Learning a new language in a hurry… the challenge of exchange

Bachelor of International Studies student Isabel Little participated in a short-term vacation program to Okinawa International University in Japan. Here she writes of the challenge (and rewards) of learning to communicate in a different country. 

“I arrived in Okinawa, a tropical island south of the Japanese mainland, absolutely exhausted and wanting nothing more than to shower the humidity away, and sleep.

When I was shown to my room what greeted me was not what I expected (a small studio apartment) but rather four conjoined tatami rooms, with six Taiwanese and seven Korean girls staring at me expectantly.

“Okay, there goes my personal space for the next three weeks,” I thought to myself. “How on earth am I going to survive this?”

None of us seemed to be proficient enough in Japanese to speak to each other. I could hardly speak two words together, and we were all pretty shy. It was shaping up to be an awkward three weeks of sleeping on the ground.

In the first day of classes all I understood was that they were speaking Japanese VERY quickly. Completely overwhelmed, I decided I would never be fluent in Japanese.

However, as the story always seems to go, three weeks later I was in love with all my roommates, who I communicated with in a weird mix of Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean, body language and girly screams.

Every day was a challenge, and sometimes I just wanted to give up and yell “JUST SPEAK TO ME IN ENGLISH!” I felt like I used up everything my brain had to give, but it wasn’t until I returned that I realised how much I had learnt.

I now understand Japanese at speed (though my vocabulary still holds me back) and I’m not scared of speaking it – so much so that there are some Japanese words and phrases that feel more natural than the English-Australian ones I’ve grown up with. I can’t wait to go back to Japan!

I always thought those stories about exchange being the worst but the best experience of your life were a bit overrated, but it’s just so true. Give it everything you’ve got and you won’t be disappointed.”

The Bachelor of International Studies program requires students to spend one semester at an overseas university. Students in the program can also enrol in an internship unit to gain experience at an organisation that has an international profile, mission or structure.