NYU Abu Dhabi students Ella Noll and Benjamin Marcus-Willers have never met, and probably won’t meet this summer, either. But they’ll both be improving their Mandarin Chinese, thanks to Critical Language Scholarships (CLS) from the US State Department.
Both students, exposed to second languages early in life, now relish the polyglot society of NYUAD’s Saadiyat campus, where most students seem to be bilingual, at least.
Noll grew up in two languages, and expects to continue in three — or more. “My parents are from the States but I grew up in Tokyo, so I started out learning Japanese as a second language, and in high school there I started studying Mandarin,” said Noll, a sophomore computer-science major. She has continued her Chinese study at NYUAD, and hopes that her two-month CLS in Tainan, southeastern Taiwan, will move her toward being fully capable of working in Mandarin.
Meanwhile Marcus-Willers, a senior film and new media major, will spend the summer in Changchun, a metropolis in northeastern China. The State Department scholarships, offered for 15 languages, cover two-month stays abroad. “You apply to the language,” Marcus-Willers explains, “not the location, and they put me in Changchun, up near North Korea.”
He said he’s jealous of Noll’s assignment, because he loved his gap year in Taiwan and aspires to return after graduation.
His second-language exposure began in grade school in California. “There are a lot of Spanish speakers where I grew up in Sonoma, working mainly in the wine industry,” he said. Spanish was required every year in his primary school but “it was kind of repetitive” he laughed, “the same thing year after year … so my numbers and colors are really good.”
After four years of French in high school, Marcus-Willers won a place in the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, a gap-year program, also funded by the State Department. Eager for a change, he chose Chinese, and at age 18 went to Taiwan for 10 months of Mandarin immersion. “The first two weeks were really crazy, because I couldn’t communicate at all. It was almost my first time outside the US.”
In Changchun he expects to share a dorm room with a local student at North-East Normal University, a school for teachers, and will have language classes five days a week and cultural events on weekends. Noll will have a similar program at National Cheng Kung University, Tainan.
"Languages open up the world"
NYUAD has given both students plenty of opportunity to continue their language studies. Marcus-Willers studied Mandarin during a semester in New York, and spent one at NYU Shanghai, which included a visit to Beijing. Noll, meanwhile, is in Madrid this semester, adding some Spanish to her repertoire but also soaking up the culture. “I’d rather perfect a few languages than pick up a little bit of various ones,” she said. “That’s fine for when you travel, but not for your career.”
Both anticipate using their language skills professionally. With computer science and two major Asian languages, Noll envisions living and working somewhere in the region.
Marcus-Willers has more specific plans. “I’m a film major but that’s not my intended career path,” he said. “While I was in Taiwan I got really captivated by the Chinese tea culture. It’s surprisingly like the wine culture where I grew up … I’m fascinated by the way it’s harvested, processed, prepared.” After finishing at NYUAD he hopes to spend a year on a Taiwanese tea farm, and then “open my own Chinese tea company, in the States to begin with.”
The way everything is globalizing … it’s really vital to be able to communicate. The source of most of the conflict in the world is that we’re in such proximity but don’t understand each other. Learning to speak a language is the first step in learning culture.
Naturally both students are firmly convinced of the benefits of bilingualism (or more): “I’ve realized that languages get you more places than anything else,” Noll said.
And life on the Saadiyat campus has deepened that opinion. With “all these people who speak so many languages,” Noll said, “you really experience the world”.
“The way everything is globalizing,” Marcus-Willers said, “it’s really vital to be able to communicate. The source of most of the conflict in the world is that we’re in such proximity but don’t understand each other. Learning to speak a language is the first step in learning culture.”
Languages, Noll said, “help open up the world. Other cultures are not so scary when you can speak the language. It’s easier to explore new things.”