead with Mandarin page for resources on college programs, student testimonials, and more; and don’t miss our curated list of Grants & Scholarships to learn more about opportunities like the Fulbright Program.  Then consider sharing your language learning story with us @LeadWLanguages on social media!