05/25/2013 01:19 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2013

My Strange Language Exchange


When I sat down at Starbucks with Andy I only knew one thing for sure about him: he spoke fluent Chinese. We'd met on Craigslist so he could improve his English, and I my Mandarin. I had been learning Chinese for many years, but I still felt like I was totally not ready to speak to a native speaker in an out of school fashion.

I have found that languages are not only some of the most confusing subjects to learn, but they are also the hardest. Language is something that ancient civilizations created almost the moment they could talk, because language allowed information to be passed along faster along with being able to solve issues faster. Language is specific to the human species because we have a part of our brain that many animals don't, which is the frontal lobe.

The frontal lobe is right where your forehead is, and it controls all the key functions that make us different from the chimpanzees. The frontal lobe is the key reason why you can look at this mish-mash of letters on a screen and understand what it means as your reading it.

If the frontal lobe is so great, then how come learning a language from scrap is so difficult? As people grow older, their frontal lobes begin to mature and finish maturing at about the age of 21. What this means is that the years leading up to and after the maturing of your frontal lobe are the years in which most of your brain have been put "in place." Learning a language when one is a child seems fairly easy because they grew up in an environment where everyone spoke the language constantly and also they learned by real world practice, not in a classroom along with their brains acting as "sponges" of information. Because a child is more exposed to a language on a day-to-day basis, they learn that exponentially faster than I am learning Chinese now in a classroom.

I have been taking Chinese for about six years at this point, and I'm still at a beginners level. I have a very limited vocabulary and trying to talk to a native speaker is nearly impossible except for maybe catching a few words I understand here and there. While my class is moving at a reasonable pace, I still thought that there must be a faster way for me to learn Chinese without moving to China. Then my dad suggested a very interesting idea to me.

My dad suggested that I go on Craigslist, and look for a man who could speak Chinese and would be willing to either come to my house or Skype with me for about one hour a week to practice speaking. So I went on Craigslist, and typed in the search bar "Chinese language." The first result was by far the best. It showed a picture of the man, along with a description of what he wanted to do. He wanted to do something that I had never heard of called a language exchange.

A language exchange is when two fluent speakers of different languages help each other learn that language. I didn't understand the idea of a language exchange at first because this man seemed to get by with English fairly well, so was he going to make me pay for extra help in Chinese? He didn't even suggest money because he saw that I was an individual who understands the English language well enough to teach him a little.

Nothing made me realize how difficult the English language is more than trying to explain what the word "physically" meant in a sentence he had written down from an email. I tripped and stuttered for a while, saying sentences that made sense to me, but were too confusing for him. Finally, I decided to try to give him an example sentence so that he would understand it through the context of his everyday life. He gave that understanding "ohhhhhh" and then moved on to the next set of words that he had trouble with.

What really blew my mind about the difficulty of the English language is how "ghoti" sounds exactly like "fish" if the correct letters/phrases from different words are used. The "gh" makes the "f" sound from the word "rouGH." The "o" makes the "i" sound from "wOmen." And the "ti" makes the "sh" sound as in "naTIon." When these individual sounds are put together, the word sounds like "fish." If this blows my mind, a native English speaker, I can't even begin to imagine how confused my language exchange partner would be if I ever showed this to him.

Even though Chinese seems extremely difficult at time to learn, I still push to learn it because the idea of being able to speak and understand two languages entirely is an amazing thought to me. I have always found it shocking that people learn seven languages, considering the fact that I'm still learning English every day. I also know that being able to speak Chinese will be beneficial in the future because Chinese is known to be one of the most difficult languages to learn considering that there is a character (the symbols if you don't know what a character is) for every word in their dictionary. Being able to "master" Chinese would be a constant reminder to myself that if I can learn an entire dictionary of words in Chinese, my other work seems insignificant.