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What’s in a Word? Cultural Adaptability and Basic Language Learning

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands - that will go to his head. If you a talk to a man in his language - that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela

An earnest desire to learn a local language — even a few words — can create bridges and trust that would not otherwise be possible.

The first foreign country I lived in was China.  I was a senior in college and I was one of three students being sent on an exchange program that hadn’t exactly worked out details like where we were going to stay, or where the campus was.

The first night our troupe of three got there, we were separated.  I and my buddy Terrance were sent to a satellite campus about an hour outside of central Shanghai.  Up to this point, the only thing I had done to prepare was learn how to say a few phrases, and watched an Anthony Bourdain cooking show.  But I did learn how to say hello and thank you.  The only other phrase I knew how to say was 不好意思我不会说中文你会首英文吗? “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese, do you speak English?” — This phrase changed my life.

China was and still is developing at a rapid pace, and even in 2012, most of the outlying areas around Shanghai had a severe drop in living standards once you got outside of the city center. With that divide in material conditions, there was also a noticeable division in mental states. The ability to say a complete sentence to a local (who was probably seeing a foreigner for the first time in their life) helped them to open up to the possibility that I wasn’t an imperial devil, there to take their livelihood. (I didn’t encounter much racism during my time in China. But that possibly could have been because I tried to start most conversations out in Chinese.)

If you are traveling abroad — I cannot suggest enough to you — learn a few simple sentences in the language to the best of your ability.  It will create inroads for you like nothing else possible.

Sam is the author of the blog which he publishes with his wife.

He is a Business Development Evangelist for makers of the Pod101 and Class101 family of Language Learning Websites.


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