Gina Elia - 4 Skills I Learned from Living in a Foreign Language Other Than the Language Itself

Before this year, I had never been immersed in Mandarin for more than a few months. As expected, my spoken ability improved. But I noticed that living in a second language also develops many other life skills, which aren’t talked about as much. I would like to take this space to point out some of these, based on my own experience:

Preparing for class.

In the first half of my year here, I audited two graduate seminars at National Taiwan University. I had expected them to be a breeze because I was only sitting in on them—how wrong I was. Both of my professors expected me to speak up every class. One of them even required me to give a final presentation, which naturally had to be in Mandarin. Everything takes me more than twice as long in Mandarin as in English. There was no way I could have prepared a half-decent presentation the night before or followed along a fast-paced discussion of literary theory without having first read in detail the readings that were being discussed. Auditing coursework in Mandarin, I had to learn to take the time to immerse myself in the assigned readings, thereby more fully benefiting from them.

Thinking before speaking.

This phrase generally means you should think before you speak in order to avoid saying something hurtful or stupid, but in my second language it was true even on the basic level of what meaning I was trying to express. I would often end up saying something I didn’t quite intend to if I spoke before really thinking about what I wanted to say. For instance, I tried to say to a cab driver that though I am in Asia for the year, I still consider myself to be settled in the U.S. But because I spoke without thinking about it, I ended up just telling him that as opposed to Asia, I had lived in the U.S. for a long time. In English, I can start speaking before even knowing what I want to say, and still end up saying something half-coherent. But would it not be wiser to spend time reflecting on how to more precisely convey my meaning? We should make our words count.


This is one of the most important and widely-applicable skills I have improved through immersion in Mandarin. There was absolutely no way I could half-zone out while people I conversed with were speaking and still understand the gist of what they were saying, especially for higher-level conversations. I was forced to hang on to their every word if I hoped to follow along. But this is the way that I should always be listening, no matter what language I am speaking. It is the only way to be respectful of the people I converse with and to have any hope of truly understanding what they are trying to say.

Not taking ourselves too seriously.

For serious adult learners of foreign languages, this skill is crucial. Those out there thinking about immersion in a foreign language, you will make a buffoon of yourself. Don’t worry about it. No native-level speaker of a foreign language starts out that way the first time she ever opens her mouth to speak it. Accept your identity as a foreigner whose language skills are imperfect, and have fun. Recognize that as long as you get to a point where you can speak, be understood, and form relations with native speakers, the rest doesn’t really matter. You are already making new friends you would not have been able to communicate with just a short time ago, who inhabit a totally different world of language from the one you are used to. And to be honest, it is the many perspective-changing conversations I have had with such friends that have constituted my biggest life lessons this year.

Gina Elia is a PhD Candidate in modern Chinese literature at Penn. Before that, she obtained her bachelor's degree in Comparative Literature from Cornell University, focusing on Chinese, French, and English literature. She is interested in pursuing a career as a professor, author, and translator.


The views expressed in contributed blog posts belong solely to the indicated author and do not necessarily respresent those of the Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships or those of the University of Pennsylvania.