In one of my first weeks living in PKU Global Village I noticed one big difference between this dorm and other places I have lived in before: the use of Chinese as a default language between people from different countries. The rooms in my building are mostly occupied by students studying Chinese as a foreign language and hence it is quite common that another international student will try to start a friendly chat in the lift – in Mandarin. In the beginning, this sometimes led to slightly embarrassing situations where I had to clumsily ask to switch to English, while processing the confusion of having an American speak Chinese to me. However, these awkward lift interactions lead me to reflect about the prevalence of English in my usual daily life and how routinely it is used worldwide.
English is a lingua franca – that means it is used for communication between people who speak different languages. For me personally, speaking English has defined the last few years of my life very much: I completed my bachelor’s degree in English, was able to study and live in Hong Kong and communicate with ease in most places that I travelled to. At many points in my adult life have I spoken much more English in my daily life than German, my native language. Being in China and largely unable to use it in the public space reminded me of how much work it was to reach this point and how lucky my previous experiences were.
However, English still also has a central role in my life here, as without it I would not be able to study at Peking University in the first place. As I mentioned in my previous post, my degree programme is one of the only ones conducting classes in English at PKU. This is quite a rarity already, as only the top universities in the country have programmes like this in the first place. Being able to complete a double degree here without being proficient in Mandarin on an academic level is an outstanding opportunity – it allows many students worldwide to learn about China that otherwise would not be able to do so. Chinese still finds its way into the classroom often, as many Chinese concepts cannot simply be translated, so studying Mandarin at the same time is definitely helpful. But this only shows that like most countries, China is best understood from the inside. Its schools making an effort to lower the language-based access barrier for foreign students is a great step towards becoming more connected internationally.