Selena Shen – 1st place IEW Essay Writing Contest Winner!

Selena Shen, ’18 is an international student, international studies and history double major. Selena studied in Pembroke College, Oxford University, England for a year, 2016-2017.

Read her story!

The Magic of Language

I still have a fresh memory about a sentence which my high school English teacher had said, “English is not a subject that you need to learn for the exam, but a tool that allows you to know another world.” After spending three years in two different foreign countries, I hold that saying as truth and have a deeper understanding about it .

Foreign language can make you embarrassed. When I first landed on the United States, the only familiar sign I recognized at the O’Hare Airport is McDonald. I knew its sign, I knew its name, and I knew its taste, but I did not know how to speak it. I considered my first ordering in McDonald as the most awkward moment I had experienced in the States. When the waiting line was getting shorter and shorter, I felt more and more nervous. I struggled to memorize the English names of various types of burgers that I saw on the display board. After the lady waiting before me finishing her ordering, I did not know how to start. Nowadays I know the polite way to start is “Good morning, could I have…?” However, I was a blank sheet at that time. My English class did not teach me daily language. Neither did I need to have the knowledge of burger’s name to pass the TOEFL test. When it was my turn to order my food, I had no idea how to say the things I wanted. To save myself, I followed what the lady who stood before me had ordered and said “I want a Big Mac.” To be honest, what I really wanted at that time was a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Then the most awkward moment came. I asked the saleswoman for “tomato sauce.” After repeating several times what I wanted, she finally understood what I meant and gave me a bag of ketchup. I found out my stupidity immediately because I heard the boy waiting after me saying ketchup when he ordered. When I got my food, I flushed and ran away.

The same awkward moment happened again when I was back from London program, but that was very funny. I was at Hattie’s in one afternoon and ordered a burger for myself. The lady asked me what sides I wanted. I was thinking delicious french fries in my mind and naturally spoke out “chips, please.” When the lady gave me a bag of chips, I was confused and wanted to explain to her. But then I realized where the problem was and I laughed. After spending three months in England, I have already occupied by British English!

Language also makes me feel frustrated. From my perspective, the craziest part of Oxford experience was that I had to keep speaking for an hour in the tutorial. There were only two or three classmates in my tutorial, which meant no escape. I could no longer sit in a one-hundred-people classroom and remained silence for the whole semester. When I struggled to express my thought and opinion in a foreign language, I felt powerless. As a history major student, it took me almost one month to proficiently apply the professional terms, such as “ecclesiastical,” “celestial,” “temporal,” in my writing after immersing myself in early modern European history reading and seeing these words repeatedly. The frustrating thing was that I knew I could command them immediately when I read them in my mother language. There is no other things can make me feel more frustrated than stumbling over words and failing to find appropriate vocabularies to describe a picture which only appears in your head. I could not stop the feeling that an interesting soul is trapped in a silent object. As I used the language more frequently, I felt more powerless. The first culture shock that I experienced and the monster I still have not slayed yet, is language.

I do not agree with the analogy that compares language to bridge. Language is not only a tool that connects different people, but also a world in its own right. After three years, when I talk to my parents who do not know English, I still find it hard to figure out an appropriate Chinese translation for “presentation,” “quiz,” and “mid-term”. They are the distinct lifestyle, or more accurate, “school-style,” that I have here. Each single word contains a portion of lovely American university life. Language itself represents a whole different world.

After truly mastering a language, especially having experienced the local life, the culture behind it will exert a profound influence on us. My way of thinking is no longer the same as the moment I spoke ketchup as “tomato sauce.” I realize that I gradually become more open-minded. The larger world I have seen through English also helps me to reflect on my own culture and gain more insight. For instance, when I try to explain religion in China to one of my friend recently, I encounter the same feeling that I always have when I deal with different languages. How should I translate and explain “Daoism” in English while it has so many rich cultural connotations? In the thinking process, I have to dive into the ancient Chinese history and culture and I surprisingly realize that I have never thought of that a word in my mother language has contained so much.

Till today, learning new language is still one of my hobby. I enjoy the process of decoding unfamiliar lingual characters. I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when I discover the connection between French and Latin words. I enjoy translation. To know more about the others and eventually understand ourselves better — I believe that this is the meaning of learning language and study abroad.

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