Last weekend, I volunteered to cook for the Chinese New Year party hosted by the Chinese Department. As I was frying spring rolls — authentic Chinese food — to be served at the party, I had the opportunity to meet with fellow Chinese learners as well as the professors who teach at Swarthmore. Each of us had a unique background and unique characteristics; however, there existed one common thread between us: our aspiration to explore Chinese language and culture. The event featured attendees performing to Chinese songs, such as as “Drum-dance of Fong Yang” and “Gong Xi Gong Xi,” which is translated to “Wishing You Prosperity and Happiness.” Not only did this event provide me with a memorable experience, it also convinced me that every Swarthmore student should try learning new languages during their years at Swarthmore.
To begin with, language is the key to understanding culture, because the language one speaks influences one’s behaviors, ideas, and actions. Because Thai is my native language, I experienced a culture shock during my transition from learning in Thai to learning in English here in the United States. In Thailand, when two people meet, they greet each other with “sawasdee,” add “ka/krub” to make the speech more polite, and address each other by seniority. Because Thai culture treasures family-style relationship, one uses pronouns similar to those used in addressing family members to show respect for the other speaker’s seniority. Raised in such culture, I was therefore surprised to learn many Swarthmore professors said they do not mind if students drop the “Mr.,” “Ms.,” or “Professor” and call them by their first name. None of my Thai teachers has ever allowed me to drop these formalities. Minor as it sounds, such pronoun difference reveals that American culture is more individualistic than Thai culture: whereas addressing a professor by her name suffices in the former, it does not in the latter.
Spoken language aside, the written forms of both languages differ as well: whereas most English words contain different nuances even for synonyms (e.g. happy, joyous, cheerful), many synonyms in Thai have the exact same meaning. Not realizing such difference when I first learnt to write in English, I usually used English synonyms interchangeably, obscuring what I intended to convey as a result. For instance, I used to write “I am joyful to see you” when my true message was “I am glad to see you.” In some cases, I did not use them correctly because I did not understand the culture behind the language. My WA once suggested I fixed my habit of overusing the word “could” to mean “can” to make my writing more affirmative. As I became more proficient in English, I could understand the mistakes I made and Western culture better. Because each word choice has its distinct nuance, writers are expected to choose their words wisely and express their ideas as simply and clearly as possible. Do not circumlocute. Use precise words. Get to the point. Perhaps this quality of English explains why I find Americans tend to be more straightforward than people in my country.
Although some languages, such as English and Spanish, are spoken in many countries, the usage of those languages varies. For example, although England and the United States use English as their official languages, both countries express similar ideas differently and thus have a different culture. Indeed, no language encompasses every aspect of a culture. However, as the earlier paragraphs suggested, even such rudimentary aspects of language as pronoun difference and nuances in synonyms can enrich how one understands a culture.
Another reason to study foreign language is that language fosters empathy and camaraderie between different groups of people. As language reflects culture, it allows a person to express their identity and humanize themselves to other people’s eyes. When two strangers who speak the same language meet, not only do they understand the culture which influences the other, they empathize with each other more than they would have if both barely understood each other. This empathy is especially important today when many countries are starting to raise the barrier between “us” and “them.”
Hari Srinivasulu ’21, a trilingual in English, Hindi, and Tamil — the language spoken in Southern India — said “I rarely speak Tamil [at Swarthmore] as there are very few Swatties from South India. However, the rare conversations I do have with people who speak Tamil end up making my day, even my week.”
He argued that any opportunities to speak Tamil helps him remain in touch with his identity while he was away from home. It is comforting to know there are people out there who can understand us and empathize with us. Because each foreign language encapsulates a unique cultural aspect, knowing more languages helps us better express ourselves and bond with others more meaningfully.
Moreover, with language, in order for one to understand cultural nuances, that person needs to practice and make mistakes. Language is a great venue for such practice. Recall when you first studied algebra. Your professor explained many basic rules to you, such as that it is not possible to divide both sides of the equation by zero. But unless you revisit such mistakes, it is rather impossible for you to memorize those rules. Because language classes at Swarthmore meet frequently and have many sections, professors can correct each student’s grammatical mistakes and pronunciation. Personally, I attribute my improvement in Chinese to my interaction with professors.
Indeed, the common argument against studying any foreign language is that there is no point to more foreign languages if you already can speak more common languages such as Chinese, English, or Spanish. The reasoning follows: as more people are learning these languages, you need not bother because if the main purpose is to communicate, more common languages will suffice. This argument is true to some extent. If a person who lives in the U.S. speaks English, that person will survive because English is the official language. However, the problem occurs when you want to express some ideas that cannot be represented in the common language. Take Thai greetings for instance. There is no equivalent translation of “sawasdee” in Thai to English. “Hello” and “hi” overlook how Thai people respect the elderly. The word “sawasdee”— which literally means “be safe” — also expresses the goodwill the speaker expresses to the listener. After all, not all aspects of the language can be translated into another language. Some aspect of language is inevitably lost in translation. Certain culturally unique expressions can be expressed only by people who know that language. Culture matters.
The second argument is that it is difficult to learn new languages, especially if you attend a rigorous institution like Swarthmore. By studying a new language, one has to devote lots of time and effort into learning that language, which means there are fewer chances of studying other subjects. This is true, but the flip side of this argument is also true — choosing to take any class always entails foregoing another class. At this point, I am still not certain if I will ever speak Chinese as fluently as a native speaker would, but the enrichment from learning Chinese outweighs the cost. Now, I can hold a simple conversation in Chinese and understand why Chinese people bless one another to be wealthy and prosperous. I would not have obtained such cultural understanding had I decided not to enroll for the class.
All in all, there are many benefits to studying new languages that one should consider. College, after all, is where one becomes exposed to new cultures, ideas, and perspectives. Learning new language helps you achieve that goal.