Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Language Partners build a virtual HNC community

As students continue the semester virtually, our banwei (student committee) are working on creative ways to bring the student community together. At the beginning of the semester, the banwei organized a WeChat group for matching international and Chinese students as language partners. In this group students could share brief introductions about themselves and their academic or personal interests, so that others could get to know them and become their language partner. Alternatively, students could also fill out a short survey and be automatically matched to a language buddy.

This week, I sat down with Naeem Chowdhury (秋纳愔 ) and Leyao Shang 商勒瑶 (Ella) to talk about their experience as language partners. Naeem is a first-year MAIS student concentrating in comparative and international law. Ella is a first-year MAIS student concentrating in Economics. 

Describe your experience with your language partner.  


Naeem: Because of the situation in the language partner group where the majority of the students are Chinese, I have two language partners right now. I share classes with both, which I think is a really important aspect of what we are doing, and I meet with each of them once a week.  I really like my language partners because apart from the fact that we are doing language exchange, we also really get along as people, so there is no awkwardness in our meetings. We usually have a focused part of our meeting where we ask each other questions about readings, and we go over any linguistic ambiguity. For example, [I might] ask about the difference between two words that are basically the same but have a different connotation. After we do that, we have a conversation, and it’s not like we speak English for 20 minutes and Chinese for 20 minutes, it’s very 随便 (suibian, casual), you can use whatever language you want. We also have an agreement where if we write something and we want a second eye to look at the grammar and make suggestions, we share our documents with each other. 

Ella: Actually, Naeem and I met during some activities before classes started, so when the deadline for language partners was approaching, Naeem was the first name that popped up in my mind. He seemed quite talkative and outgoing during other Zoom meetings, and he’s also very nice. He always likes to listen to others and give others a chance to say something. Our first meeting was great - we had some daily conversation to improve my spoken English and his spoken Chinese. We also talked about how to read the MA tutorial readings, because the English reading materials are hard for me, and the Chinese materials are hard for him. We came up with a way that I can highlight some important Chinese sentences and he can do the same thing with English sentences.  I think it may be helpful for us to catch the point of the article as quickly as possible. We are also planning to share something related to culture. For example, there is a very popular street dance show in China, so I sent some clips to Naeem. 


Has having a virtual language partner impacted your language ability? If so, how? 


Naeem: I can’t say it has much yet because we just started, but I think it is going to have a huge impact on my writing ability, because I have never had to write a paper in Chinese, so having someone to look at it and understand in an intuitive way when something is wrong can be a huge benefit, and I know I’m giving the same benefit to them when I look at their English papers.  One important thing I keep highlighting is that I don’t want them to think it’s transactional, it’s more like, if you need help ask, I’m always willing to do it. 

Ella: Definitely.  It will improve my speaking ability because in China if you are not in Beijing or Shanghai there will not be too many international students. Even if there are, you don’t have so much time to speak with them in English. I think this is the first time I’ve spoken to a true American for such a long time, so I think it’s a good opportunity to improve our speaking and listening as well. 

Has the language partner program impacted your sense of community at HNC? If so, how? 

Naeem: Oh, definitely, a lot. The virtual situation makes the community building between the U.S. and Chinese students really difficult. The fact that we are not living in the same space means there’s this whole realm of body language that we don’t get to see, and so many of our classmates don’t turn their cameras on. The fact that I get to have these one-on-one personal conversations with Chinese students and to get to know them outside of class is huge. It makes me feel like I have friends in China, which is what I joined this program for. 

Ella: I think it helps me so much especially in this backdrop. You can’t go back to the HNC and there are only Chinese students at the HNC, so it’s very important to create a language environment online. Otherwise, we came to the HNC for nothing. I think what the banwei do is also really meaningful because they create so many activities and meetings.  

What is your favorite memory, experience, or interaction that you have had so far with your language partner? 

Naeem: In one of my last meetings one of my language partners asked me a question about the word ‘but’ and that’s how the conversation started - so what they were trying to say is “from 10 inclusive to 20 non-inclusive,” and I can’t remember how they said it because it was incorrect, but the moment I realized it was actually a math question, I got really excited because I was like “oh this is something I know about,” and I kind of geeked out.  I think (my language partner) thought it was really cute, so it was a good moment. 


Ella: I often have some language questions, like I don’t exactly know how the word ‘but’ was used in some contexts; whenever I have questions, I usually take a screenshot and save it and then I ask Naeem in the meeting. He’s really helpful and he not only told me what the meaning of the word was, but also showed me how to use it in a really American, authentic way. He is also very patient; sometimes I can’t get what he’s talking about but he’s always patient with me. 


Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experiences?

Naeem: I want to say to my international classmates, please join the language exchange group, because it’s one of the best ways for you to have a real cultural exchange with our Chinese classmates, and I’ve made two new friends who I feel I can call on whenever, and they feel the same about me. And that’s huge.