That’s how Chinese language becomes in vogue in the US

[Source]    Tencent Culture [Time]    2015-06-09 17:04:43 

“I take on many identities: son, brother, friend, and so on, but I am first and foremost a father… The time I spent with my daughter was special and happy, but it was sad at the same time, for we both knew that time would be up very soon. It would be another one or two months before we see each other again. I feel very sweet deep in my heart at the thought of her smiling face. I look forward to seeing her again.” This is a letter written in Chinese by a prisoner in the US about his eight-year-old girl. The story was shared by Qin Yun, Chinese language teacher of that prisoner, on the 8th National Chinese Language Conference held in Atlanta recently, with over 1,300 Chinese language teachers presented. At the event, Qin Yun said, “I was quite moved when I read the essay my student wrote.” On account of her students’ special identity, she is not allowed to use any modern technological techniques or online resources when teaching, even the optical disk. However, language learning requires constant practice. Therefore, Qin Yun encouraged her students to express what they were thinking in Chinese, and that was how this letter was written. At that time, the writer of this letter had been learning Chinese for three semesters.


In 1999, Bard College in New York State launched “Bard Prison Initiative (BPI)” project, providing opportunities for inmates in prison to receive education and obtain degrees. “Curriculum designed for them is the same as that in Bard College, and we did not make any change because of their special identities”, said Qin Yun, who once taught there as a Chinese teacher. The fact is that this kind of education has remarkably changed these special students. Qin Yun put forward solid data: In the US, the rate of prisoners who return to jail is about 50% to 60%, while that rate of students in “Bard Prison Initiative” is as low as 4%. “Here, you can see the power of education over human beings, over life and over soul.” Undoubtedly, Qin Yun is special among all the other Chinese language teachers in the US for her story. With teachers sharing their stories in person, the 8th National Chinese Language Conference from April 16 to April 18 made it possible for the attendees to substantially experience the “power” of Chinese language education in the US.

Since 2008, the National Chinese Language Conference has been successfully held for seven times, and this year marked the eighth running of the conference. It has become the largest, most well-known Chinese language annual conference in North America. The conference witnessed an ever increasing number of participates from around 300 in 2008 to over 1,400 this year. In total, nearly ten thousand people attended the conference, most of which were Chinese language educators from different states in the US and dozens of other countries and regions. This year, the conference was co-hosted by the Asia Society, the College Board and Confucius Institute Headquarters (Hanban).


Former US president James Earl Carter also sent congratulatory messages to the conference. In the letter read out by Professor Liu Yawei, Director of the Carter Center’s China Program, Mr. Carter applauded the efforts of the Asia Society and the College Board in “strengthening American and Chinese students’ knowledge and understanding of the world. It would prepare young generation of both countries for a productive global citizenry.” “These efforts are particularly significant to me, as it was Deng Xiaoping and I who opened the door for our countries’ students to learn about each other's culture,” Carter wrote in the letter.

How many Chinese language teachers and learners are there in the US? According to statistics of the Asia Society, the number of schools with Chinese language courses has risen to over 4,000, up from only 200 ten years ago. On the conference hall, there was a small bulletin board, on which many institutions posted their recruitment advertisements.

A Chinese language teacher from a small town in North Carolina told the reporter that, except for the three Chinese language teachers, she could hardly see any Chinese in her school or even in the town she lived in. There was even no Asian in her class, and half of students had Spanish as their mother tongue. In this context, it was quite rare that three Chinese teachers came here and took charge of Chinese language teaching of the whole school. Students started learning Chinese since kindergarten; as a result, some students spoke Chinese even better than English.

“I was born in Canada. I can only speak Chinese, but cannot write. I don’t want my daughter to lose the chance of writing Chinese like I did,” said Guan Yalan to the reporter at the conference. Her thirteen-year-old daughter Alexa King sat next to her. The girl can speak Chinese fluently and also read in Chinese. With the application installed in her smartphone, she has made friends with more than 400 Chinese for learning each other’s language.

Guan Yalan urged her daughter to learn Chinese mainly for a better future development of her daughter. She said, first of all you need to do subtraction, taking away less popular languages and those that are similar to English. Then, how many foreign languages are left for American children to learn? Besides, she thought that future working partners and competitors of her girl wouldn’t be her American schoolmates or friends, but peers from China. Therefore, a good command of Chinese is a must.

Guan Yalan’s ideas represent those of many other parents, especially Chinese immigrant families. Of course, this is not the only reason of learning Chinese. At the last sharing session of all teachers, several Chinese language teachers and principals talked about the reasons why students chose to learn Chinese: some for finding a better job, some for challenging their intelligence in learning one of the most difficult languages; for many girls, they just wanted to appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters. Some learners even can’t help wondering why others did not choose to learn. David Coleman, President of the College Board said, “There is something amazing about learning Chinese. To watch a student go from knowing nothing to speaking fluently is magical and astonishing.”


