The thing with Mandarin Chinese, Derek Murphy ’20 says, is it’s a tonal language. Intonation, the stressing of certain syllables over others, changes the meaning of the word. For instance, you hear “Shanghai” and think Chinese city, but the speaker’s intonation might mean they’re expressing a desire to hurt you. Murphy offers another example: You’re addressing your mother in Mandarin, and you mispronounce “ma.” Now you’ve just called your mother a horse.
Murphy laughs. Misspeaking Mandarin can be a dangerous business.
Why this matters: Murphy is in URI’s Chinese Language Flagship Program, pursuing dual majors in Mandarin Chinese and political science. He is living, eating, breathing, even texting in Mandarin, readying himself for the most immersive of immersion experiences: living in China for a full school year.
“Always learning a new language means you are always learning a new culture and working your mind.” Derek Murphy
The sophomore chose URI for its language programs (he is minoring in French) and the Chinese Language Flagship Program, in particular. He is one of about 3,600 students, 28 percent of the undergraduate population, who take a language class each semester at URI, many as part of a dual-degree program. URI’s Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures department, one of the largest language departments in the nation, has the largest German and Italian programs in the country and its French program is not far behind. Roughly 730 students major in Chinese, classical studies, French, German, Italian or Spanish. Others minor in Japanese or Arabic. Coursework in Russian, Portuguese, modern Greek and Hebrew is also offered. And students may study for a semester or a year abroad in Canada, China, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan, Mexico or Portugal for in-state tuition rates.
URI’s Chinese Flagship program is one of only 12 such programs in the United States and one of two in New England. Flagship students study abroad in their final year. For Murphy, this will mean studying political science at a Chinese university for the first semester followed by an internship in the second. “This incredible opportunity leads to not just a Chinese degree from URI, but a certificate from the national Flagship program in advanced proficiency in a language critical to national security, the most-spoken language in the world, and one that gives access to a culture that is so different and unique,” Murphy says.
Murphy is well on his way to mastering Mandarin. Last spring he took second place in a Chinese speaking competition in Boston, competing against students from MIT, Harvard and the University of Massachusetts. His hope is to one day put his language skills to use for a global organization such as the World Bank or the United Nations. In the short term, he’s excited to begin an internship at the Naval War College in Newport, and he is working with fellow students Aria Mia Loberti ’20 and Cynthia Malambi ’20 to establish a U.N. Association USA Chapter on campus. They’re looking to make the U.N.’s global goals local and training their collective eye on issues of public health, the environment and refugee resettlement in Rhode Island.
Other goals? To learn more languages. “I don’t see French or Chinese as the end; one day I want to learn Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, etc.,” Murphy said. “Always learning a new language means you are always learning a new culture and working your mind. I hope I always have a new one to work on!”