Language Immersion Study Award: Ryan Barthel – Taiwan

Ryan Barthel, Language Immersion Study Award recipient, wrote late summer about his experience studying Traditional Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan:

你們好! I am in my third week learning Mandarin Chinese at Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages in Kaohsiung, Taiwan through a Language Immersion Study Award (LISA). Kaohsiung is the second largest city in Taiwan, located at the southern end of the island, and is a major port and manufacturing center. Wenzao is a university dedicated to language study, and trains students in European and Asian languages, as well as instruction of English and Chinese. I chose to study Mandarin because of the advantages it will give me in my search for a career and fellowships after IPED as well as help me to better connect with Mandarin speaking friends. Even though it is among the most widely spoken languages in the world, the US government lists it as a lesser studied language in America. Trade relationships and alliances in this region ensure it will remain important to the US.

While immersion study can be exhausting, it provides nearly unlimited opportunity to practice. My fellow Mandarin learners come from every continent (including a Bronx native!), so it is often easier to converse among ourselves in Mandarin, even outside the classroom. While Mandarin is often cited as a particularly difficult language to learn by many people, the underlying grammar is much simpler than English. Learning in Taiwan has been a great experience so far. Taiwanese people are very welcoming to foreigners, though this can sometimes make true immersion more difficult (at least for someone as obviously foreign as myself) because anyone who speaks English will try and practice with you! Longstanding links with the US and Japan make cultural adjustment bit easier as well. A challenge is that Taiwan is one of only a handful of places that use traditional Chinese characters. Obviously, this is a plus if you want to learn traditional characters, but it could be a challenge if you want to live or work in China. One simple tip for any language learners: Buy things in your new language! Shopkeepers have a vested interest in understanding you that even your teachers may not share, and it’s great practice as well as a good confidence builder when a random person can pick up on what you’re saying! It also helps to remove you from the sterile ‘learning’ environment and get a better idea of how people actually speak (turns out, not everyone follows classroom dialogue scripts, unfortunately!).

Overall, this is a wonderful experience thus far. My language skills are improving quickly and the teachers are dynamic and engaging. Beyond that, Taiwan is a beautiful country with a rich history and delicious food (food being the top reason anyone I’ve ever spoken to who has been to Taiwan says to visit), though it could stand to have a cold front or two move through. 再見!