My name is Sarah Geilman. I graduated from Brigham Young University in 2019 with a degree in Mandarin Chinese after spending 18 months in Taipei, Taiwan learning Mandarin as a missionary for my church, and living in China for 10 months while studying abroad at Nanjing University and completing an internship in Shanghai teaching underprivileged children as part of The Language Flagship Program. I was a Gilman scholar during my school year abroad in China from the fall of 2017 to the summer of 2018.
Language skills abroad
When I first lived abroad in 2013, I was learning Mandarin Chinese for the very first time. Being fully immersed in a different culture was daunting, but extremely helpful as it pertained to my language development. When I returned overseas in 2017 for a study abroad and internship experience in China, I used the time to improve upon language skills that I had already developed. After working so hard to learn Mandarin, it has been sad to me how easy it is to lose the knowledge I have if I don’t put in the time and effort to keep it up. Over the last 7 years, I have found some tips and tricks to keeping language skills intact once returning home.
Maintaining your skills
If upon your return you are still a college student, the absolute easiest way to maintain your newfound language skills is by enrolling in classes at your college or university. Going to lectures throughout the week, completing homework assignments, and studying for tests will allow you to study your language while automatically carving out time for it in your busy schedule. The majority of these classes will allow you to simultaneously improve upon your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills in your chosen language. You will also be meeting at least weekly with students and professors in your area that speak your language and can provide tips for learning and study groups for support. When I returned home from Taiwan and took a few Chinese classes, I realized how much I loved the language and switched my major to Chinese. Doing so allowed me to learn about the Language Flagship Program which is what provided the opportunity to study abroad in China. I will be forever grateful I chose to take those classes!! If classes in your language are not offered, don’t be afraid to speak to an advisor to see if it is possible to create a course (many universities are willing to do this if there is a large enough group of students interested). Even if you are unable to get a class created, be sure to check out the clubs and other resources your school has for students. Many campuses have language-related extracurricular activities that would be a great way to maintain your language abilities while interacting with others and forming new friendships.
Another way I have maintained my language skills is by teaching it to others. As the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “while we teach, we learn.” Preparing simple lessons or using your language abilities to explain things to others is a great way to keep your skills sharp. My husband recently expressed interest in learning Mandarin so I have started tutoring him. Although he is starting with the very basics, teaching him more about tones and pronunciation is helping me refine and improve my speech. I also love to read books and sing songs in Mandarin to my son. Teaching him in ways that he enjoys while also sneaking in my language practice helps keep Chinese fresh in my mind without having to set aside too much time for language study.
There are three things I would advise language learners to do upon returning home:
First, find out how to get your language certificate! Did you know that according to the U.S. Census, only 20% of Americans can converse in two or more languages? Being proficient in another language is unique! For future employers to fully understand the extent of your knowledge, ask a foreign language professor or college advisor for help getting your language certificate. This will require taking a few tests (some of which your study abroad may have already required), but most of the hard work you have already completed by becoming proficient in another language.
Second, find ways to incorporate this language into your daily life. While you are abroad, see if you can find some of your favorite books in this new language, or look for other books that may interest you. Once you have returned home, check out your local library to find books and reading material in this second language. Watch, listen or read news reports from the country you lived in to keep up your skills and stay in touch with what is going on abroad. Find TV shows, movies, and music in this other language that you can listen to while exercising, or choose a day each week to put them on instead of your favorite Netflix series. Pay attention when you’re out and about and you’ll be surprised how often you hear someone speaking the language you now know. Multiple times I have been able to help someone out at a grocery store when I have overheard them speaking Chinese and needing some help. This doesn’t have to take up large portions of your time, but every minute counts!
Third, take something you love and find a way to tie your language skills to it. If you love to bake, find a recipe from that country written in that language and try it out! If you love to talk, keep in touch with friends you made. If you love to sew, woodwork, play sports, write, etc, find a way to tie your new language skills into that activity! You will be much more likely to practice this second language if you find a way to make it something you love. For example, I LOVE teaching and I LOVE kids, so when I got back from China I found a job as a teacher’s aide at a local Chinese Dual language immersion school. Not only was I able to keep practicing my Chinese, but I got paid to do it! I also volunteered through an outreach program at our university to tutor local students in Chinese. It felt great to use skills I had worked hard to develop to give back to the community and help those around me.
Not like riding a bike
Unfortunately, language learning is a lot more like being on a large escalator heading in the opposite direction than it is like riding a bike. You can’t just stop practicing for a few years, pick it back up, and ride away with ease. Just as you struggled to learn every word and phrase, grammar principle, and pronunciation, you have to work to keep it up. The good news is, it does get easier! As you use these methods to work language practice into your daily life, pretty soon you’re keeping up your skills without having to think twice. You have worked so hard to get where you are, so put it to good use and find ways to enjoy it!