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The One Billion Piece Puzzle

April 13, 2016
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Hailing from southern California, Leigh didn't grow up speaking Chinese. But she took a leap of faith and studied abroad in China to learn one of the world's most critical languages. 

American political pundits, current administration leaders, and international relations gurus are quick to note that the world is a rapidly changing place. This is old news. Indeed, the world my parents grew up in is increasingly becoming a nostalgic mirage; where the world or at least the average American's understanding of it was a lot smaller.

While many adults recognize that the world is changing, they're missing half the point. Yes, things are different, but the real story is that there is a revolution occurring in their very own houses, starting with their children.

Many American students today are receiving unparalleled education through cultural osmosis. Rather than reading about far-away countries in history class and textbooks (or rather nowadays through TV or Snapchat stories), students are immersing themselves in new cultures right in their hometowns. In fact, this type of cultural osmosis is becoming so commonplace that many don't even realize its taking place. Often, students' first introduction to a culture like China happens through Chinese language class at schools. More and more students now eagerly come home and tell their flabbergasted parents their favorite foods are mochi, a Chinese rice cake, and red bean paste.

Likewise, students may not even bat their eyes when they hear that their Arabic language teacher will be fasting for Ramadan and respectfully mind when and where they eat around their teacher until Eid al-Fitr. This revolution of education, mindset, and cultural influence is becoming a reality and thank goodness for that.

An Introduction to Language Immersion
My story is unique, yet increasingly unsurprising when recounted to my peers. I grew up in a small town in southern California with a mix of agrarian, good old-fashioned American culture and Latino influence.

I excelled at languages (my school offered Spanish, French, and American Sign Language) and used my hometown cultural limbo state to practice Spanish whenever I could. I assumed I would go to college and major in Spanish, and then pursue something that adults do after that.

But by some chance, a little bit of international luck landed in front of me in the form of a language immersion scholarship opportunity known as the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). This unique, exciting, yet foreign opportunity sparked something inside of me, propelling me to study, travel, and experience cultures abroad (which I still carry to this day). I knew I had to study a language abroad.

Selling this scholarship idea to my parents is a memory we reminiscently joke about now not so much then. I remember the furrowed brows and the muttering of words like "communism" and "safety" as we went down the list of critical languages I should apply for.

Russian? I thought, then quickly realized as a southern Californian girl, prone to sunbathing and surfing, I wouldn't last long in the icy Red Square. Arabic? I mused, and then remembered I didn't really like hummus. After such an erudite process of elimination, there was just one country left China. I knew about China, I thought ah yes, they speak Chinese. I decided I would apply. Little did I know that that one quick decision about a mysterious China would completely shape my future.

I received a NSLI-Y scholarship and went to study abroad in the Chinese capital city of Beijing for two months (my first time out of the US at the ripe age of 18). For some reason I still cannot explain, I fell in love.

My Relationship with China
Since that first trip, I have returned to China five times, received a BA in Chinese Language and Literature, studied Chinese at intensive language academies and then subsequently taught Chinese at those academies, spent a year in China attending a university and working at a gourmet food magazine (where I taught baking classes and published articles in Chinese) and in full circle, led a group of NSLI-Y students through their summer scholarship program in Nanjing, China.

Drawing on my love of baking and my experience with NSLI-Y, I received a community engagement grant for my project called Ping-Pong Pastries: Cultural Diplomacy through Culinary Arts, teaching Chinese baking and spreading the opportunities of international education to language students in my hometown of San Diego. Now, I work to facilitate these study abroad programs and feel that I am truly qualified to proclaim that above all else, language matters.

The core of the revolution mentioned earlier is language education. Imagine a world 50 years from now, when not just future leaders but also average Americans have studied abroad, speak multiple languages, and understand cross-cultural relations on a personal level. This future is achievable and it all begins with language.

How much better can students understand Chinese-Taiwanese Cross-Strait relations when taught in the native language? Or how much more will students understand the effects of climate change in central Asia when explained in Persian? This new wave of education, focusing on the importance of language, will bring about a brighter, more intelligent future.

As Miss Capulet in Romeo and Juliet once famously pondered:

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

But I would argue strongly against that claim: Language encompasses culture, history, traditions, and so much more. When an American thinks of the word turkey, images of Thanksgiving, pies, and family gatherings may come to mind. But would that same word evoke similar thoughts when translated into Swahili?

In the five years since I received my NSLI-Y scholarship, I have learned and grown in ways I never thought possible. I have dear friends living on the other side of the world, became a published journalist in China (in Chinese), and am now pursuing a graduate degree in East Asian Studies.

This journey all started with a leap of faith faith in languages and the doors that they would open. Language education changes lives, in both small and big ways, and has a ripple effect throughout families, communities, and entire countries. That ripple effect is slowly spreading throughout all of the US as more students study abroad, experience other cultures, and learn a foreign language. Language education and the growth of study abroad scholarships and opportunities for all types of students will change the world for the better; and that is why language matters.


About Leigh Lawrence
Leigh works on the NSLI-Y team at American Councils. Previously, she served as a resident director in Nanjing, China during the summer 2015 NSLI-Y program. Most recently, she facilitated the 2015-16 Cultural Exploration and Service Learning Program in Nanjing, China for NSLI-Y academic year Chinese language students. Leigh holds a BA in Chinese Languages and Literature from Arizona State University (ASU), also graduating from the Chinese Language Flagship Program at ASU.

As an undergraduate, Leigh studied in Beijing with Princeton University and Nanjing University as part of the Capstone year for the Flagship Program. Leigh was awarded the prestigious Boren Scholarship for her studies during the Capstone year with research into Sino-West African relations. Leigh has taught Mandarin language in San Diego, as well as at Concordia Language Villages' Chinese Sen Lin Hu Village in Minnesota and Middlebury-Monterey's Language Academy in Vermont. Leigh also participated in the Chinese NSLI-Y Summer program in Beijing the summer after she graduated high school, giving her unique insight into the NSLI-Y program as a participant and Resident Director.

Leigh has traveled throughout much of China and has a strong love for the Chinese language, dialects, and history. Leigh also has a passion for food, having spent time working at a gourmet food magazine in Nanjing and hosting baking lessons at local cafes in that area, teaching Chinese to bale everything from sugar cookies to fondant roses. Leigh is also a published journalist in China. She extended her passion for baking and teaching to her hometown of San Diego through a community engagement project designed to teach Chinese language and culture through traditional Chinese food.

Leigh enjoys playing the piano and beach volleyball and loves to travel. Leigh will be pursuing a Master's degree in East Asian Studies at Yale University beginning Fall 2016.

About the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y)
The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program, sponsored by the US Department of State, provides merit-based scholarships for eligible high school students and recent high school graduates to learn less commonly taught languages in summer and academic-year overseas immersion programs.

NSLI-Y is part of a US government initiative that prepares American citizens to be leaders in a global world. More than ever, it is important that Americans have the necessary linguistic skills and cultural knowledge to promote international dialogue and support American engagement abroad. NSLI-Y aims to provide opportunities to American youth that will spark a lifetime interest in language learning.