-Deborah, UIC B.S. in Psychology with minors in Biology and Public Health, 2021
My parents have always told me that languages come relatively easy to me. I think I agree. There is something about languages and the art of learning them that has always intrigued me. Since my siblings and I were young, the concept of learning different languages outside of school was always present in our household. To this day, we still have Spanish and French learning kits that we used as children to help us begin to learn the languages. My parents speak both English and Igbo, their first language, at home. My mother and I, both students of the French language, continue to talk to each other in French. The usage of multiple languages permeates many aspects of my life. Take Spanish, for example. I am not yet fluent in Spanish, despite having learned it from the third grade through my freshman year of high school. However, volunteering in a hospital has allowed me the opportunity to use what Spanish skills I have, challenge myself to continue learning, and ultimately bring back what skills I thought I had forgotten. There is something about speaking to people in their native language, especially in a hospital setting, where some patients may feel vulnerable or on edge, that allows people to open up and express themselves more. Many times when I come home from the hospital after my shift, the highlight of my day is having had the chance to speak to patients in Spanish and connect with them on a level that would otherwise have been mostly unattainable.
Another example is French. Working in a research lab, you get to know your coworkers the longer you work with them. I had known for a while that one of my coworkers was from France, but it took a while before I built the courage to approach her and try to communicate with her in her native language. As a result, our relations became more enriched in a way that would only be allowed given our shared language. She got the opportunity to speak her native language, and I got the opportunity to experience speaking a language I had learned in school with a native speaker. I imagine that I would get more opportunities like these on a study abroad in Paris, France, which I am currently working towards.
The most recent language I have taken to learning is Korean. This learning journey has been particularly enjoyable, partly because I have been learning on my own, outside of the context of a formal course. Why did I decide to take up Korean? After growing proficient in French, I always planned to take up another language. I am still working on my Spanish and hope to become fluent in Igbo, my parents’ native language someday, but I always intended to learn a brand new language. How it ended up being Korean specifically, however, is due to a more unique reason: I discovered the South Korean band BTS. Thinking about it now, it seems fortunate that their native language happened to be Korean. As I am learning Korean, I am discovering that many people I know speak Korean! I have made friends with people at school, a hospital nurse with whom I have been volunteering for nearly two years, and even friends at my church! Learning Korean, as inspired by BTS and my passion for languages, has not only educated me on Korean culture, history, and society, but it has bridged the gap between me and many individuals in my life with whom I was not as close in the past. The photo below is from a Korean language learning book, a gift from a Korean nurse friend at the hospital at which I volunteer. It is special to me not only because it is a tangible reminder of how our friendship grew so much more through sharing a common language, but also because it has helped me continue to find joy in learning the Korean language.
So, what inspires me to just pick up new languages? It’s more significant than just a simple hobby. I have always been passionate about all things global—global health, global relations, and global languages. As such, I take joy in working to become well-versed in different languages. The way I see it, languages say so much about a person’s culture, lifestyle, and interpretation of the world. Therefore, to understand people from around the world, I believe, requires an understanding of and degree of utility with their languages. I value the opportunity to converse with and work with people who are not fully fluent in English, from fellow students in the university writing center to church friends trying to learn English in order to succeed in the workplace. Languages are a bridge. One can learn so much just by being able to converse with people in their own language, or at least in making an effort to do so. One thing I can say is that the American culture is pretty individualistic and as a result, people can be closed off to one another, particularly to those who speak languages different from their own. I never want to become this way, and therefore my affinity for learning various languages has grown into a passion for me. This is why I am pursuing study abroad programs in France and South Korea. This is why I am choosing to learn new language after new language. This is why I make an effort to talk to people I meet in their native languages, when appropriate and possible. Doing so helps me build empathy with others and the ability to understand how languages, although different from each other, can actually be very similar to each other, in both syntax and spirit. And, by extension, learning global languages, I believe, will solidify the fact that people are as similar to each other as they are different, perhaps even more similar than different.
While I am not taking any language courses at UIC, my passion for learning and using new languages plays a direct role in my pursuit of my psychology degree. As an aspiring physician, I believe in the importance of understanding my patients as human beings and thus learning how humans think, feel, behave, and make decisions when in certain situations, particularly as it relates to medical situations regarding their health. One of the ways I seek to understand fellow human beings from different cultures, backgrounds, and walks of life is through language. As a volunteer at my local hospital, I have seen that when I can speak to patients or their family members in their native language (i.e. Spanish), they open up or feel less reserved. This has opened the door for many conversations that I still think about to this day. My experiences at my local hospital have continued to inspire me to learn new languages and learn all that I can about human psychology in my pursuit of my UIC psychology degree.