Based on this:

May wanted to push her language skills, so before joining Davis Polk, she did an intensive Mandarin study in Beijing for two months.

what does "push her language skills" mean?

  • 1
    In this context, "push her language skills" means to further(verb) her language skills OR simply put, further increase her (already good) language skills. – Manish Giri Aug 1 '14 at 15:20
  • @DarkKnight So, it is not short for "push her language skills to the limit"? – meatie Aug 1 '14 at 15:39
  • It's not really short for that phrase--she isn't necessarily going to her limit (which would mean pushing as hard as she was capable of doing). She's just advancing the skills to some extent. Both expressions come from an underlying metaphor that skills are like tracks with mastery at the end; to push something, you move it down the track toward the goal (of mastery)--you see it in many of the synonyms, like "further" or "advance" her language skills. – Tiercelet Aug 1 '14 at 16:02
  • I don't think it's a very "happy" usage. Normally, push in such contexts would mean promote = bring to the attention of others. Clearly here the intended sense is promote = improve, but that wouldn't be common, so in fact what we have is something of a garden path sentence, in that once we absorb the semantic implications of "did an intensive Mandarin study" we have to backtrack and re-interpret push. The entire text is obviously from a non-native speaker, since do a study is not idiomatic English phrasing. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 1 '14 at 16:23
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    @FumbleFingers: if you follow the link the article does not appear to be written by a non-native speaker; the entire site is in good English and promotes a law firm. I agree the phrasing of the sentence in question is not the smoothest possible, but I think the OP still has a valid question given the provenance of the sentence. – A Jack Aug 1 '14 at 17:05

The connotation of "push" in this context is that May wants to challenge herself. If you read further down in the paragraph from the article you linked, you see May quoted as saying, "Davis Polk is a great place to be challenged." The author of the sentence you quote is probably trying to find a way to reinforce this theme of "being challenged" that May brought up in her interview without using the same word repeatedly.

The way this sentence is framed--"push [a skill]"--is a bit unusual and may sound awkward to the English-speaking ear. You will more commonly see "push [him/her/my/yourself]" or "push [a person]", e.g.:

"May had taken Mandarin classes in America for several years, but she really wanted to push herself, so she traveled to Beijing for a language-immersion experience."

"The runner was exhausted, but he pushed himself to complete the last few miles of the marathon."

The teacher pushed his students to do their best work.

"Push" may also carry the connotation of "force," even when physical pushing is not involved, depending on the context, e.g.:

The mine shaft had failed a safety inspection, but the supervisor pushed the miners to enter it by threatening to dock their pay.

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I think they're borrowing the meaning from the idiom "push the envelope" which means "to expand the definition, categorization, dimensions, or perimeters of something".

By saying "push her language skills", they mean to "expand the dimensions and perimeters or her language skills", i.e. make it larger. Augment it.

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From YouDictionary,

  • to follow up vigorously; promote (a campaign, claim, etc.)

  • to extend or expand (business activities, etc.)

So in this example of yours, it means to increase her skills.

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