Language calling: Student athlete experiences joys and pains of learning a foreign language

When Colleen O’Connell looked down from the Great Wall of China, she knew her choice to study Chinese was the right one. But the path to the Great Wall wasn’t always a smooth one. It was filled with countless hours of work spent learning a language that was, well, foreign to her.

Before O’Connell took her study abroad trip to China last summer, she had to make a choice on where to play lacrosse. The Johns Creek, Georgia native wanted to be a part of a building experience of a lacrosse program – and subsequently chose Radford University because of the trust in the program.

O’Connell aspires to work in international affairs following graduation – which led her to take her first ever Chinese course during first semester.

“It was very intimidating,” O’Connell said. “It’s been a lot of work and I always see it taking a lot of work. It’s always going to be hard. With hard work and a good professor, it’s not impossible. It’s just different and if you open your mind to it you’ll be able to succeed.”

Part of what made that possible was the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures and Foreign Language Lab, located on the fourth floor of the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences. The Language Lab offers a variety of services, including a natural language speaker tutor available for students.

O'Connell on the Great Wall of China.

O'Connell on the Great Wall of China.

“The foreign language lab was a weekly occurrence for me,” O’Connell said. “She really helped, as a fluent speaker, become a little easier speaking rather than just reading and writing. It’s a hands-on experience with someone who has been speaking the language their whole life.”

O’Connell was named a Kirk Scholar, part of the Zylphia Shu-En Kirk Endowment, which helps a Radford student to travel to China and study the culture. During summer 2017, she travled to China for a three-week study abroad. “It was hands-down one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” she said.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

O’Connell traveled to five cities each with a different subset of the Chinese culture.

“I doubled my confidence when speaking, but here’s a lot more I need to learn,” she said. “In Beijing, we went to the Great Wall of China. That was a very surreal experience that is even cooler in person. It was incredible being on the Great Wall of China.

“We have those experiences in China together and we can relate to those here in class,” O’Connell continued. “My whole freshman year, speaking was what I struggled with the most because of the different sounds. Going to China and hearing those from native speakers help tremendously.”

O’Connell is now using her experiences to help other Chinese students by helping them with her experiences because she is not a native speaker.

“I love being able to talk about my experiences and encourage them to go along the same path that I did,” she said. “It’s really encouraging to see students get to go on the same trips and the same study abroad. It’s the coolest part seeing that they’re going to be able to do what I did.”

With all of her time demands, her Associate Professor of Chinese I-Ping Fu helped O’Connell navigate those demands.

“It’s hard balancing anything when playing a sport, so another language kind of gets pushed aside when you are in-season,” O’Connell said. “When working with my professor, she’s been great in helping me time manage and when I can study the other language during the season.”

The countless hours spent learning the sounds of the Chinese language will pay off when O’Connell begins her career in international affairs.

Feb 16, 2018
Max Esterhuizen