This “amazing” process was fully displayed on the talent show at the opening ceremony. Jesse Appell, an American young man from Boston, now lives in Beijing as a Fulbright researcher, studying crosstalk and Chinese humor. In 2013, he was apprenticed to crosstalk artist Ding Guangquan, the master of a well-known Canadian crosstalk artist Mark Henry Rowswell (Dashan). Now, Jesse has become a professional dramatic actor and artist, giving touring performances of Chinese crosstalk in different parts of the US. The hits of his song Foreigner Style reached 200 million on the Internet. On the talent show, Jesse, along with Nicholas Angiers (An Renliang), another senior foreign apprentice of Ding Guangquan, performed crosstalk, clapper talk and talk show in both Chinese and English, which further glamorized the charm of languages. In the end, Anthony Dodge and Nicholas Biniaz-Harris played a duet of Butterfly Lovers with erhu and piano, while some senior high school students performed Chinese calligraphy, which once again showed the splendor of Chinese culture.

Nevertheless, some people still doubted the role that Confucius Institute played. A Chinese non-governmental scholar, however, found the doubts and resistance from international community unjustifiable after visiting local schools during his investigation tour in the US. When he visited schools in Atlanta, he noticed that American schools were operated under strict management mechanisms. Most important of all, children from different countries would inevitably come together and work together in the process of globalization. So, learning Chinese language could prepare them for the inevitable. “For the good of our next generation, we should make concessions to everything”, he said. What’s more, in his eyes, encouraging active participation of the non-governmental force and facilitating cultural exchange and communication was not just a supplement, but a must. As a matter of fact, except official forces of the US and China, endeavors from NGOs on international education and cultural exchange showed remarkable power. Some NGOs in the US and China even came to the conference to seek development opportunities.

Kalea Papandrew is a twelve-year-old girl from California International School and schoolmate of Alexa King. Unlike Alexa King who is half Chinese, Kalea Papandrew grows in a family with no Chinese background. In addition to taking Chinese courses at school, she uses an app called “SnapLingo” to communicate with her Chinese peers, learning in an authentic language learning environment. As the US prohibits children under thirteen from using Facebook, Twitter and other social network software, this app designed for children of six to fifteen years old has become the only language learning software that enables communication between American and Chinese children. The app has been recommended by the Star Talk Program of US Department of Education. It was trialed last summer and officially launched early this year, covering twenty US states and over ten Chinese provinces and cities. The National Chinese Language Conference is undoubtedly a good opportunity for the promotion and development of this newly established company in San Francisco. The theme of the conference this year is “Pathways to Global Engagement”. In many participants’ eyes, the pathways of engagement not only involve governments, but also non-governmental organizations, especially when it comes to teaching materials development and teaching techniques improvement.

Jesse and Nicholas

During the three-day conference, over a thousand Chinese language education practitioners participated in nearly a hundred sessions around twelve subjects. They discussed over an array of topics, ranging from macro educational policies, academic study to micro teaching methods and technological techniques. Besides, Chinese Teaching & Learning Resources Exhibition attracted many conference participants. Since there are no uniform teaching materials in the US, schools and colleges are free to choose their own textbooks when cooperating with Confucius Institutes. Textbooks chosen shall undergo public notification before being formally used in class. This creates much space for the development of non-governmental education organizations, as evidenced by their Chinese language textbooks with distinctive features. For instance, Dr. Yuhong Zheng from Quincy High School in Boston has developed a series of textbooks Chinese in Focus based on his sixteen years of teaching experience, which makes up for the defect of textbooks edited by Chinese due to their lack of understanding towards American classroom teaching. PEARSON is expert in oral Chinese teaching and testing, while products of “Magic Kids” target on younger beginners. Tao Map Animation Technology Co., Ltd. in Shanghai combines Chinese characters with animations. As for Far East Book Company in Taiwan that has 70-year experience on developing textbooks of Chinese learning for foreigners, it has launched the famous Far East Chinese for Youth series, various dictionaries and the latest app products. All products of Far East Book Company are in two versions of simplified Chinese or traditional Chinese. According to the optimistic estimates of NGO scholars who came to US to investigate Chinese language education, with the development of Chinese teaching in the US, the flexibility and pertinence of NGO’ moves will lead to more frequent Sino-US contact on the non-governmental level in the future, and the mutual communication will go deeper to school-to-school level, and even student-to-student level.

Text by Luo Siling, special correspondent of Tencent Culture


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