Admission Ambassador Stories

Language & Intercultural Communication

The Novogratz Bridge Year Program's "Reflections & Connections" series features unique stories from the Bridge Year Admission Ambassadors. Each week, a different group of ambassadors will share their thoughts on a topic related to the Bridge Year experience. This week, Aneekah Uddin ’24, John Bullock ’23, and Kate Gross Whitaker ’23 reflect on the challenges, mishaps, and advantages of learning a new language and culture.

Tell a story from your Bridge Year that illustrates the complexities of intercultural communication.

Aneekah Uddin: Before Bridge Year, I hadn't realized that intercultural communication was much more than just a common tongue spoken in a community. It is the way you hold yourself, your mannerisms, in addition to the sounds you speak. All of these actions communicate and represent who you are. Some of these norms were extremely different from my own community. For example, we visited a community where it was part of the culture to brush noses with each other as a greeting.

While nose brushing was a more tangible new form of communication, there were other means of communication that were more subtle, such as Jogja (Yogyakarta, Indonesia) street art. While street art in Jogja is used as a means for social and political expression like many other places around the world, its informal, spontaneous nature creates a subtle cultural difference. This is because street art in Jogja is mainly driven by youth and as a means of back and forth dialogue rather than making a statement. Picking up on these nuances in the culture, helped me understand and appreciate Indonesian culture more since I was able to see different ways of communicating with others and how that affected the connections I created.

John Bullock: The ability to communicate across cultures allows for so much intellectual and personal growth. That growth can be in regards to belief systems, religion, identity, and so much more. However, intercultural communication also opens the door for what I like to call "linguistic landmines". It is inevitable that by rapidly learning and speaking a new language, you will have some blunders along the way. Most of the time, they will be quite funny and open the door for even more of a connection when you roll with the humor.

One such instance of a "linguistic landmine" that I experienced involved me speaking with my boss, the director of the school I worked at. I knew that she was ethnically Serer, so when I managed to learn my first Serer greeting, I enthusiastically called out to her "Nafio Koi!" ("Hey there!") across the school yard, and everyone around started laughing hysterically. She took me aside and had to painfully explain to me that I pronounced "Koi" with too much of a "Y" sound. Apparently, "Koy" is the Wolof word for "penis," so, I accidentally yelled penis to my boss across the schoolyard in front of (then giggling) children! While embarrassing at first, this story became a running joke at my workplace, and I felt all the more connected to my coworkers as a result.

Kate Gross-Whitaker: During the first month of my time in China, we did a rural homestay with a Tibetan family. I had come into the program with some Mandarin language skills, so had been feeling pretty good about my abilities to communicate, at least on a very basic level, with those around us. The Tibetan homestay totally leveled the playing field. My groupmates and I tried to learn a couple words in Tibetan before we joined our families, but as soon as I got to my homestay, I felt like my mind drew a blank.

Despite being 4-years old, my homestay brother knew the most Mandarin, mainly from watching Chinese cartoons on TV. This meant for most of the week, I was either using some form of charades to communicate, or reliant on a four year old... both of which were not the most clear way to communicate. Regardless of the language barriers, I loved following my homestay family around, helping to pick and shuck walnuts, and walking my brother to school.

What has learning a new language added to your academic and/or personal pursuits?

Aneekah: Bahasa Indonesian is a really simple language to use and fairly useful! It's similar enough to Malay, so if I were to go to Malaysia or even Singapore, I could use my Indonesian language skills. In fact, a few international internships in the Southeast Asia region, love it when students have the Bahasa Indonesian language background.

John: While in Senegal, I learned Wolof as well as furthered my French studies. It was fascinating to hear a familiar French used in such unique ways, and I was glad that I always had it as a reliable fallback if need be. Wolof, on the other hand, I found to be so much more intellectually stimulating. It was really rewarding to study a language so vastly different from English. The grammar, vocab, and ideas expressed in the language really forced me to rethink how I formulate ideas in my mind. It was no longer possible to think my idea in an English format and simply transpose it into French. Wolof forced me to rethink how I needed to think about any given idea I wanted to express. Now at Princeton, I have found that the intellectual flexibility I gained from studying Wolof and being on Bridge Year has really helped me academically. I definitely feel like I was more mentally prepared to receive and process new information and ideas after going on Bridge Year than if I had gone directly to Princeton after high school. I genuinely think that this also applies for every type of class I have been in at Princeton - whether it was Philosophy, Global Feminism, Shakespearean Poetry, Organic Chemistry, or Calculus.

Kate: I've continued studying Chinese history and culture at Princeton. Being able to read some texts or articles relating to my courses in Mandarin has been incredible and has added greatly to my academic experiences! The Mandarin department at Princeton is incredibly strong and I've continued my studies of the language and engaged in cultural events hosted by the East Asian Studies department. I am able to engage so much more deeply with China and Chinese culture because my language skills, and this inspires me to continue studying languages to develop a greater understanding of various parts of the world.