The 6th Annual National Conference on Learning Chinese, co-hosted by the Asia Society (my former employer), is taking place in Boston this week. The three-day event is the largest gathering of educators, policy makers and government officials dedicated to encouraging dialogue about Chinese language education in North America. I will not attend the conference this year, but it got me thinking about the process of learning a second language and the ways it can transform how we see the world. Although learning a new language typically results in an increased cultural awareness, it also can change how we think. The post below (in Chinese) describes my personal experience becoming aware of this process.
In the post, I reflect back on two experiences I had as a language student in Taiwan. I began to notice the cognitive limitations that my native language and thought process had on my progress toward fluency in Mandarin. I realized that unless I stopped “thinking” like an American and learned to adopt a Chinese mindset, I would be unable to advance my language skills. I had already studied Chinese language for four years by then, after prior studies of Chinese history and culture in college, but still had little understanding of the Chinese mindset. It was only after I lived in Taiwan for an extended time, immersed in the everyday customs of Chinese culture,and able to develop meaningful relationships with a variety of Chinese people, was I able to begin to comprehend what a Chinese (and Taiwanese) mindset might be. Years later, as I remember this process again, I appreciate the greater cultural significance of this linguistic and cognitive code switching: it allowed me to develop a cross-cultural lens through which I view the world.
The mental flexibility one develops when learning to switch between two systems of communication has a much broader impact beyond the realm of language. Learning to engage culturally divergent ways of thinking can broaden a person’s understanding of the world. Viewing the world through a cross-cultural lens makes us more nimble in our thinking, allows for multiple perspectives in decision-making and problem solving, and promotes a more nuanced understanding of the cultural assumptions we bring to our beliefs.
Learning a language can deepen one’s understanding of another culture and increase one’s global competence. Yet foreign language programs are increasingly eliminated or reduced in many of America’s budget-strapped schools. We are living in a world where global competency and cultural understanding are essential; it is critical we do not overlook the cognitive and diplomatic benefits of learning about other cultures through the study of language.
学外语的学生在他们学习的过程中,往往发现第二语言会慢慢地影响他们的思维方式。刚开始的时候,这种影响是很微妙的，不太容易被察觉。 不过,随着学习的进一步深入，他们通常会面临一种语言界限。 这时，为了掌握第二语言，为了把第二语言与母语有机地融合起来，他们必须先暂时放弃用母语思维的方式，才能学会用外语思考。
我第一次碰到这样的现象是我在台湾留学的时候。那时，我已经学了五年汉语了。 我上课练习造句时, 老师会纠正我的句子，说“这句话是英语的说法, 中国人不这样说。” 这是学外语的学生经常犯的错误。后来, 我慢慢地发觉， 真正学好汉语必须先更深入了解中国人的思维方式。
第二次我遇到这个问题也是在台湾。 那时，我上了一堂文言文的课，记得我们学习了一些基本的词汇，但是还没有完全了解怎么运用些词汇｡ 我在台湾住在目的语的环境中：听的是汉语，说的是汉语， 连做梦也是汉语。那天夜里，我梦到我在课上学“而”这个字。“而”这个字用英语中没有很直接的翻译，或者反过来说，根据上下文”而” 有许多不同的意思。 我突然醒过来, 很清楚地明白了“而”的用法和意思。 我发现我做梦的时候，我的头脑自动地换成了中国人的思维方式, 用中国人的思维方式来思考这个字的用法和意思。
可以说，这是我学习汉语的过程中一个突破性的转折点。 我发现我自己不知不觉地采用中国人的思维方式来了解词汇的意思, 依赖一种语感来帮助我明白语言的上下文。而且, 我自然而然地养成了一种对语言的弹性, 帮助我在英汉两个不同的语言环境中很灵活地转换我自己的思维方式。