My name is Jonathan Banasihan, a United States Navy veteran, 2020 American University graduate, and one of the 2021-2022 Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Alumni Ambassadors. My Gilman journey started in the summer of 2019 where I studied Mandarin at Minzu University in Beijing, China.
When it comes to my experience in studying a language abroad, the hard part came after returning home. The summer I spent in China rapidly improved not just my understanding of the language, but my appreciation of where I needed to grow. But it can be difficult to keep that growth going when you’re not forced to breathe, think, and cry in your new language. Before I left for China, I felt that the three years of classes I had under my belt more than prepared me to handle living in the language. Coming back, my last year of classroom Mandarin felt more like a limitation. I’ve managed to keep up learning in spite of that by taking the time to build little opportunities for immersion.
I find ways to incorporate learning Mandarin into my daily routines. During commutes I fire up some podcasts or Chinese music to help train listening. When it comes time to watch movies and shows, I find media that either is natively Chinese or dubbed and includes subtitles for that extra work on reading. When travelling, I find maps or brochures in Chinese to take back along with the English versions for reference. My pantry is labelled with hand-written characters and pinyin to help me remember common kitchen things and improve my character writing. These techniques help keep the language both familiar to me and comfortable to use.
Finding others who also want to learn is just as important, if not more so. Striking up a conversation and making mistakes was easily responsible for half my growth while abroad, so finding others to make mistakes around is critical to me. Luckily, there’s no shortage of people who want to learn a new language, and as Gilman scholars and alumni you’ve already got an incredible community to engage. The Gilman Scholar Network currently has 4 language exchange groups filled with resources, and most importantly, similarly interested Gilman peers looking to continue the language learning journey! Whether the language is new to you or you’re masterfully fluent, the support of people around you can be key to keeping it up when you feel frustrated.
If all these steps also sound like they’d be useful to language learning in general, you’d be right! But taking them after being abroad allows for a more refined approach. I found several interesting musicians and books that would have been much harder to find outside of China. And my quest to recreate some of those beautiful málà moments in my own kitchen may be an impossible dream, but will definitely keep me remembering the characters for Sichuan peppercorns. Taking some small steps to replicate the immersive end of things is a great opportunity to keep that hard earned growth, and to reconnect with some good memories.