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5 Questions for a Future Aerospace Engineer Learning French

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We’re asking students, recent grads, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…

Meet Caitlin—a Massachusetts high school senior planning on studying Engineering at MIT next year.

1. Could you share with us a little about your earliest experiences with languages—when and how did you begin?

My first words were the informal Cantonese Chinese words for father, “de de,” but confusingly, those are the only Cantonese words I know. When I was super young, I spoke Mandarin Chinese and English to my family. My sentences would always begin in Chinese and end in English, making for interesting combinations of language fragments. When it was time for me to go to school, my parents told me that I couldn’t do that anymore: I had to choose either English or Chinese each time I spoke; naturally I chose English.

I was placed in a supplemental English program in first grade even though my Chinese was weaker. Frustrated, I stopped speaking Mandarin at home. Despite going to Chinese school for another nine years, my verbal skills gradually faded away, and the Mandarin vowels no longer seemed to fit right on my tongue.

2. Why French?

I think I felt a lot like I failed when I stopped speaking Mandarin, so I knew that I wanted to start a language that was completely new to me. With the choice between Spanish and French in sixth grade, my brother encouraged me to choose French, deeming it “more useful for math” (my father and brother are both mathematicians and, at the time, were convinced that I would follow in their footsteps). Blindly I sort of just went with it, and my eighth-grade French teacher, whom I absolutely adored, Mme Ferrai, encouraged me to continue in high school.

I love the way the words are shaped, and especially after reading L’Étranger in tenth grade, I learned to appreciate the literary nuances in the French language. It also carried over into my English learning—as I would analyze parts of French text, inevitably the same care that went into it transferred over to analyzing and better understanding more complex English literature.

3. Any tips or advice for fellow (or future) language learners?

Find ways to incorporate the language into your life.

For me, this means listening to French parodies (I really like Sara’h) whenever I do homework and French podcasts when I walk to school. Even if I can’t understand a lot of it, hearing the language in contexts that I canunderstand increases my exposure to certain words and phrases. I had a friend who would recreationally listen to French political debates. Anything works as long as you enjoy it!

4. What’s next on your language journey?

I plan to take French when I go to college next year, and I would like to participate in some sort of exchange program in a francophone region. I would also like to reconnect with my Mandarin Chinese side and hopefully travel to Mandarin-speaking countries to practice my Chinese! Another language I want to learn is Italian because of its strong influence on classical music.

5. Complete this thought: “Learning another language means…”

Learning another language means learning to think in that language. I never considered myself to be very good at learning languages, but something I found interesting was the way that some Chinese words and phrases just sat in my head untranslated with a meaning I had internalized, while when I first learned French, all of those phrases needed to go through a layer of translation before I could use them. I would think in English and translate to French, sort of like a machine. Over time I grew less and less dependent on that barrier of translation—it’s a lot easier and a lot more fun to use a language that you can think in too.

Check out our Connect with French, Connect with Chinese, and Language Programs & Funding pages to explore language scholarships, university programs, testimonials, and more! And, as always, visit @LangConnectsFdn on social media to share your story with us.