So you’re learning a new language. You are super excited and you find yourself diving into every aspect of it, just to get a ‘feel’ of that culture, don’t you? The same reason why we choose to sample the local food of a new country that we are travelling in, rather than the same cuisine available back home. Also the same reason why restaurants choose to have an ambience and décor that complements the genre of food that their customers are indulging in. Because sometimes merely the subject is not enough. You need to understand the galaxy before you attempt understanding the stars.
Such an act of immersing oneself in a culture is precisely the role of an exchange programme that lets you live in another person’s shoes for a brief period of time while you explore another part of the world in this day and age of experimental and out-of-the-classroom learning techniques.
Why do we need a tangible cultural immersion? Doesn’t simply conversing suffice? Why not just read a lot of literature? Well, sometimes even books and podcasts are not enough to give you a good peep into a new culture, especially when it doesn’t share too many elements with your own. Could you possibly imagine learning Hindi and not knowing a thing about Bollywood music or cinema? Don’t you think you would be kicking out a major chunk of the culture in itself?
Now imagine this. You’re going on an exchange programme where it is not only possible for you, or any student for that matter, to go live in a foreign country for a limited period of time in a foreign student’s house (who would be your correspondent, perhaps of your age, with your interests) but you could also have that correspondent come live with you in your home country for the same duration, which gives you the opportunity to then show their group around and explain your culture to them. You cannot even begin to process the amount of learning, teaching and broadening of one’s outlook that takes place in this process.
So how does it work
It’s a known fact that when you experience a different culture through an educational exchange you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and those around you. Leaving the familiar behind and plunging into the unknown shows a commitment to understanding other people and their cultures, and a commitment to learning things about the world in a way that books, school assignments and a professional career can never reveal. Such programmes are usually intended for high school or college students who look forward to living with local families and attending school with their correspondents.
There is usually a screening process, by which the school or the organisation in charge selects students with similar backgrounds or interests in collaboration with the organisers in the other country. The duration for the exchange programmes could be anything between one academic year and a couple of weeks. Shamoy Shipchandler, who recently returned from the one-year Youth Exchange Programme by the Rotary Club, tells us about his selection process – “We were first required to fill in some forms, followed by our application, personal information and writing letters to our host parents, after which there is an interview and a ranking process, based on which you are selected. I wanted to go to Germany, but got USA instead. But nevertheless, I was still really happy. After the host country and other formalities are all approved, you go ahead and apply for the visa. It was a slightly long and tedious process, but the experience was totally worth it!”
And then you have the 20-day Indo-French exchange programmes of sorts for the language students that are offered by Symbiosis and Fergusson College in Pune, where they follow a fixed agenda for each day that is filled with activities to boost a student’s development in various domains and lets you interact with natives and integrate in the day to day activities. There are plenty of emails exchanged between the correspondents prior to their trips, hereby developing their written skills as well as their communication skills overall.
Weighing the pros and cons
The numero uno advantage of an exchange trip is the massive improvement that students find in their spoken language. There is so much you pick up from the various conversations that take place around you, whether it is an outing to a zoo or a theatre workshop, even something as simple as hearing your host family correct their little children’s grammar. Absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, can beat this linguistic bath that the students find themselves entrenched in. As long as you’re asking the right questions, there is always so much to learn!
Can you possibly think of anything going wrong in this kind of a cultural immersion in such a conditioned, safe environment where there is a mutual interest for learning about the other culture? Apart from the vocabulary, you also pick up on the mannerisms, etiquettes, voice intonations and habits of the native speakers, hence giving you an overall experience of a change in perspective.This is a real-life tangible experience with natives – a memory you shall forever cherish. Yes, there will be cultural shocks in countries with cultures not similar to yours, but it is all a part of the growing up experience.
The other prominent advantages include developing leadership skills, self-confidence and a greater understanding of the complexities of the world around the students, in addition to the experience of travelling by yourself and becoming an independent individual. Getting to know the locals, experiencing the culture, and living as they do; these are things you will never experience as a tourist, no matter how adventurous you might be.
Ashwin Lonkar, a student of Fergusson College, describes his experience, “The biggest lesson I’ve learnt in this programme would be, that even if you have previously heard about how the culture and the way of life in that country is different, you still get to experience and enjoy that difference firsthand when you actually go there. Also, on an exchange like this, you get so many fond memories and stories which you can share or remember with fellow group members, which could bring a smile to everyone’s faces even years down the line.”
Yes, but what if I’m not really into culture?
Whether it is travelling by plane for the first time, or whether it is the thrill of throwing yourself in an unknown territory or that of learning about the ways of new people in another part of the world, it is a dream come true for many irrespective of the reasons. You realise that no other voyage is going to ever be the same and this is a memory for life, no matter what you choose to study later on. You could be a student in the design, culinary arts, hospitality management or the business domain and could still easily need to know about a country’s culture. Because even a field like MBA and business studies now offers a subject called Intercommunication Studies in so many countries. This only goes to prove how important it is to be well versed with cultures across the globe and how earning fat cheques isn’t everything.
Any pedagogical authority will agree that the most important thing about learning a new language is immersing oneself in that culture completely. Yes, you are also constantly representing your own country and yes, you are being watched and any non-Indian will form impressions of your country based on what you do and what you say. But apart from that, balancing things out is part of the learning process. Meeting new friends from around the world and widening your range of future career options are some of the top few reasons. One can never go wrong with knowing people who are facing similar challenges during the same time.
When we talk to students about what they have learnt from the experience of being a part of an exchange programme, they talk of how their minds have opened up to a whole new segment of the world, how they feel more independent and how they have picked up lessons for life that they will never forget, especially where adjusting with all kinds of people is concerned. It also comes naturally for many to better appreciate and value their country, their family and their lifestyle a lot more, regardless of the pros and cons on both sides. The grass may always be greener on the other side, but as Gandhiji says, “You need to be the change that you want to see in the world.”