Andrew Bishop is pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @xiongandi.
At the start of my undergraduate career, I decided to embark on what has become a near decade-long journey of studying Chinese. Looking back, it was not an easy process. I remember many late nights memorizing passages and writing characters over and over again. My professor held incredibly high standards that inspired me to dedicate countless hours to my practice. After my freshman year, she took a group of us to China. I’ll never forget the fear I felt when she gave us our first assignment: go out into the streets of Beijing and purchase dinner for yourself.
It wasn’t until the end of a semester abroad that I had a breakthrough moment: I was actually speaking to a friend in Chinese. I wasn’t just speaking character by character, but actually constructing whole sentences. I experienced a feeling of accomplishment, yet also recognized that I still had a long way to go. Over the next two years, I continued to study and built up the courage to move to China for two years. It was during my time with Teach For China that I truly saw the value in the time I invested. I lived and worked full-time as the only native English speaker at my school.
If you have spent time studying a language before, I’m sure aspects of my story resonated with you. Language study changes the way you see the world. It serves as a lens through which you can more clearly see others and the cultures from which they come. You also are better able to internalize the importance of the words you choose, not just in a foreign language, but also in your native tongue.
After moving back to the United States, I quickly realized that keeping up with my language ability would pose a major challenge. I was no longer living in a 24/7 immersion environment, and my skills were not needed on a daily basis. I experienced long periods of time where I didn’t have the opportunity to speak Chinese with anyone, and could feel myself forgetting critical vocabulary terms that I used to know without a second thought.
Upon returning to grad school, one of my primary goals was to rebuild my language skills. I wanted to work towards taking a formal assessment that could quantify my current language level. I figured that being back in a university environment would be perfect for this type of professional development. However, classes, meetings, deadlines, and a generally busy schedule always seemed to stand in the way. I recognized that without proper prioritization, there was no way that I would be able to succeed.
In order to combat this problem, I have spent time becoming more intentional about when and how I practice my language.
1. Work with native speakers at your university
One of the best things about grad school is that you’re often surrounded by folks from all over the world who bring a variety of experiences with them. Many universities offer formal language partner programs where you can work on your language of interest while also practicing English with your partner. If no formal structure exists, you can also simply reach out to others in your program and see if they are interested in this type of exchange. While speaking can be nerve-wracking at first, this type of practice will lead to the greatest improvement in your speaking and listening ability.
2. Utilize online resources
When I first started studying Chinese in 2010, the first-generation iPad had just launched, and there were only a few language programs available online. They were often prohibitively expensive. I would have loved having access to the many language apps, podcasts, and websites that now exist. I highly recommend exploring what options there are for your language of interest. For example, Skritter is an amazing tool for practicing reading and writing in Chinese and Japanese as it allows you to write characters out in proper stroke order.
3. Enroll in a formal language course
If you are looking to brush up or even considering picking up a new language, I would highly recommend enrolling in a language course at your school. The formal structure and schedule will help routinize your practice. Courses also offer access to a qualified instructor and peers with whom you can practice. At the upper-levels, courses are often broken down by skills which allow you to focus on specific aspects of the language. While I am confident in my speaking and listening abilities, I’m likely to enroll in an upper-level Chinese reading course next semester specifically to practice my reading and writing skills. Although each graduate program varies, many offer the opportunity to enroll in classes outside of your individual department. It is worth the effort to look into whether or not this is a viable option for you to pursue.
Have you found ways to build your language skills while in grad school? If you haven’t yet, would you like to try? Share your story in the comments below!
[Image taken and submitted by the author.]