It’s All Greek to Me: Being a Multilingual Student

Multilingual students discuss their experiences of being multilingual and various ideas revolving languages.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Serena Chan

Before the worldwide pandemic, New York City used to bustle with people, many commuting into and within the city. Called a melting pot of cultures, New York City thrives because of the diversity within it. One aspect of such diversity is the languages spoken. Simply standing in a New York City subway station will expose you to the multitude of languages spoken by people from all over the world.

Language is important in both communicating and building strong relationships with others. “Multiple languages is important to diplomacy, which is something that I am interested in,” sophomore Navid Zunaid said. Zunaid, who was born in Bangladesh and used to live in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, finds that knowing multiple languages is helpful when interacting with the people around him. “I lived in a Spanish neighborhood […] I should be able to converse with [my neighbors],” Zunaid explained.

For junior Junhao Zhen, who was born in China and speaks multiple dialects of Chinese, being multilingual means that he is able to gain more perspectives on current events. “Being able to speak multiple languages gives me multiple perspectives when I see the news, politics, and in general news in the media,” Zhen said. “I can have another perspective on this because I can go on the Chinese web, and I can see [how] the Chinese people react.”

Sophomore Kitty Wang agreed: “It has definitely helped me understand different people’s opinions and [base] my new idea and perception on a more comprehensive array of different people’s input and [connect] with people on a different basis, not just on English, for example.”

Wang, who has learned Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Korean, and Italian through family, self-studying, or school, finds learning new languages fascinating. “I personally find that languages and the different nuances in different languages [enable] a person to see situations and even approach things in different manner[s]. Even in simple sentence structure, you see how different languages and different people really listen and think about a different situation.”

Senior Jonathan Xu, who speaks English, Mandarin, and Esperanto, can understand Wenzhounese and Spanish, and dabbles in Turkish and Indonesian, shares the same sentiment. “Part of it is the difficulty and just knowing that I can just challenge myself. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Put myself in unusual and difficult situations deliberately and challenge myself to get out of them. But I’d say that it’s also about equipping myself with practical skills for the future,” Xu said.

Xu has been studying Esperanto since the summer after his freshman year. “Esperanto is a conlang designed to be really easy so that everyone could learn it, and it could act as a bridge for international communication,” Xu explained. A conlang is a language that is built rather than developed over time. However, despite the design, even languages such as Esperanto are difficult to learn. “So people like to talk about easy languages versus hard languages. I like to say that there are no easy languages. Every language is hard,” Xu said. “I actually translated earlier this summer a document from Esperanto into English, and some of these sentences took up half a page or more. And they were longer than the sentences that I would normally write in English, so it was very difficult. It took quite a lot of patience.”

For students who have immigrated to America, they are faced with the challenge of learning English, along with the challenges of becoming accustomed to a new country. Zhen moved from China to America at the age of 10 with little knowledge of the English language. “I came to New York with just ABCs. That’s all I knew about English, so I couldn’t understand a single word on the streets, signs, store names [...] I barely even knew how to spell my own name,” Zhen said. “That was a really bad struggle for me because I was in a bilingual class for the first two years in the U.S. in my elementary school where all my classmates were Chinese [and] my teacher was Chinese, and we basically just [spoke] Chinese all day. My teacher taught ELA in Chinese. It didn’t work,” Zhen further explained. “Those 2 years were a struggle because everyone else in my [grade was] American, [...] and it was a hard time for me to communicate with them […] I couldn’t communicate with anyone besides my classmates and my teacher.”

When learning new languages, Wang reflected that oftentimes, starting out is the most difficult part. “I feel like the hardest is always getting started because you have to make that first step to begin a language. You don’t really know what you’re getting into sometimes because a language is such a vast array of different components, and I feel like the hardest [thing] is to pinpoint what exactly you need to learn first,” she said. “I would typically [...] look for background and check what other learners are using and what techniques they are using, so I can apply the same thing or modify it to my learning style.”

While speaking multiple languages can be a passion or a useful skill to have under your belt, for some students, it is a necessary skill in communicating with their families. Xu finds that there is an expectation from him as a multilingual speaker to do so. “Since my parents don’t speak English, I have been obligated to translate for them,” Xu said. “But generally, people like police officers and whatnot are very patient when it comes to understanding that translating can take a bit of time and that people might not be up to the task just because people have their bad days,” Zhen shared, “My parents don’t speak English [...] so I speak Chinese at home, which is why during this remote learning, my English [has] kind of got[ten] very laggy because [I] speak Chinese all day.”

With languages come the cultures associated with them. While some languages are learned, others have cultural roots that hold importance for Wang, who explained, “I’m very immersed [in] my family’s culture because I have been brought up with [them as] I’ve been introduced to traditional practices.”

Zunaid expressed a similar belief. “When I go to Bangladesh, I am not seen as a foreigner. I can speak the language [and] converse with the locals. They are my homeland. They are my country,” he said.

A common theme that strings from culture to culture is the misrepresentation in the media. To Zhen, while the negative attitude toward China and its culture initially infuriated him, he has come to expect it. “I can’t really blame the rest of [the] media for portraying my culture in a certain way […] because my country and the west side of the world [have] pretty much different ideologies. I can say for sure that they’re not portraying [completely] accurate things about my culture, but I understand where they are coming from.”

Zunaid finds that rather than a misrepresentation of his culture, there is a simple lack of it. “Honestly, there are not that many representations for Bengali. It’s extremely overshadowed by Hindi, but that’s what it is. Diplomatically speaking and militarily speaking, of course Bangladesh isn’t a big country. So it’s expected that our culture gets looked over a little bit,” he said.

“I definitely think that different languages [deal with] different prejudices in mainstream media, and I feel like that’s a major issue that we must work on together; because each language is so convoluted and complex, each person has to dig [deeper into] themselves,” Wang explained. But to Wang, there is another common stereotype that she experiences. “Sometimes in TV shows, [when] a character can speak multiple languages, they make these assumptions on how they learned it and the way they act, like ‘Oh I just forgot I'm speaking this language,’ and he’s still speaking another [language], and [...] something like that just irks me,” Wang said.

As for the future, Xu plans to start learning French, citing untranslated books as a motivation. “French’s influence as […] the lingua franca before English was so prevalent that Tolstoy wrote sections of ‘War and Peace’ in French and also in German […] There are many, many versions that have the Russian translated into English but not the French or German parts,” he said. While he doesn’t have his next language after French in mind, he explained, “Since learning languages takes years, I’ll have years to plan.”

Whether it is out of necessity, a school requirement, or for fun, being multilingual proves to be a skill that many people find useful. “Having more than one language gives you a different perspective on how you look at things, and it’s very important to consider all sides of an argument […] Having multiple languages can help you achieve that goal,” Zhen said. While it may be hard to start off, learning another language is a gratifying experience. Zunaid encapsulated this sentiment: “I’m very proud of being multilingual.”