Tag Archives: Cultural Exchange

Music: the Universal Language

By Michael Neufeld

Edited by Natalie Grace Sipula

[4 minute read]

I get it, learning a language is difficult. Not only do you have to learn the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of a different language, but you also have to discover all of the nuances, idioms, and contexts for word usage so that the things that you say make sense and express meaning. Because learning an instrument holds many of the same challenges, music is often referred to as a language of its own. Not only must you spend time learning to play an instrument or sing, but you must learn to read and listen to it carefully to truly engage with it. There are multiple levels of meaning in music, and a lot of those levels are changed by the perception of the listener.

Photo by William Recinos on Unsplash

The main similarity between music as a language and actual spoken languages is that the content never changes. In the same way “a ball” in English is “una pelota” in Spanish, a D major chord may be called something different in a different culture. However, many cultures still recognize a ball as a round object used for playing games. In the same way, a D major chord still retains the same sound produced; it doesn’t change across cultures. Thus, when orchestras perform the works of Tchaikovsky, they will sound the same. Played with some level of variance due to the styles of each culture (think of it like speaking with an accent).

The sounds that are produced do not change much across cultures, so emotions and ideas can be universally translated. What I mean by this is, what sounds beautiful in America will often sound beautiful in Japan. What sounds bad in Germany will sound similarly bad in Mexico. A romantic song may still carry that romantic connotation in another context. A scary song can still be used to induce fear in other settings. This is the magic of music: it can carry such emotional weight across a variety of cultures and nations, and by doing so it transmits power, messages, and feelings where words cannot.

Photo by Sergio Capuzzimati on Unsplash

An example of this can be found in the popular J-Pop song, “夜に駆ける,” or translated to English, “Racing into the Night,” released at the end of 2019. I personally have a very small understanding of the Japanese language; although, I know enough to hear fragments of words or sentences, I cannot understand the entirety of a song without looking up translations. However, I can still feel the undeniable energy of a song, the compelling melodies in the vocalist and piano parts, and the emotional release during the breaks and key changes at the end. This song in particular has been on my mind since I discovered it for myself, due to its attention-grabbing qualities. Interestingly enough, this song was based on a Japanese short story by the name of “タナトスの誘惑,” or “Temptation of Thanatos.” Thanatos was the ancient Greek personification of non-violent death, likened to a god according to the mythology of the time. Here we can see how the art and ideas themselves have transcended cultures, both spatially and temporally.

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Culture Immersion and Reflection for International Students

By Natalie Chak

[3 minute read]

This past January, two professors at Duke University expressed concern over Chinese students speaking loudly in their mother tongue on campus. This led the Director of Graduate Studies to send an email to all international students reminding them of the “unintended consequences” that come with speaking their mother tongue in their academic building and other professional settings. The email went viral immediately and sparked outrage from students across the nation. The Director of Graduate Studies issued an apology and stepped down from her role shortly after.

This particular incident reflects the stigma that many international students face today. Of course, speaking in a native language is one way for international students to find comfort in a foreign place. Unfortunately, emails like the one described above and current policies are the reasons why international students feel uncomfortable speaking their own language or even eating native foods; they are fearful of further perpetuating existing stereotypes that are often associated with different races.

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USC International Students: Double the Work, Double the Excellence

By Esther Cha

Even though I wasn’t born in the US, American culture and the English language came easily to me because I grew up here and went to school with other American students. The same was not true for my parents though; they really struggled trying to adjust to the foreign culture and learn the language.  I had to help them build the bridge between Korean and American culture but I did not realize until recently how big of a gift and asset this ability was. Being able to help others adjust to American culture through my position as an ALI One-on-One Conversation Partner has helped me appreciate my parents so much more and has built within me a renewed respect for international students.

Many look down upon students who come to America and struggle with English. In my opinion, their struggle is beautiful and admirable. They are struggling because, though they know another valuable language and culture, they chose to come here and learn something entirely new. Not only do they have to learn a new language, they have to learn their respective field studies in a different language. I am so honored to work with these diligent and curious students.

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