Author Archives: Catherine Chon

How to: Hone Human Relations Skills with Language

“So, what made you decide to major in [insert language of choice here]?”

You must hear this a lot – in casual settings with friends and family, or in professional settings with professors, advisors, or interviewers. Sometimes it is hard to sufficiently describe your love for languages, and even then, that might not be accepted as a sufficient answer by whoever it is you are speaking with.

This is one of the obstacles of being a foreign language major. Being able to navigate this question and demonstrate to others that language-learning should not be simply a hobby and is a tangible, feasible field of study is an essential skill. From this obstacle, you learn to talk about how other skills you have gained from studying languages has empowered you in different contexts.

For me, one of the most tangible skillsets that you can attain from studying languages is human relations skills. Luckily, progress and growth in this particular skill is evident in how you interact with others, as that is essentially what human relations entails. Being a foreign language major emphasizes your empathy and sensitivity to cultural differences, your ability to relate to other people and their experiences to create meaningful relationships, and your ability to tackle uncomfortable situations with professionalism and adapt.

Personally, the three aforementioned abilities are closely intertwined with each other. As a foreign language major, one of the best ways to hone my own language skills is to throw myself into settings of complete immersion. After all, you learn something the best and the quickest when you need it to “survive” somewhere. (“Survive” is used loosely – you wouldn’t die from not being able to communicate, but it definitely makes your life easier.)

At the same time, as a young adult who has the privilege to access higher education, one of the best ways to acknowledge my opportunities is to reach out to communities who may not have the same resources. This involves empathy, being able to see beyond just yourself and things solely beneficial to you, and being able to address that gap appropriately.

I have been able to develop these human relations skills through working with Project SHINE, which is an organization that focuses on helping immigrant populations in America. Although, yes, you could gain these skills without a foreign language major, I truly believe that your skills would not grow to the fullest potential. As someone who is trying to learn to communicate in a foreign language, you would better understand and better be able to relate to those who come to America and try to learn English. Your struggles in the classroom relate to their struggles in English as a Second Language classrooms, or even outside the classrooms. Knowing how to navigate a language barrier teaches you to be patient, attentive, and supportive when you have been in similar (although, to a lesser degree) shoes. Your human relations skills also comforts whoever you work with because they realize that they are not alone in the process, and this builds meaningful relationships with the people you serve.

English vs. Everyone Else

My household has a total of two fluent English speakers: myself and my older sister. My first-generation immigrant mother got by with her basic knowledge of the English language, be it asking directions from passersby or ordering food at a local restaurant. My sister and I helped where we could, translating individual words and teaching verb tenses and grammar rules. Yet, even as fluent English speakers, we were unable to help my mother understand legal or medical documents. The nuances of the English language were so easily lost in translation, and, as a child, there was always vocabulary beyond my scope of knowledge.

I got involved with Project SHINE to teach ESL classes in my freshman year.

I carried this sentiment with me when I entered college. With an organization known as Project SHINE, I volunteered at English as a Second Language classes for adults who were learning the language to improve the quality of their lives. In these classes, I observed as confidence and comfort grew exponentially in the tones of their voices. Similarly, while I am away for the summer, I work with non-English speakers. I help ease the workload by acting as a middleman to translate conversations in which they partake. For me, English is something that is as natural as breathing, and being able to intelligibly converse with someone is an ability I do not think twice about. In this sense, I believe I have already begun the process of touching someone else’s life, from teaching knowledge that I take for granted: the English language. In the future I hope to expand on this.


In my first year, I declared myself as a Spanish and Portuguese joint major. Growing up as a bilingual, I had always been fascinated by the unique nuances of each language. Being able to understand someone else in their native tongue was also incredibly important to me, having spent years observing the frustration of incomprehension in my mother’s expressions. In high school, I had chosen to learn Spanish because it was the most common language that my local communities spoke. Another deciding factor in my decision was that my mother interacted, other than English-speakers, with Spanish-speakers, and I wished to ease the language barrier as well. When I began college, my desire to learn another language led me to registering for classes in Portuguese, the sixth most spoken language in the world. Luckily, learning Portuguese was not an impossible decision; the shared commonalities between Spanish and Portuguese made it simpler to pick up the latter language. By the end of my first year, I was slowly working my way through the list of languages I wished to learn and the people I wished to communicate with.

I hope to impact people’s lives by aiding in overcoming language barriers. For example, there are many cases in which patients at primarily English-speaking hospitals or clinics are unable to understand what nurses and doctors say because they do not share the same first language. In these situations, miscommunication can be dangerous because the patient could be missing or misunderstanding vital information regarding their health. I hope that in the future, whether I become a UN volunteer or PA or something else, I will have the ability and communication skills to aid others in stressful situations. Having come from a family where English was a constant obstacle, I understand the importance and the gratitude attached to speaking in another’s native language.

Becoming a Proficient Speaker 101

The last time I went to Korea, I was around seven years old, and everyone around me thought I was some sort of child genius. I say this with a grain of salt – they likely didn’t think I was a genius, per se, but they definitely thought I had some level of precocity.

