‘Every language gives access to a whole new world’

Japanese characters

Japanese characters are known as Kanji

‘Every language gives access to a whole new world’

04 February 2014

By Francesca Walford

A fascination with different cultures, a desire to study something challenging and different, childhood influences, an ambition to work abroad, a general love of languages and good employment prospects are among the reasons why young people choose to study Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

Christina Pinckney, a Californian studying at Peking University in Beijing, is teaching herself Korean.  She says her motivation is that she likes learning languages and is interested in Korean culture.

“I like how the language is so expressive; Korean is a language so completely different from my own native tongue,” she says.

“I want to be able to communicate with as many different people as possible; every language gives access to a whole new world. It is important to learn languages because it helps you connect with more people and understand different ways of life. There are certain things in different cultures that I believe one can only grasp by knowing at least the basics of the language,” Pinckney adds.

Learning Korean helps you get inside the mind of a Korean

Indeed, learning Korean enables her to get inside the mind of a Korean and it also teaches her how to behave appropriately in Korean society.

“As I study Korean I find more and more words that are unique to it, which other languages do not have,” she says. In fact Pinckney says there are situations and feelings that cannot be translated or described outside of Korean.

“Korean culture is so complex: respect and hierarchy are emphasised not just in society but also in language. There are different pronouns for many segments of society, such as people of different gender, age, rank, and even parts of the family. These names act as signals for how one should behave towards those individuals as well as their place in society,” Pinckney adds.

Apart from that, she says it is very rewarding because Koreans respond very positively to her speaking their language and are happy that she wants to engage in their culture.

“For some people, maybe I will be the first African American they ever speak to in Korean!” Pinckney says.

Similar to Pinckney, Charlotte Venier, a student at the University of Sheffield, chose Korean Studies out of a deep love of foreign languages. “I wanted to study an alternative language to those at school. As soon as I found the resources to help me learn Korean, I realised I had a huge passion for it,” she says.

In fact, despite the widespread belief that Korean is difficult, Venier insists it is not.

“Korean can be quite easy to pick up, especially the alphabet which is quite logical,” Venier says. “There aren’t as many exceptions to grammar rules like in English; once you learn the rule, it is usually the same for everything.”

Like many students, apart from a deep love of the language, Venier thinks it will also be useful in her career. She says she would like to be an English teacher abroad and she feels that having an Oriental language will help get the most interesting posting.

Indeed Gabriel Chantrey, a student of Japanese at SOAS, says he feels that if he hadn’t have studied Japanese, he would not have got his job. “Studying any language puts you in a smaller pool than the millions of people with vague humanities degrees in this country”, Chantrey says. “If you’re interested in money, Japanese is a good one.”

But, as is the case with many Asian language students, money was not his main motivation.

He says he has just always found Japan fascinating. “It was a decision motivated more by the heart than the head. I just always wanted to be able to read a Japanese novel,” he admits.

He, like Venier, was also attracted by the challenge of learning a non-European language.

“At first I liked how alien and weird Japanese was, the writing system was strange and beautiful, and the way to express yourself was so completely different,” Chantrey says.

“But as you become more familiar with the language, it seems less strange, and you begin to gain an insight into your own language and its peculiarities. I learned so much about English while studying a foreign language.”

Learning Japanese is tough, he admits and the progress takes place slowly.

“The initial period is exciting, but then you feel overwhelmed, like you’re not getting anywhere, but then one day you realise the progress you’ve made and that feels so good,” Chantrey says.

But apart from the challenge, it has deepened his understanding of people generally and of life.

“I think that everyone should learn a foreign language, it’s important to experience being an outsider at some time in your life. If you understand what that feels like, you become stronger, but also kinder and more empathetic towards other people.”

Japanese might be fashionable – but Chantrey warns: “Don’t study Japanese just because you love manga, cosplay, or ninjas.  It’s fine if you do love these things, but from my observation, the extent to which a passion for ‘nunchucks’ (a tradtional martial arts weapon) can sustain a four-year degree is very limited. If you are fascinated by a lot of aspects of Japanese culture, this might be a good foundation, but you still have to find the language itself interesting,” he says.

Wanting to live in Japan and interact with Japanese people goes a long way, he adds.

For some it is their childhood experiences that triggered their interest in Oriental languages.

Jay Hoffman, a student at Peking University in Beijing, says he originally studied Mandarin as a child because his parents wanted him to learn it “It is my mother’s heritage. I restarted when I was 24 because I wanted to study something completely different; I thought it would be interesting and useful.”

Hoffman swears by the Pleco phone app, which, he says, has greatly helped him in learning Chinese characters.

He also does not think that Chinese is much more difficult than any other language.

“I’ve heard people say that as a beginner it’s harder than French, German, and Spanish, but once you get to a decent level then it’s actually easier than European languages – there seem to be fewer fiddly grammar rules”, he adds.

“Honestly, the worst part is that native Chinese speakers are physically incapable of speaking slowly! I like how different it is to anything I’ve studied before, and the amazing feeling I get when I understand Chinese,” he adds.

“It’s also important economically of course. But for me personally, it is important because this is the most advanced I’ve ever been with a foreign language, and to be honest this would be true for most British people at my level,” he says.

Margaux Schreurs, a student at the Beijing Language and Culture University, which specialises in teaching Chinese to foreigners, says she was also inspired to learn Chinese by her childhood.

“I spent a lot of time in Singapore and China growing up, so I started when I was young. I always thought it would be a shame to lose it so I kept on learning and eventually fell in love with the language,” she says.

“Getting beyond the conversational stage is a challenge, it is really hard to sound fluent. But you must not forget it’s a quarter of the worlds’ native tongue,” she adds.

Speaking Chinese helps you integrate into Chinese life and have priceless experiences

Despite the challenges, speaking the language helps her integrate into Chinese life and the benefits are huge. Like other students of Asian languages, it has empowered her to have all kinds of priceless experiences.

“People can get by in China without always having to speak Chinese, but their experiences must be limited. Speaking Chinese enables me to go into small family restaurants, have a conversation and try new things I previously would not have known about,” Schreurs adds.

“If I speak Chinese, Chinese people want to teach me aspects of their culture.”

Schreurs hopes to work as a journalist in China in the future and believes that speaking Chinese will give her more access to Chinese culture and society.

“I will not need to work with a translator by my side, which would bring various limitations,” Schreurs points out.

Speaking the local language also has practical benefits for students liker her, rescuing them from many a scrape.

“I live in a hutong (narrow alley) in Beijing. Our plumbing failed and our toilet exploded, which meant I had to find a plumber fast. I mostly used vocabulary to describe an illness, as that is what I had recently learned, he seemed to get the message and all was sorted – as best it could be”, Schreurs says laughing.

The next Open Your Eyes to Asian Languages is a South East Asian Languages Workshop when young people aged 18 to 24 will get the chance to learn Bahasa Indonesia, Thai and Vietnamese. This free event, which is being held in partnership with the British Council will take place on 22 February, 2014. To book your place click here.

To hear more insights on these languages from some of the teachers that teach them, click here.

Francesca Walford is currently doing an internship at Asia House.