At NYU Shanghai, a lot of attention is focused on the “divide” between international and Chinese national students, which the school aims to bridge through such rules as requiring an international and Chinese student to room together during their first year. But “international” is a broad term, and within that category are students who may be one of just a few people from their country, or one of a handful who have the same native language. These smaller cultural groups are often characterized by language: it’s not unusual to see a group of friends chatting together in Spanish or Urdu, with English words sprinkled in.
When Linda Laszlo, Class of 2018, arrived at NYU Shanghai from Hungary to begin her freshman year, she found herself in a totally different environment. “I had never been exposed to an environment where I was forced to speak English all the time,” she said. “I had a certificate that I spoke English at a high level, but I didn’t have the everyday practice.”
Before NYU Shanghai, junior Vanelly Garces lived right across the border from her family in Mexico. Living with one foot in Mexico and one foot in the U.S., she spoke a combination of Spanish and English, Spanglish. “Coming here, I was skeptical about speaking in Spanish because everyone else would be completely all in Spanish and that wasn’t something I was comfortable with,” she said.
Though everyone’s English ability at NYU Shanghai is quite high, the sudden shift to a new college environment can give a new importance to one’s native language and culture. The ability to share with people who will understand you is a big motivator to meet people and connect with others with your same language. On a larger scale, the expat community embraces this trend: There are city-wide WeChat groups for Hungarians in Shanghai, or French, or any number of other nationalities. At NYU Shanghai, too, upperclassmen and underclassmen bond over a common language. But, like Laszlo discovered, the transition out of one language and into another can be fraught with challenges.
Despite her proficient English, during Laszlo’s freshman year she didn’t socialize much. She mostly spoke with other European students at NYU Shanghai because she’d heard other students criticize teachers with strong accents. What if they said the same things about her? “I didn’t know if Americans were judging me. I thought they’d think I was annoying,” she said.
Polish senior Ewa Oberska self-studied English before arriving at NYU Shanghai, and didn’t have trouble jumping into the new environment. “I think [judgement] was a little bit of a thing, but not a big problem. People here were very understanding,” she said. To anyone who criticized her English, she always responded “Oh, do you speak proper Polish?”
Speaking a common language with someone–whether English, Hungarian, or Chinese–helps to build a sense of community, as Garces discovered. Now in her junior year, she’s still very close with other students who either speak or understand some Spanish. “I think that with people I can switch between Spanish and English with, I feel more comfortable. I know that if there’s ever a point where I can express something better in Spanish or vice versa, I can do that,” she said. “There’s definitely a big difference in the relationship I have with people I can speak to.”
“I usually hang out with international international students,” Oberska said. She switches between Polish and English when speaking to other Polish students, and between other languages as well: Oberska speaks five. “It’s pretty easy to switch between those languages, but if you’re not paying attention…”
“Some of my closest friends are from a similar background as me; however, over the years I have also made a lot of friends that are not of the same cultural background,” Pakistani student Sidra Manzoor (Class of 2019) said.
For fellow Pakistani student Haider Ali (Class of 2018), being in a majority-English environment has impacted his relationship to his native language, Urdu. “Even when I’m talking with Pakistanis at NYUSH, I try to use a lot of English words now since they come up to me much more quickly,” he said. “In my free time I hope I can read some Urdu novels to reclaim my language. That’s an integral part of my identity that I wouldn’t say I’m losing, but that’s been contaminated.”
Laszlo still speaks Hungarian often with other speakers in NYU Shanghai and Shanghai in general. But she still believes that the power of expressing yourself accurately in a second language can’t be underestimated. “Native speakers, they don’t even learn a second language because they think they don’t need it,” she said. “Speaking a second language confidently, it definitely boosts your own confidence.”
Garces agrees: being able to speak a combination of Spanish and English with NYU Shanghai students has impacted everyone’s perceptions of their native language. “I think everyone here goes back home and can no longer speak complete Spanish or complete English, because it just has taken over,” she said.