Brayton was a NSLI-Y student in the 2015-2016 Academic Year program in Taiwan.
When I first arrived in Taiwan, my expectations were slightly far-fetched. “It’ll be so easy!” “I’ll pick it up without even trying.” “I’ll be fluent in no time!” These were some of the thoughts that were floating through my mind prior to departure. Well, was I in for a rude awakening. Prior to my year in Taiwan, I had taken three years of Chinese classes in high school, but blamed my lack of proficiency on easy course material. I was convinced that simply living abroad would magically improve my Chinese skills - that the language would somehow effortlessly percolate into my head. I was always told that immersion was the key for language acquisition, and I believed it through and through; albeit a bit misunderstood. Immersion is critical to develop proficiency in a language, but if immersion is the key, personal motivation is the hand that twists it. I’ll use a common example to better illustrate my point.
Many foreigners, for one reason or another, move to Taiwan permanently. Some come to enjoy the scenery and the food, some come to work for international companies, and some (most) come to teach English. I’ve heard many stories from my Taiwanese friends about foreigners who come to Taiwan for good, but never learn the language. Five, ten, twenty years later, many still can’t say basic sentences or read simple signs. This completely contradicts my previous view on language acquisition, and proves that there is something else than just being immersed in a Chinese culture that is necessary to learning the Chinese language.
Some people are intrinsically motivated to study foreign languages, and I assume that the vast majority of NSLI-Y scholarship recipients are. However, I am not so lucky. Instead, I’m more inclined to study math, physics, rockets, and such, and fill my free time with stuff of that nature. So as you can expect, for the first two months or so, I really did the bare minimum required of me and expected to see results. I filled my time with going out with my other friends on the program, exploring the city, and learning guitar at my home. While these activities are not bad in and of themselves, when done with the wrong mindset, they are bound to yield no results. When the results didn’t come, a discouraged me was asked to do some soul searching by my disheartened host parents, and think of some better study strategies. I was frustrated by how hard it was to remember all of these exotic sounds and their meanings, the wild grammar and the odd sentence patterns, and an entire written language that looked to me like chicken scratch. I was halfway around the world, and halfheartedly learning Chinese.
From that point on, my attitude towards learning Chinese changed. I looked for a passion that would motivate me to study and work on my own. I wasn’t in love with the way it sounded, didn’t really like the grammar all that much, and while the characters looked cool, they were so hard to memorize. What I did find though is something that far transcends the more concrete aspects of the language. I found a passion for Chinese because I recognized the power behind connecting with people. I recognized that an entire culture was shut off to me due to a door that I had the ability to open. I was in Taiwan, living with the best host family I could have asked for, and beyond blessed to have been given such an amazing opportunity. All I had to do was take the key, and unlock the door.
My life in Taiwan drastically changed after that point. I went from being slightly depressed, to excited, motivated, and engaged. I started going to the library on my own time, going out with the intention of making new Taiwanese friends, and learning all that I could about the culture and the language. Looking back on it now, I am very happy with the progress that I made, and am constantly looking for opportunities to go back. I made friendships that will last my entire life, and memories that I will always cherish. My host family is now another part of my family, and my host brother from Taiwan just came to visit me this summer. The incredible bonds, memories, and experiences that are available to those who choose to take them are astounding, and I encourage all who can to find a culture that they are interested in and learn its language. Language is the key, and finding your motivation helps you open the door.