When Liz Ursell tried to learn Mandarin Chinese, she struggled with learning the different meanings of written characters and verbal inflections.
“There’s a pretty high degree of memorization,” she said. “You have to balance having the right tone, using the right character, and then think of all the other things you don’t typically have to think about, like the meaning of your sentence.”
Understanding these obstacles helped Ursell in her role as the assistant director of the Language Lounge at the Student Success Center, which hosts the Conversation Partners program. The program began offering Korean and Chinese tutoring options in Fall 2019 after its staff saw an increase in student interest.
“New languages usually come to the center because students who have approached us asking for support, particularly with Chinese,” she said.
Now in its fourth year, the center’s Lunar New Year Party, which is on Friday, will include activities like guessing holiday taboos and traditions, making dumplings and learning calligraphy. This year, the celebration will incorporate activities geared toward helping attendees learn to say greetings in Mandarin and to learn about the zodiac.
Learning culture goes hand-in-hand with learning language, said Yun Zhu, an associate professor who has taught Asian studies courses on Chinese language and literature.
“When we say that we study a language, language is not really that abstract, it has to come from a context,” she said.
Cultural context helped Zhu learn English as a child. Born after mainland China launched its “reform and opening up” policy, Zhu believes the country had a “consensus recognition” at the time that learning foreign languages like English would be beneficial.
“I still remember that even when I was in kindergarten, we heard alphabet songs, [and] there were very popular TV programs in English,” she said. “Our teachers hosted film clubs, and we were exposed to some original materials like books.”
This kind of exposure is important to improving language, Ursell said.
“I think, learning English in the classroom is very different from living life,” she said. “There are things that we take for granted, things as simple as knowing how to order coffee, knowing how to respond quickly, things related to American pop culture. These are things most Americans assume that everybody knows.”
Cultural exposure is also important for people learning their heritage language, said Lu Zhang, an associate professor of sociology. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a heritage language is spoken by a family or community that isn’t the primary language used in society.
For second-generation Asian Americans, Zhang said learning culture and language is important to keep heritage alive, especially in the era of globalization, a topic she has researched extensively.
“I think the impact of globalization has been to remind people how important it is to keep your heritage language and keep your heritage culture, but that to have two different languages and cultures is really helpful for you to understand not only both cultures but to give you a lot of opportunities,” she added.
Zhu believes that being multilingual and multicultural is an important way to combat the trap of “information cocoons,” or when we are immersed in things we already know and do not expand our knowledge.
“You have to have some knowledge about the entire world, not just people immediately close to you, these days especially,” she said. “I think, just to experience something not so familiar to ourselves, to get to know other people’s stories, to understand other people’s perspectives, that really can help us understand the world a lot better.”