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Leaping language barriers: experiences of travel
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Fleur Geskin has been trekking around the planet as a model since 2000. She has been almost everywhere on the globe from France to Thailand to Austria, but apart from fading French she learned while in high school, the 27-year-old New Zealander only speaks English.

Her experiences of traveling have taught her a thing or two about getting by in foreign countries without knowing the native dialect.

Having lived in China for two years, Geskin says learning Mandarin was always on her "to do" list. But, in between writing a book on her modeling experiences and side work as a tutor, finding the time to dedicate towards learning the language has proven to be very difficult.

She says not knowing the language has not hindered her in any way. With friends that speak Chinese and a Malaysian boyfriend who has passable Chinese there really hasn't been a need for her to learn.

"Most of the time someone can help me. If I get in a sticky situation I can just call a friend and have them talk to whoever I need," she says.

While this method works most of the time, there has been the occasion where no one picked up.

Once while Geskin was at home alone a Chinese man began knocking on her door. When she answered the man began assaulting her with questions she could not understand. The one-sided conversation went on for a few minutes before Geskin tried to contact a friend.

After several unlucky attempts, Gaskin decided she had no other option but to apologize to the man and shut the door in his face. Later she found out the man was there to make sure she had registered with the police.

No repercussions came from her experience but had the circumstances been different she could have found herself on the wrong side of the law.

Apart from saving her skin, Geskin also feels that there is a higher motivation for learning the language.

"I live in China and I should respect the country I am in by learning the language, or at least trying to learn the language," she says.

It was after two years of working in China as a video producer that Bob Brill was shown the importance of knowing Chinese in the workplace.

The lesson came as his company began its search for some new help.

After interviewing two highly qualified Chinese candidates, the California native said he was ready to hire one of the very talented workers on the spot.

But because neither could communicate beyond yes or no, he had to pass up a talented worker in place for someone that could speak English.

The situation made him feel embarrassed about his lack of Chinese.

The 30-year-old has since begun taking a crash course in Chinese.

While most of the time he still has to revert back to pantomiming and facial expressions, he says he has seen how even just a little Chinese can help.

The social implications of learning the language are big as well, he says.

"If you don't speak Chinese you can quickly get pigeonholed into a certain crowd of people - you are stuck with other expats that don't want to learn," says Brill.

For Joseph Corda, who has been studying the language for over a decade, learning Chinese has helped him take his first steps towards his dream of immersing himself in China as an anthropologist.

The New Yorker first came out to China in 1995.

While here he took a two-month journey around Asia with three other friends. Amongst his group he was the only one who could speak Chinese, putting the weight of communication upon his shoulders.

Being immersed in the day-to-day communications for the entire trip is what Corda says pushed him beyond the beginner level.

Since that trip he has become much more fluent and found that being able to speak Chinese makes life in China much more fulfilling.

"On a human level you're able to realize your relationships; you're able to realize people on a different level. It makes you more of a person," Corda says.

(China Daily May 5, 2008)

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