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Return to Kunming and Eight Quotes on Language Learning

We have returned to Kunming! An overnight train delivered us to the city early on the morning of October 2, and despite having been back for less than a week, our schedule has already taken us on quite a few adventures.

Since our return, we have — take a deep breath — consumed copious amounts of erkuai, which we missed dearly while traveling; fought to keep our spirits high in spite of a belligerent cold that spread through our group; spent hours discussing the complicated role technology plays in our lives, especially in relation to our feelings about minimizing device use this past month; met Jesse’s awesome three-year-old son; conducted day-long, paired and solo excursions to get to know the city better; sat down for a cozy dinner of pizza and homemade soup at the Program House, masterminded by Mark; (eagerly) received our NGO placements and lots of background materials to go with them; embarked on several less than fruitful attempts to acquire Chinese SIM cards (excepting Kate and Michael, who managed to get theirs!); spoke with guest lecturer Bai Laoshi, who has years of experience working in NGOs and who walked us through how one operates in Yunnan; and, finally, learned a tiny bit about our Kunming homestay families, whom we meet and move in with tomorrow night!

While this first week of October has been a whirlwind, settling in with our homestay families doesn’t promise to provide us much relief: in addition to getting to know them, we’ll spend next week starting work at our NGOs and beginning language classes at Kunming University of Science and Technology.

Each of these things is a source of a lot of excitement (and some worry) for us, but because we’re going to have different experiences from one another in our new homes and routines, I want to focus for the moment on our upcoming Mandarin classes, which the eight of us will all be participating in (albeit in skill-level appropriate groups).

For me, there’s a certain level of trepidation heading into Mandarin class. I’m sure we’re going to encounter some bumps in the road adjusting to the style of instruction at KUST coming out of high schools in the US and the Philippines, but more concerning to me, specifically, is simply my own poor footing in Mandarin. Languages have never been my forte, and unlike Michal and Elizabeth whom I’m grouped with for class, I’ve never studied Mandarin in a formal setting. While I’m eager to put in the work required to discard my fish-out-of-water style of conversing, I have no illusions that keeping up is going to be difficult.

In looking ahead to the challenges we’ll face, though, I’ve found it reassuring to read thoughts on learning new languages from people much wiser than I. One of the websites I use to study Mandarin and German, Clozemaster, sends me daily practice reminders, and each reminder includes an observation about language learning from a well-known or influential figure. The following eight quotes stuck out to me in particular, and I hope that the sentiments they express will stay with us and help fortify our resolve on our paths to fluency this year:


“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can; there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.”
– Sarah Caldwel

“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”
– Frank Smith

“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”
– Rita Mae Brown

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
– Charlemagne

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned? Isn’t it also great when friends visit from distant places? If one remains not annoyed when he is not understood by people around him, isn’t he a sage?”
– Confucius

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
– Nelson Mandela