Thinking of double majoring in a foreign language?

academics language learning
By Karl L.

Learning a new language can seem like a daunting task. From memorizing new vocabulary words to acclimating to unfamiliar grammar patterns, it truly requires countless hours of immersive study and real-world experiences to achieve native-level fluency. Even having grown up in a trilingual household, I became doubtful of my ability to learn a new language after my childhood years. Despite studying Mandarin for four years in high school and passing the AP Chinese Language exam, to this day, I still can’t make grammatical sentences, much less hold a conversation. But fast forward to 2020, I graduated as a Japanese Studies double major with near native-level fluency. So, what did I do wrong with Mandarin? 

Now, don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t as if I just didn’t study Mandarin as rigorously. Rather, I wasn’t getting enough real-world practice with native speakers. What I realized over the years is that language learners benefit the most from immersion: speaking, hearing, reading, and writing in solely the target language. Why so? In a truly immersive environment, making mistakes is inevitable, whether it’s using an incorrect word or creating a wildly ungrammatical sentence. Yes, it can be embarrassing and nerve-wracking. Actually, I still recall my anxiety whenever I wrote emails to my professors or ordered food at a restaurant in Japanese. But it really was this repetitive process of making a mistake and recognizing the mistake that helped me develop fluency. More importantly, what accompanied this immersive experience were meaningful companionships with people who gave me a reason to continue studying Japanese. 

Here are my top tips and tricks that helped me stay committed to learning a new language during college:

1) Find a group of friends in your class to practice 

Establishing a friend group within your class will really encourage you to practice regularly. At first, my friends and I would jokingly speak in Japanglish, or a mixture of Japanese and English. This eventually evolved from using Japanese words here and there, into full-on sentences. In the following years, we all joined the same community organizations to dive deeper into the culture, choosing to live in an international dorm where we could only speak our target language. The connections you make while studying your target language can become a huge motivation to stay consistent. 

2) Consume media in the target language 

The most exciting part of learning a new language is that you gain access to new media: TV shows, books, movies, you name it! For me, I started with a Japanese reality TV show called Terrace House. Hearing natural conversations between native speakers helped me incorporate regularly used colloquial phrases into my speech and actually improved my pronunciation. Eventually, watching more linguistically complicated films like Spirited Away became an entirely different experience too! Use the material consumed by native speakers daily to your advantage and it will really push your language abilities forward. 

3) Look for study abroad opportunities 

There’s no environment better to study a target language than a country where the language is spoken! I had the opportunity to study in Japan for about a year in total, one over the summer and another time during the spring semester. During both times, I participated in a homestay in which I lived with a Japanese family for a few weeks. I ate meals, went on weekend trips, and explored the city with them, and by far, these were the most memorable experiences of my study abroad period. Importantly, no one spoke English! This meant nearly all my conversations were in my target language, which substantially elevated my language abilities in a short timeframe. So, if you’re looking to study abroad but don’t have the financial resources, check out the scholarships offered by the US Department of State! 

4) Apply the target language to your hobbies or field of expertise 

Entering my senior year of college, I wanted to find a way I could apply Japanese to my second major, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. I decided early on that I would write a senior thesis on my biochemistry research project, but I wasn’t too excited about juggling a second one for my Japanese major. At the time, I was taking a seminar on translation, and I thought a translation project would be perfect. Working with my advisor, I read scientific articles in Japanese and acquired the linguistic abilities needed to translate my work. It was an insanely difficult process, but pushing through and becoming the first to complete this sort of culminating project was so rewarding, both personally and academically. This experience really set the stage for my post-undergraduate plans: a Fulbright Research Fellowship at the University of Tokyo. 

Karl double majored in Molecular Biology & Biochemistry and Japanese Studies at Middlebury College. After graduating summa cum laude, he became a Fulbright Research Fellow at the University of Tokyo where he developed tools for cell imaging.

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