Notes: International Relations Student
I'm Sean Sproull. I spent my gap year teaching in the south of Vietnam, an experience that had a big effect on me. It ignited an interest in East Asian cultures, but also a real desire to speak a second language. I went on to combine these two interests by doing a Chinese degree at the University of Edinburgh when I came back.
What other languages have you learned or experienced?
I studied French all through high school but despite a Francophile mother and many summer holidays spent in France, I just never got a hang of the language. It was probably partly my age, but I remember the grammar always putting me off. Luckily Chinese has some of the easiest grammar around - the verb never changes regardless of the tense!
Do you have a ‘EUREKA’ languages moment? What’s your most memorable language related experience?
I did spend a year in Taiwan studying Mandarin after I graduated from University. I was learning hundreds of characters every day but whenever I spoke, my tones - the way I said the words - were all wrong. About six months after I moved to China I caught up with a Taiwanese friend. After chatting for a few minutes she said, ‘Wow, I can actually understand you now’.
When and how do you use your language skills?
I have just recently come back from China where I was selling European wine to Chinese customers. I had to do everything, write emails, hold meetings and introduce the products, in the language; it was a completely Chinese-speaking environment. Now that I am back home I don’t speak it so much, but I am always looking for opportunities!
Why do you consider language skills to be so important?
You cannot understand a culture as removed from your own as Chinese culture is without having some knowledge of the language. I think that applies to all cultures, to some extent. All the best stuff gets lost in translation. You don’t just learn to speak a new language; you learn how to think in a whole new way.
Do you have a message to share about the importance and the benefits of language learning?
Learning a second language has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. It has offered me a new perspective, not just on the Chinese- speaking world, but on my own culture as well. Learning languages can be a bit of a slog at the beginning, but the more work you put in, the more rewarding and fascinating you’ll find it.
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