Learning a foreign language and approaching someone from another linguistic community in their native tongue opens secret doors to you.
Language learning has been a constant in Joy Maa’s life. She was raised in a bilingual household, speaking both English and Mandarin Chinese from earliest childhood. In high school, her Spanish teachers enthusiastically praised and encouraged her. At the UW she majored in not one but two foreign languages, Spanish and Japanese. Maa is the 2014 Dean’s Medalist in the Humanities, chosen on the basis of academic performance and faculty recommendations.
“Joy possesses an unusual intellectual acumen and a natural curiosity that drives her to explore diverse areas of scholarly inquiry,” says Lauro Flores, professor and chair of the Department of American Ethnic Studies, who met Maa while teaching a Spanish course on modern Chicano literature and served as director of Maa's honors thesis. “As a person who has spoken Chinese at home since her early years, it would have been natural, and perhaps more comfortable, for her to major in this language. Yet she elected to engage in two very different languages, Japanese and Spanish.”
For Maa, language is an entry point into other cultures. “You always hear about the practical advantages to learning another language,” she says, citing the benefits of language acquisition for foreign travel or as a marketable job skill. “But for me, it’s so much more than that. Learning a foreign language and approaching someone from another linguistic community in their native tongue opens secret doors to you. It’s a chance to become accepted as a member of another community and truly understand another culture, another way of life.”
Maa began studying Spanish in middle school, and added Japanese as a UW freshman, all the while continuing to use her Mandarin Chinese with her family. “Mandarin Chinese is like family—no matter where I go, it will be a part of my life forever,” she says. “But Spanish and Japanese are the flighty, needy friends that require that much more attention and initiative on my part. Of course, that doesn’t mean I can neglect any of them. I’m working hard to catch up on my Chinese right now.”
If her chosen languages are needy friends, Maa is more than happy to lavish time and attention on them. She has taken more than 30 courses in her chosen majors, exploring everything from linguistics and literature to history and politics. She has spent time in both Cádiz, Spain and Tokyo, Japan through UW study abroad programs, believing that immersion is essential to understanding another language and culture. “It’s baptism by fire,” she says of living abroad. “It’s not always pretty, and it can be pretty embarrassing, but study abroad has the potential to serve as a catalyst that can help your language improve in leaps and bounds.”
Maa is quick to point out that the value of study abroad goes far beyond language proficiency. She cites a Chinese proverb about a frog that lives at the bottom of a well and believes that the tiny bit of sky he can glimpse is the entire world. “The world is vast, and we are but tiny individuals, each one of us a little frog living at the bottom of our own small microcosm-well, which is all we will ever know unless we choose to step outside of it,” says Maa. “Study abroad is a chance to leave the well, to live a life so different that it feels like it belongs to someone else, to experience things you would never have been able to even imagine, and to discover new sides to yourself.”
Maa has challenged herself closer to home as well. While taking a course on language translation, she completed an honors project in which she translated a short story by Spanish writer Ana Rossetti into English—the first English translation of the story. Asked if she is satisfied with the result, Maa shares an Italian saying, ‘Traduttore, traditore,’ or ‘Translator, traitor.’ “It refers to the fact that no matter how skilled, a translator is unable to faithfully represent something in another language in its totality,” she says. “For a perfectionist like me, it’s a tough pill to swallow, but the fact is every language is unique and does not exist in isolation, but rather within a political, historical, cultural, and social context. As a result, oftentimes it’s simply not possible to recreate the same exact meaning in another language.”
Since graduating in March, Maa has been tackling translation of a different sort, interning at a Taiwanese patent law firm in Taipei, where she is learning to edit Chinese patent applications into English and Japanese. She is considering the possibility of a law degree—or graduate work in linguistics or international studies or journalism or teaching. “The possibilities are endless,” she says. “No matter what I do, my foreign languages will be part of it.”
Still not convinced that language study can be life changing? Consider this final thought from Maa: “Learning another language is discovering another avenue for self-expression. Every language is unique, and affords the speaker words, sayings, connotations, inflectional meanings and cultural references that no other language can in the exact same manner. You may discover that facets of yourself that couldn’t be expressed very well before suddenly have a way out and come to the surface. That’s how it was for me with Japanese. And the moment you realize the resources now available to you through another language, it is as liberating as it is exhilarating.”