Obies Using Languages: Claire Shank ’17

Claire Shank (bottom right corner) is currently a third year in Oberlin, majoring in East Asia Studies with a minor in History. She has lots of interests in a wide range including animation, costuming, art, and global pop culture. Claire has also researched on prosody and lexical ambiguity in standard mandarin. This summer, she went to Kunming, China, for a Chinese-intensive program. Here she shared her experience in that program where she learned more than just the language.

I’ve always taken a very bull-like approach to learning languages: charging my problems head on, consistently, stubbornly, and doing it by burying my head in a book. I let any imperfections fuel me to work harder. I thought if I wasn’t the best, it’s because I just didn’t work hard enough. Of course this way of thinking has some drawbacks, but in the past I’d always thought that the pros outweighed the cons. Before I left the country in June, the most common academic advice I’d been given was to “calm down”, and to “take some deep breaths”. I always answered back “I’m not a calm person”. Then I would think to myself, is there really such a thing as too much studying? After the summer I spent in Kunming, China, I feel like I understand the answer to that question a bit better.

In the CET Middlebury program in Kunming, I took intensive classes for about 5 hours a day. I struggled a lot in class, and frequently felt as if my Chinese was terrible, or even the worst in the program. My solution of course, was to then struggle every day afterschool, into the night, and early the next morning, trying to catch up to the level of the top students. I was scared to speak in class, even more scared than I had been in my classes back home, because I knew I would make mistakes, and I knew that even though my classmates had been out drinking with new friends the night before, and I had been pouring over vocab alone, I wasn’t going to be able to speak like them, or write like them, and I couldn’t understand why.

About halfway through the program, all the writing and studying I had done took a physical toll on my body. I got severe tendonitis in my wrists, and writing Chinese characters became almost impossible for me to do without severe pain. The doctor, unsurprisingly, took one look at me, and told me I needed to “calm down”. I didn’t think there was any way I possibly could, but I decided I would try.

Since I couldn’t write, that means that I needed to speak more. I started going out a bit more, reading in cafes and befriending a couple of the people in town. A woman sewing her own line of clothes, two shopkeepers VERY excited to use their shop’s new selfie stick with me, a nervous boy from Dali who loved to talk about his family. The more I spoke, the better I felt. I realized all these people could understand me, and I could understand them. My Chinese wasn’t terrible, and I wasn’t the worst at it. In fact, I could use it to make friends. By locking myself in my room with homework all day, I had also locked myself up with all my insecurities about speaking the language and made myself too anxious and scared to use my Chinese to do anything at all.
When I left Kunming, I wished I’d had more time. I was grateful to get myself home to more familiar medical care for my wrists, but I felt as if instead of being at the end of my journey, my experiences abroad were just starting to begin. There were all sorts of students with unique natural talents and exciting interests and skills, there was a world around me filled with fascinating people, a gorgeous neighborhood, great food, and endless history, but had I struggled so hard with wanting good grades and wanting to “catch up” to my own high standards that I only had a few weeks where I really let myself explore at all. I truly am happy and proud of the progress I have made. The best thing I took back to Ohio with me was the ability to speak casual Chinese without fear. I finally feel like I can use the language to express myself, instead of constantly testing myself.

Bywriting this I think the most important thing I learned was simply a reminder of the rather trite but very true life lesson that learning is not always about books and grades. When you’re learning a language, you need to get out into the world and use it. Let yourself make mistakes, make new connections, and that’s how you can start to really understand language and culture. If you’re not using a language to communicate, then really, what are you learning it for?


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