From the time I was 5 years old, I knew that I wanted to be able to speak different languages. I would walk around saying nonsense words with a French accent, or sometimes I would imitate a British accent just for fun. In high school, I studied French, and in study hall, with a dictionary I would write notes to my best friend in German (she had lived in Switzerland for 10 years, so she spoke it fluently). The day after I graduated, I traveled to Taiwan with a friend from high school and stayed with her and her family for 2 months in a smaller town outside Taichung. No, I did not speak any Chinese, but I did pick up on the tones and could imitate them as well as speak some basic Chinese by the time I came home. I took French and Chinese my first year in college and decided to major in Chinese.
The program was very good – we had speaking class 7 hours a week and writing class 3 hours. Five of the speaking hours were with 7 other people practicing dialogues so we could speak naturally. By the time I decided to study abroad after my junior year, I could communicate fairly well on many topics. So I got a scholarship, and it was off to Taida (National Taiwan University) in Taipei to study at an intensive language program offered by the University of Pennsylvania.
It was quite an interesting experience to live there as a student. I lived with a family a few blocks from the school, so I got to speak Chinese a lot with them. Unfortunately, all of the students in our program were American so, despite the big “ching jiang guo yu” (please speak mandarin Chinese) sign in our lounge, we always spoke English together. It was also difficult for me because most of the students were from Ivy League schools and had a lot of money, which I did not. Nonetheless, it was a valuable experience. I learned a lot about myself – mostly that I like to share experiences with someone else, so that type of experience would have been best done with a friend. Also my boyfriend (now my husband) did not come with me, so that made me feel a bit more lonely.
I regret not attending the Chinese language program offered by Shida (National Taiwan Normal University) in Taipei. There, the students were from all different countries, not just the US, and the students were more varied, so perhaps I could have met people that I could “fit in” with a little better. I also would have spoken Chinese more often! To answer my own question: for me, learning Chinese bijiao rongyi (was relatively easy), but studying abroad was not. My best times were spent with the Chinese friends that I met there – they were very welcoming and allowed me the chance to really use my language and get to know the culture.
My advice to you is if you want to study a language abroad, find a program with students from lots of different countries so that you can learn as much as you possibly can. Also, make friends with native speakers – so many people are willing to share their culture and would love to learn about yours. Everyone undergoes culture shock, but if you work through it, you will come out with a better knowledge of a new language, of a new culture, and of yourself.