James Belleque: The Importance of Organic Learning

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guestpost / Wednesday

James is one of my closest friends at NU and had one of the coolest summers out of everyone who posted on this blog – he spent two months studying Mandarin in Shanghai! I’ll let him tell you about what he learned.


While being immersed, breathe deep

I had the opportunity to spend two months living in Shanghai and take Chinese language classes at Fudan University. This was my first time in China, or any other Asian country, so it was a very new experience. Everything was new, the language to the food to the sewage system. Put this on top of not knowing anyone in my program beforehand, and barely an academic year of the language, it created a feeling of being underwater, completely out of my element. The solution to this, I found, was to breathe in deeply and immerse yourself even more in the norms and mores of the culture. Once this happened, I was much more comfortable and better able to learn.

Learning happens best organically

Personally, I learn things best in a less academic environment and in a more casual, organic ones. Spending eight weeks abroad attempting to learn the language, I found that I was learning almost as much outside of the classroom as I was in the classroom. The drawback to accelerated language programs is that they don’t allow for a ton of time to absorb what you’re learning. Contrasting that with the organic environment of a foreign country, where you might get to talking to a taxi driver, or get into an argument with a shopkeeper, or are trying to ask for a check at a restaurant, and you have a two very different ways to learn a language. The usefulness in the future of knowing the Chinese word for invest compared with knowing the way to asking for a check. Trying to read notices and signs is often much better than reading through a ponderous textbook dialogue.

Improve parts of yourself you don’t always work on

Another thing that I learned this summer was that there are sometimes areas of yourself that you don’t think to work on, and that sometimes need work. This can include image projection, social skills, and how to communicate in personal relationships, all areas I feel I grew this summer. There is something exciting about a new social environment, and sometimes that excitement can lead to being influenced into a caricature of a part of your personality that the group seems to accept. I learned, as cliché as it sounds, that you have to be yourself and not bow to group pressure. This small group environment also helped with the dealing the unique dynamics that accompany such groups. Living, eating, and going to school with the same 25 or so people in your group leads to a high level of closeness and therefore friction. This means that the airing of grievances and mature communication becomes even more important, or it can lead to group-wide problems. This also extends into individual relationships. I learned a lot from some relationships that occurred during this time. Communication is key of course, but also that balancing your time between studying (or working, whatever the case may be) and spending time with the other person, regardless if it is a friendship or romantic relationship.

All in all, I grew and learned a lot this summer, including some street smarts and other common sense. Of course, learning is never really over. My thanks to Sid for letting me contribute some of my thoughts.


Thanks James for sharing your learnings from this summer. I liked that these were focused on some personal challenges you faced – they offer a good lens for our own challenges. Thanks again!

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