The root of this belief was the fact that I spoke fluent English. In Korea, English is taught in schools to older students, so seeing a seven-year-old with perfect pronunciation and grammar and fluency was something of a spectacle.

Me, as a screaming child in Korea

Of course, what they didn’t know was that I spoke English because I didn’t know much Korean.

Being in Korea shoved me out of my comfort zone – only my older sister spoke English fluently, but I couldn’t just talk to only her for the entire duration of my visit. My mom knew some English from living in America for so long, but not even she could accurately translate everything I said. Thus, I was given no choice but to learn Korean. I knew enough basics to hold a brief conversation but not enough to really interact with my cousins, aunts, and uncle. At that time, I saw learning Korean as a survival mechanism – to be able to get around the foreign area, I needed to learn to read the street signs and ask strangers in their language for help.

Whenever I think of that summer, I liken the experience to what I imagine study abroad to be like. I am essentially displaced into a foreign country, with little to no knowledge of the language and culture of the region. This prospect makes me, as someone who is extremely introverted and socially anxious, uncomfortable. But I firmly believe this to be a necessary discomfort. I need to learn to step out of familiar territory and be able to dive into uncharted waters in order to grow.

I started these steps in high school, when I forced myself out of my box at a Spanish immersion camp. It was taxing – both physically and mentally – for me to struggle with communication because I didn’t know enough Spanish to thoroughly express myself. In the end, though, I could tangibly experience how my communication skills were improving because I could nonchalantly make a joke or easily follow and participate in a conversation that wasn’t about my hobbies or favorite food. I also returned home with a deepened appreciation of the culture because I experienced the closest thing to what culture immersion during a study abroad would be like while I was at camp.

At the immersion camp, learning popular Spanish songs

Another important aspect of study abroad is that you will never be able to experience anything more authentic or raw or in its truest form unless you live and experience the country for yourself. At camp, my breath was taken away by the beautiful traditional dances or the delicious foods from each Spanish-speaking country (meals were themed by country) or the fun events of popular holidays. But I know that that experience wouldn’t even begin to compare with what study abroad would be like. After all, despite a professor’s best efforts, everything taught in class is still just 2D, or text on a page, or a video shown on a screen.

Yes to Foreign Languages!

To the people who hate foreign languages and think that they’re useless, boring, stupid, or insert-negative-adjective-here because they were never “good at them” and therefore learned to hate them—I don’t understand you.

To each their own, by all means, but I just don’t understand you.

I was never naturally good at subjects like math or physics, but I didn’t think they were useless. I did think they were boring and difficult, and I did dislike them—but let’s clarify the main difference here being in its usefulness.

English is not the only language spoken in the world, nor is it the only cultural presence. Take it from me, someone who has grown up in a Korean household but never completely acquired the language due to the prevalence of English in my environment. This is actually one of the few regrets I have thus far—neglecting to improve my proficiency in my mother’s language until many years later and not learning much about my family’s culture. Older and wiser, I now jump on any opportunity to better my linguistic and cultural education.

During one of my high school summers, I went to El Lago del Bosque, a Spanish language immersion camp under Concordia Language Villages.

To me, liberal arts education signifies having the freedom to study various disciplines and developing an understanding in those areas which can be intersected with your chosen field of study. A liberal arts education is vital in any field because it offers you a perspective that scopes the world and all of its histories, cultures, societies, peoples, and respective intersections. This includes the study of foreign languages and cultures because translingual and transcultural competence is relevant across the board.

It is impossible to study a field and study just that field. Engineering does not mean you only study engineering; medicine does not mean you only study medicine. In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects about the world is being able to intertwine seemingly unrelated subjects in order to navigate complex issues that arise. Of these issues, the most prevalent mandate an understanding of social and cultural complexities—for example, how would you be able to understand the discrepancies in access to healthcare if you did not first understand the underlying socioeconomic factors? How would you be able to effectively communicate as a professional to non-English speakers without prior knowledge of their language and culture first? How would you be able to conduct research studies about filial piety on a specific community without first understanding their cultural values? It goes without saying that interdisciplinary studies is inevitable in real world circumstances.

Me, holding a super-tabla, and a friend at El Lago del Bosque. Having a super-tabla meant I could only speak Spanish for the entire day – no English whatsoever.

From a less academic standpoint, learning foreign languages and cultures is essential to a liberal arts education because it offers you an intangible depth in your education that is difficult to find elsewhere. This field of study offers you the opportunity to understand a lifestyle, history, and people, while also allowing you to experience aspects of their culture such as regional foods, festivals and holidays, and music. Rather than an impersonal approach like other classes may adopt, foreign language and culture courses lure you into the hearts of the nation and the people with invaluable experiences.

Hello world! :)

My name is Catherine Chon. I am a second-year student, currently majoring in Spanish/Portuguese and considering a pre-health track. I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and raised in Montgomery, Alabama – and no, I do not have a southern accent. Learning at least nine other languages is a priority item on my bucket list because I want to transcend language barriers and make communication easier. You’ll probably see me either taking naps in random spots around campus at any time of day (current favorite is in the reading pods at the ESC) or engaging in Asian-American activism!