“I crave diversity.”
For many UoA students, like Sarah, who studied a foreign language in another country, the desire to learn languages was fueled by a desire to understand the values and modes of thinking embedded in other cultures.
There are many reasons why someone would want to learn another language. One of those is the fact that a language isn’t just a language. It’s a bond with those who speak it, and it provides an understanding of their cultural identity.
Ervin, a Samoan who learned Fijian while living in Suva, says that as the greeting ‘bula’ literally translates to ‘life’. It means when Fijians greet each other, they’re actually bestowing upon each other a blessing of good health.
Sarah, a Tongan-Tahitian who learnt Korean fluently in Busan, says that the Korean phrase “sugohaesseoyo” is said in any instance when someone does well, but this literally translates to “you worked hard”, which informed her of how the people correlate the idea of success with one’s work ethic.
For these students, learning another language broadened their cultural horizons, and increased their cultural competency.
Other students say their motivation to learn languages comes from their admiration of immigrant and international students, who come to places like New Zealand to learn English.
“The world doesn’t revolve around me,” says Trent, a Māori-Pākehā who learned Spanish living in Barcelona. “Rather than staying in my comfortable bubble, I wanted to enter into their world, which I could only do more completely by learning another language.”
But learning a new language, especially in an immersive situation, can be pretty overwhelming. “Everyday things, like shopping for groceries or catching the bus, seemed like insurmountable obstacles,” he says. “Everything was alien.”
This meant that Trent developed a deeper understanding and empathy for those trying to learn English in New Zealand and other Anglo-Saxon countries.
Students also shared their mistakes. “The word for hobby (shumi), and the word for sin (tsumi) are very similar,” says Iverson, who learned Japanese while living in Sapporo. “So when I was talking to someone, I went to ask what their hobbies were, and instead I asked what their sins were.”
Sarah adds that despite trying to connect as best she could, she could only get so far. “Someone made a comment about me being a foreigner and it shocked me, because at that time I really didn’t see myself as one. I felt so connected with Korea through their language and habitat. But it reminded me that I am not Korean and never will be, no matter how well I speak Korean.”
Trent agrees with the need to eventually respect such boundaries. “Even if you have a good grasp of the language, you’re never going to quite understand all the intricacies of their culture.”
Regardless of the errors they made and limits they encountered, these students say the rewards of connecting with people through their language outweighed any obstacles, and so they chased the pressure that came with learning. “I knew if I wanted to make friends and meet people, I needed to learn how to speak, so I put myself in situations where I had no choice but to do so,” says Harry, who learned Cantonese while living in Hong Kong. “It was sink or swim!”
Some students were appreciative that their struggles to initially speak were met with compassion from locals. “In Japan, the people absolutely love when they see you putting in effort to speak their language, rather than defaulting to English,” says Iverson. “They always comment on how good your speaking skills is, even when you know you have said something completely wrong.”
Harry expresses hope that those in New Zealand and elsewhere will give those speaking English as a second language the same level of patience he received speaking Cantonese. “I think that generally as native English speakers, we tend to be prideful and have this mindset that if you live in this country, you need to speak fluent English – and if you don’t, then that’s not good enough.”
In time, the students’ commitment to learning new languages yielded both the results they had hoped for, and some that were unexpected. “I’ve got lifelong friends in Japan now,” says Iverson. “The time I spent there was the happiest in my life.”
“It’s also special whenever you meet a native speaker in a country that’s not their own,” says Trent. “It creates an almost instant friendship between you.”
Sarah says the prolonged immersion in another culture rubbed off on her personality. “I mean you only have to look at their history and how fast they developed their economy after the Korean War to understand the Korean work ethic,” she says. “This was definitely great exposure for me.”
Ervin says the experience also furthered his resolve and dedication to his Samoan culture, including how he expresses it as a student at UoA. “I’ve always been vocal and proud of speaking our native Pacific languages in public, and it is what I will continue to do.”
In addition to observing the differences in those they lived amongst, students say they also found many similarities. “When you strip back culture and language, most humans are pretty similar and are seeking the same things out of life,” says Trent. “They also have the same issues and struggles, the only difference is that it’s in Spanish, not English.”
“I grew up in the villages in Samoa,” says Ervin. “In Fiji, I saw the same common struggle in regard to culture, language, education and employment opportunities.”
While admitting the inherent difficulty in the task, many students share their belief that the average university student who wishes to engage with another ethnic group by learning their language can be successful. “I think everyone is capable of learning another language,” says Harry. “The first several weeks are the most overwhelming, but you don’t need to compare yourself to others and their speaking abilities in this process. Everyone learns things at different rates.”
What happens when one intimately embraces a culture outside their own over a lifetime is evidenced in Professor David Williams. Under no obligation as a Pākehā, he studied Te Ao Māori, learned to speak Te Reo, and has carried out a life purpose of allyship in the legal system for tangata whenua. While I do him no justice with such a short summary, his selfless investment has led to securing multiple settlements and protections for iwi.
It’s reassuring to know that legacies similar to Professor Williams are unfolding in the lives of our peers, and that there are others at UoA who want to emulate the dedicated efforts of immigrant and international students who engage with us here in New Zealand.
While learning a language is not the only or most important marker of engagement with an ethnic group, it is evidence of an immersion in another culture spanning multiple years.
But attempts to create a connection with those in other ethnic groups, no matter how large or small, will not just add worth to the world, but add worth to the life of the individual that makes the effort, as it has done for these students. They’ve gained friendships, unique life experiences, and a more enlightened comprehension of their personal existence as a global citizen. And who can tell what the future will hold for them?
If the opportunity is available to you to learn another language (if you’ve claimed your own), take it.
In the end, these students created deeper connections through engaging with other languages and cultures. As Ervin says, “[it] provides you with an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of another culture.”