Julien discovered the empathy-developing properties of language-learning firsthand when he began studying Chinese at the age of 30. Already fluent in nine languages – three of which were ancient– and a linguistics teacher at the Sorbonne University in Paris, he recalls “I was on top of the world. You put me a room, and I could be smart and articulate.” However, after arriving in China for a holiday, Julien was surprised to discover how little he could communicate, even after studying the language for hours and hours.
Julien was delighted by this struggle. “It was fantastic because it taught me humility—the limits of one’s own brain and the limits of capacity. By doing that, it also builds empathy for people who come from somewhere else and might struggle articulating things. And you have this very deep, ingrained sense of what it feels like to be operating in a world that is unfamiliar.”
Not long after beginning his quest to learn Chinese, Julien moved to Australia and founded the Marco Polo Project; an organization that explores new models for cross-cultural education. Initially an online platform to bring Chinese voices to Western readers, the organization soon began hosting cultural events bringing together native speakers of Chinese and English. Today, they also run community events, language events, and design new education programs. Multicultural events are not just a chance for each community to preserve its distinct past and tradition, but, as Julien puts it, “they become the cutting edge of social innovation, the spaces where, from our diverse traditions, we get together, and invent a new future together.”