Growing up bilingual in New York City, I have always enjoyed listening to languages and learning about culture. My father played the trumpet for Latin American bands, so I grew up believing that everyone spoke at least two languages and played some kind of instrument. Some of the most powerful memories for me are the sounds of other languages wafting out the windows of our building along with the wonderful fragrances of not-so-familiar spices. As an adult, I lived overseas for many years, and have grown to appreciate the beauty and complexity of language and culture. I have also learned that the following principles can go a long way in adapting to a new culture.

Be Humble

Adapting to a new culture involves observing, listening, and taking advice from those who are experts in the culture: the locals. One of the best pieces of advice I received before moving to China was, “Don’t take everything you need. Let the locals help you to find the things you need.” This involves humility that embraces vulnerability and transparency, two qualities that are not cultivated often in American society. As we allow others to provide help, we recognize our own need for their support. Humility recognizes that we all have something to learn from others who are different from us. When I learned Mandarin Chinese as an adult, children were my best teachers, and this revelation was certainly humbling. My children’s friends would often ask for clarification from me if they did not understand, and they patiently corrected my attempts at Chinese until I learned.

Be Willing to Make Mistakes

Learning a language or adapting to a new culture involves making a million mistakes, and understanding this principle early can help when communication breaks down. When I learned Chinese as an adult, I recognized early on that I was going to make a multitude of linguistic and cultural errors. I learned how to navigate the complex non-verbal communication system necessary to gain the trust of local partners, but I made many mistakes that my hosts graciously overlooked. Our mistakes become life lessons and build our confidence over time.

Embrace Vulnerability

Our natural inclination when we face a new or intimidating situation is to push through with our own plans and ideas, but often our vulnerability acts as a natural bridge for others especially in new cultures. Vulnerability communicates respect for the host culture and recognizes the need for support in learning valuable lessons in language and culture. Rather than fighting against our shortcomings, vulnerability gives others the permission to teach us. We will make mistakes in a new culture, but vulnerability makes us teachable, which is a valuable lesson for life not simply for learning culture.

The Department of Modern Foreign Languages has the principle goal of promoting the study of modern foreign languages, cultures and literatures. If you love learning about other cultures, UMHB may be a fit for you! We invite you to visit our website for more information, or stop by for a visit!