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Six tips for adapting to a new language and culture

Illustration of a orange head and brain within a sea of blue heads

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After earning an undergraduate degree last June from the University of California, Los Angeles, I wanted to further develop my research skills and background in molecular biology before pursuing a medical degree. I decided to travel to China to do just this, combining my passions for travelling and research through immersion in Chinese language and culture. Since last September, I have been a research assistant at the Second People’s Hospital in Shenzhen, China, where I work with a principal investigator and postdocs to study cancer using the organoid model system. I plan to be here until 2020.

Even though I am Chinese–American and grew up speaking Mandarin with my parents, my transition to China was not as seamless as you might think. Soon after my arrival, I realized that my family conversations and Saturday Chinese classes had not fully prepared me for a full immersion in the language.

From scientific terms (such as 质粒 zhìlì, plasmid; 合成 héchéng, synthesize) to adjectives (焦虑 jiāolǜ, anxious; 幼稚 yòuzhì, naive), I found myself fixated on unfamiliar words and trying hard to memorize and understand them. And on top of the language barriers, I still had to make progress on my research project. On the basis of my experience, I’ve developed six tips for adapting to a new language (and culture) while still moving forward with your research.

Stay flexible

There are many ways to solve a problem. When I face daunting language obstacles, I draw on my strengths to find the quickest, most accurate solution that offsets my weaknesses. One such weakness includes reading Chinese characters, so reading a Chinese protocol can be difficult for me.

Early in my trip, I found that I could: translate the protocol into English using translation websites or apps; find the English protocol online; or ask a colleague to explain it to me in Chinese and then translate it myself into English.

Using translation software is often quite time consuming and inaccurate, but it can be useful if others are busy. And English versions of protocols tend to be available only from international biotechnology companies, and not, say, for those written by colleagues. Translating them myself relies on me being fortunate enough to find a colleague who can patiently explain each step to me in Chinese. Which solution will work best will depend on the situation, so experiment with different methods and tailor your solutions to draw on your strengths and counterbalance your weaknesses.

Make technology your friend

The website and the app Pleco have been extremely useful for me in China. Google Translate has helped me to understand medical terminology, sentences and paragraphs. It gives me a technical term in English, or an idea of what a lengthy block of text is saying. Meanwhile, Pleco is helpful for learning individual words because it breaks sentences down into distinct chunks and translates those phrases, rather than forming a reworded sentence, as Google Translate does. For instance, for the sentence “这些结果都是阳性的”, Google Translate will give me “These results are all positive”, whereas Pleco will give me “这些, these; 结果, results, outcome; 都, all; 是, [used like ‘be’ before a noun]; 阳性, positive; 的, [used at the end of a declarative sentence for emphasis]”. These two apps are very useful in different ways. Play around with different tools to see what works best for you.

Ask others for help

Whenever I needed help, I was able to find many people who generously provided assistance.

When I had difficulty reading directional signs or addresses, I found myself tapping on the closest shoulder or calling out “Oh! Hello there!” in Chinese to someone nearby. By asking for help, I have encountered friendly people who were willing to slow down and show me the way.

At the bank, when a staff member gives me paperwork to fill out, I sheepishly ask for an explanation about what I need to complete. Staff members have been extremely patient with me and take the time to tell me exactly what information I need to enter.

In the laboratory, I have my ‘go-to’ colleagues who kindly show me how to use equipment, even when there are step-by-step instructions (in Chinese, of course) on how to use it. I try to avoid always asking the same person, and alternate among a small group of researchers who happily explain things that range from the simple (‘What does this Chinese character mean?’) to the complex (‘What do these delicate knobs do?’).

Learn to be confident, and be eager to ask for assistance. This helps to make your life easier, while connecting you with people in your community and research spaces.

Practise, practise, practise

During the first two to three months of my stay in China, I wanted to remember everything after being told the first time. However, I soon discovered that this was impossible. I just couldn’t write down every new word I heard, look up its meaning and remember it the first time around.

And that was OK. I learnt to keep asking — asking people to repeat a phrase, to re-explain a word, to correct me when I said something wrong. Ask more than once helps to to reinforce your memory of new words.

Embrace difficult conversations

After a few months, I realized that I had been avoiding or zoning out of conversations about topics such as popular culture, which has its own unique lexicon, because I had been so focused on trying to learn scientific lingo. After this epiphany, I decided to start engaging with these harder conversations, pushing myself to learn what I could and further expanding my word bank. Over time, it got easier, and I began to explore fresh avenues of interest and conversation.

Try to engage in conversations about non-scientific subjects, particularly those that contain new vocabulary. The more you expose yourself to the unfamiliar, the more your horizons will broaden.

Be there for others

During my first few months in China, I needed a lot of help. There was so much to do to get settled in a new place, and once-simple tasks suddenly became very difficult. But, after this storm had passed, I started to notice opportunities that allowed me to give back to others. Perhaps someone needed help to understand a particular phrase or pronounce a particular word in English. Perhaps someone was interested in learning more about US culture, politics or housing prices. Or how much it costs to go to NBA (National Basketball Association) games. Perhaps someone just needed a listening ear, or someone to talk to.

When these opportunities come, take them readily and give as much as you can, especially when you need a way to express your gratitude for all the help you have received during your journey.

Even if you’ve mispronounced that same word for the third time, or felt your heart sink from looking at yet another page of foreign text, understand that it will get better. One day, you will be able to pronounce that word perfectly and perhaps be able to read all (or most) of the words on that page. Just keep trying, and remind yourself of why you are there, what your goal is and what an enlightening journey you are embarking on.


This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at


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