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Emerging Voices: Learning Language Abroad

“Have you eaten yet?”  Sounds like an unusual greeting, but Emerging Voices Commentator Julie Davidson discovered this is the normal greeting in Southern China.  Julie also says traveling abroad to study languages is not as difficult as many young people may think.

Julie is an early graduate of Hoggard High School.  She just left for Malaysia to be a youth Ambassador through the Kennedy-Lugar Yes-Abroad program.  When she returns in a year, she hopes to study at UNC.

Julie's text, including edits due to time constraints:

Language learning was never necessarily fun for me. At least, that was before I attended “Chinese camp” three summers ago.

It began during my freshman year of high school when I started to take a real interest in learning Chinese through STARTALK Summer Program at Furman University. STARTALK’s immersion approach, reinforced by a pledge signed by all to speak only Chinese, made it very effective to learn the language. The immersion approach also incorporated cultural components such as art, games, music, dancing, sport, hiking, cooking, and various outdoor activities. The STARTALK experience showed that learning Chinese was not only a linguistic quest but a cultural one as well.

The following summer, I received a scholarship from the U.S. State Department to study in China through The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program. It was a life-changing opportunity! While attending language classes at The Normal University of Beijing at Zhuhai, I lived with a host family.Within two months, I became functional in both the language and culture and made life-long friendships with my classmates, language partners, and host family.  Through this experience, I was able to distinguish what separated American culture from other cultures around the world. Compared to China, Americans emphasis the importance of time, but the Chinese enjoy taking their time and being “late” is just a curtsy. Another difference is how people are greeted. In America you simply say, “Hey!” or “How are you?” but in China, the first thing you are asked is, “Have you eaten yet?”. After returning home, I wanted other high school students to know how much fun learning a language can be and the great opportunities available, if they only knew about the different programs.

For my high school senior project, I focused on the presence of critical language courses (Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Korean, Hindi, Persian, and Turkish) in public schools across America. Critical languages are those that are less commonly taught in which there is a greater demand for proficient speakers. I found that there happens to be a gaping absence in the South, especially here in Wilmington. After looking into why critical language learning is very limited in this region, I concluded that it all boils down to interest and funding. Some may blame the school system for the absence of these courses, but it is not necessarily all its fault. For schools to initiate critical language into the curriculum, there needs to be longevity and interest. Unfortunately, in our community, many don’t view the acquisition of a critical language as a skill needed to keep our children competitive. Some perceives it as an impossible task. Many studies indicated government and private industries need professionals with the linguistic skills for the United States to compete in the 21st century.

All too often, linguistic studies and study abroad programs are perceived as a college level component, too hard to reach goals, or leisure activities for the elite.  Believe me, that is not the case. There are numerous Federal scholarships available for high school students. 

Through programs such as STARTALK, NSLI-Y and YES-Abroad, there is a wide selection of opportunities to teach future generations the value of learning a foreign language in a very productive and fun way. These programs provide full merit-based scholarships to U.S. high school students, regardless of socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds .  In fact, previous language study is not required. If you are passionate to learn these languages and want to immerse yourself in a foreign culture, you most definitely have a shot!