A scholar’s journey © June 1, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications

Photo of Cameron Stanuch working on Chinese characters.

photo by Jay EricsonCameron Stanuch at work on some of the Chinese characters he's learning.

How's this for a challenge?

Among the many languages of the world, there are four that linguistic experts say are the most difficult for English speakers to learn. Norwich senior Cameron Stanuch has made it his goal to become proficient in speaking and writing one of them.

After taking his first Chinese language class in the fall of 2006, Stanuch recently traveled to the opposite side of the globe to study the ancient dialect of Mandarin in Shanghai.

“China is extremely important to the United States, and will be even more so in the future,” Stanuch said. “So, I became interested in studying their language.”

After a trip to Chile in 2005, Stanuch knew he wanted another opportunity to study abroad. “So many people go to Europe and learn the languages there,” he said, “I wanted to go somewhere different.”

So he applied to and was accepted for a course of study at Fudan University, one of the oldest and most selective universities in China. “I spent about five months there. It was very intense,” he said. “In the language classes alone, we studied twenty to twenty-five hours a week, as opposed to three to five hours a week here.”

Most of the 1.3 billion people living in China have a working knowledge of Mandarin, which is considered a dialect. One reason Mandarin is so difficult to learn is that subtle changes in tone can drastically change the meaning of many words. For instance, the word mai means both buy and sell, with only a change in tone determining which meaning the speaker intends.

To write in Mandarin, thousands of intricate Chinese characters that make up the written language must be learned, each involving a specific stroke order to write correctly.

The thing that changed me is that I don't look at China as China anymore. I look at China as the individual Chinese people that I met there. When you see their faces it changes your perspective. They're no longer a global business competitor. They're no longer just a place on the map.

—Cameron Stanuch

While at Fudan, Stanuch interviewed several professors and doctoral students for a paper he wrote and in the process developed a unique appreciation for the challenges facing China, which include rapid expansion and a significant economic transition.

“The people there are involved in a real Catch 22 situation. On the one hand, you need a strong authoritarian regime to direct these economic changes. But the people there still want their civil liberties, which they are getting…incrementally,” Stanuch said.

He says it was the interactions he had with everyday people that stood out most from the experience. “The thing that changed me is that I don't look at China as China anymore,” he said. “I look at China as the individual Chinese people that I met there. When you see their faces it changes your perspective. They're no longer a global business competitor. They're no longer just a place on the map.”

His journey included an intensive cultural experience as well. From Shanghai, Stanuch traveled to Beijing, the capital city and site of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. His travels took him to Qufu, to visit the grave of Confucius and to the city of Lhasa, the traditional home of the Dalai Lama, in Tibet.

Near the base camp of Mount Everest, Stanuch remembers the handful of American students he was with being surrounded by a large group of Tibetans. “They were just smiling and watching us. They don't often get to see foreigners. They would laugh and mimic any silly thing we did,” he said.

Once his trip was over, he arrived back in the states to learn his hard work had paid off; Stanuch was awarded one of the 100 Scholarships for Peace that cover the full cost of attending the summer Language School at Middlebury College.

Once at Middlebury, he must take a language pledge. “Basically, I'm only allowed to speak Mandarin for the duration of the course. I can't have any visitors or phone calls and I can't read any newspapers or magazines that are not in my target language,” he explained.

From there he will attend the Monterey Institute of International Studies, one of the most prestigious language and international studies schools in the country, to start work on a Masters degree.

Beyond that Stanuch is not exactly sure what the future holds, but he admits one long-term goal has crossed his mind.

“In high school I was an average student and never really connected with any of my teachers. But they (Norwich professors) pushed me. I think the measure of a professor is how far they can push their students and get results. So, I think I'd like to become a college professor eventually. I'd like to pass on the things I've seen and learned to young minds,” he said. “It would be an honor to do that for someone else.”