By Caroline Wilson

04 August 2021 - 08:02

Red lantern in front of an urban scene
'The world can be unpredictable, filled with risk and opportunity. But history is made in our lifetimes and that has changed my perception of the world over the years.' ©

Bryan G. used under licence and adapted from the original.

How do international experiences and language learning shape our perception of the world? We asked Dame Caroline Wilson DCMG, British Ambassador to China and Generation UK: China Network Champion. 

How has your time in China, Russia and other parts of the world affected your perspective?

I grew up in the UK. I visited the Soviet Union and went on occasional family holidays in Europe before university. 

When I graduated, I decided to backpack around China. I navigated using a Lonely Planet and phrase book (with limited success!). 

I realised that I had to learn Chinese if I was going to return to China, which I really wanted to do. The only way I could get beneath the surface of the country’s history, culture and politics was to learn Mandarin. 

The world can be unpredictable, filled with risk and opportunity. But history is made in our lifetimes and that has changed my perception of the world over the years. 

The Berlin Wall fell when I was a teenager. When you experience history, your perception of the world changes too. If you’d told me before the fall of the Berlin Wall that the world would change dramatically within a decade, or even a year, I’m not sure I would have believed it. 

Why have you invested in learning languages?

When I was a child, I disliked the feeling of being a ‘stranger’ if we went on holiday to another country. 

When I was about seven, we went to visit a family friend in France. I’d been practicing my French and was excited to use it. The first French words I uttered were in a boulangerie in Paris. Despite a carefully prepared request, I was not ready for the rapid-fire response. I had no idea what the lady said! I was so upset and knew if I wanted to get better, I would have to put the effort in. 

I started studying Mandarin after my trip to China and I studied at Beijing Normal University in the late 1990’s. I knew the language would help me to understand China. 

Like Mandarin, my motivation to study Russian came from my interest in the country’s politics, culture and music. Although I studied languages before joining the foreign office, I hoped that one day I would work internationally. 

As a native English speaker, I didn’t want to travel the world expecting people to understand me. I wanted to make the effort to understand others, through their language.

Would you like to receive more articles like this? Sign up for our monthly newsletter.   

Which words from your additional languages don’t translate to English?

There are unique words and phrases in every language. Most don’t translate with quite the same meaning. The [hrases:

  • Mei banfa 没办法’ (which literally translates to ‘there’s no choice’) 
  • Meiyou 没有’’ (which means ‘haven’t or doesn’t exist’) 

don’t have an equivalent in English. But they are very useful phrases in Chinese.  

I’m also interested in Chinese idioms – chengyu (成语) – which are recognised as a form of wisdom in China. 

A chengyu has just four characters and tells a story that can date back hundreds of years. They help to make a point but are also fun to learn. Chengyu are still widely used in China today, including by Chinese leaders and officials which suggests their importance in Chinese society.

Two of my favourite chengyu are:

  • Kai cheng xiang jian 开诚相见 which means ‘being open and sincere to each other’
  • He er bu tong 和而不同 which means ‘harmony without uniformity’

What knowledge have you gained during your diplomatic postings that you’d like others in the UK to know about?

Living and working in other countries, I’ve learned there are many similarities in what people around the world aspire to for themselves and their families. 

Through my diplomatic postings, I’ve had a unique opportunity to understand challenges and opportunities on the ground, which can be quite different to what might be portrayed back home in the media. 

My job isn’t just about foreign affairs though. It’s also about promoting our economy and working with countries on important global issues such as climate change and health. 

Since I took up my post as British Ambassador to China last year, I’ve visited eleven provinces and three municipalities. The pace of modernisation in China is extraordinary.

What unexpected benefits might people find from international experiences and language learning?

Being able to really listen, is a skill that you can develop through international experiences and language learning. 

Listening is as much about what people don’t say as what they do say. To learn how to interpret what people don’t say, you must learn to read situations and body language carefully.

Learning a language also improves how you express yourself. When you have limited vocabulary, you have to creatively communicate your message and meaning. This can also benefit communication skills in your first language. You’ll become more aware of the words you use and how you want people to respond.

Being able to speak other languages gives you another dimension. Not necessarily in terms of personality, but in your capacity to have richer experiences with a broader mindset. 

One of the biggest benefits of international experiences is being able to make new friends from all around the world. A global network gives you a completely different perspective on your own country. I love visiting friends in their homes around the world. To see a country not as a ‘foreigner’ but as a local person, is one of the most special experiences you can have. 

Follow Caroline on Twitter and read her biography.

Generation UK helps students from the UK boost their employability, enhance their long-term job prospects, and develop a global mindset through study and work experience opportunities in China. 

You might also be interested in