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Teachers of Chinese Explore Ways To Nurture Their Difficult Subject

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Columbus--In what they described as the first such gathering ever held in this country, a small band of distinguished scholars, language specialists, and high-school teachers of Chinese met earlier this summer at The Ohio State University to discuss their efforts to expand the number of high-school programs of language instruction in Chinese.

"I've waited 12 years for this meeting," said Margaret Wong Michaelson, who taught Chinese for several years at a magnet school in Minneapolis and has recently taken on similar duties at a private high school there.

According to Timothy Light, chairman of the East Asian languages department at osu, the conference marked "the first national meeting of high-school teachers of any non-Western language. Certainly, this is the first meeting for Chinese," he said.

The unusual event, sponsored by the language department with support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, was designed, said Scott R. McVay of the foundation, to allow the teachers to meet with leading Chinese-language specialists to discuss curriculum, textbooks, and teaching methodology; to pass along "all kinds of good ideas on what works in the classroom"; and to establish a "network of regular communication."

Key Foundation Role

In fact, many of the Chinese-language programs that were represented at the conference were established in the past few years with the support of the New Jersey-based foundation, which has spent about $1 million in the past two years to introduce or enhance Chinese-language study in 37 high schools nationwide. In establishing its network of Chinese programs, Dodge contacted about "500 top high schools," foundation officials said. (See Education Week, January 11, 1984.)

Schools involved in the foundation's "China Initiative" have strong foreign-language departments, administrative staff who support foreign languages and social studies, a "zeal" to see Chinese language taught to more students, and a commitment to hire the best possible Chinese-language instructors, said Mr. McVay, who is executive director of the foundation.

The participating teachers, who are few in number and widely scattered across the country, said they had been anxious for an opportunity to get together with their colleagues.

Besides the 31 teachers from programs supported by Dodge, participants in the conference included more than a dozen scholars from the Beijing Language Institute and Chinese-language programs at such institutions as Ohio State, Kenyon College, Princeton University, and Middlebury College.

Fewer Than 1,000 Students

There are more students of English in China today than there are speakers of English in the United States, Mr. McVay noted, while fewer than 1,000 American high-school students are studying Chinese.

In the early 1960's, some 200 American high schools offered instruction in Chinese, according to T.T. Ch'en, professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and the author of a new text in introductory Mandarin (the standard dialect of China).

That number had dropped to 30 by 1982, he said, because programs could not be sustained following a decline in federal and private funding.

"The earlier high-school programs were not as rigorous or demanding as the ones being established now," according to Mr. Light. In some cases, he said, the programs in the 1960's were caught up in "the counter-culture movement" that encouraged "tripping out with the Tao and liberating yourself."

The programs were "more inter-ested in flaunting authority" than in promoting learning and were often "the first courses cut from the curriculum," he added.

More Advanced Students

Chinese-language specialists at the conference said that students who learn Chinese in high school with proper instruction have a great advantage over previous generations of students, who mostly studied the language in "bits and pieces"--often beginning their study in the military or late in college.

Perry Link, who teaches Chinese at the University of California at Los Angeles, said he found it "frustrating" that so many students who take on a language as challenging as Chinese begin their studies as late as graduate school.

"Those who study English and French can discuss Shakespeare or Proust and have intelligent literary discussion even as college freshmen," said Mr. Link, a translator and critic of modern Chinese literature who worked with T.T. Ch'en in producing the new Mandarin textbook. "But with the Chinese language, college students can just barely read simple stories. Most of the literary work has to be done in translation.''

'Serious' vs. 'Curious'

The conference participants, noting that learning Chinese demands a great deal of individual motivation and time, debated such questions as how much academic rigor to inject into their programs, when to begin teaching Chinese characters, and which of the few textbooks available were most suitable.

There are more than 50,000 characters in the Chinese language, experts note, but many of them are no longer in use, and mastery of only 3,000 to 5,000 is necessary to read a Chinese newspaper.

Peter Dratz, who has taught Chinese at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa for four years, said teachers have a problem in deciding whether to tilt the curriculum to benefit "the serious or the curious."

"Do we set standards so high that we turn off the curious and have small enrollments or do we lower standards and turn away the brightest students and limit achievement?" he asked.

In his view, it is not an "either/or" situation, he added. Standards must be kept high but there must also be individualized instruction to give students who have fallen behind a chance to keep up. He also said that sometimes the "curious" student turns out to be better at picking up Chinese than the most academically able.

'Clear Signals' of Rigor

Mr. McVay and others suggested, however, that not all students are capable of learning the language.

"In seeking to increase the number of students enrolled in Chinese-language instruction, we must give clear signals to students considering enrollment," Mr. McVay said. "Everyone should not be encouraged to apply. Chinese requires discipline, hard work, and high motivation."

He noted that Cherry Creek High School in Denver last year invited its top 100 9th graders to take Chinese, provided that they were willing to make a three-year commitment. Some 55 students came to an introductory meeting and 32 signed up for the course. Thirty students will continue next year with Chinese II, Mr. McVay said.

Homework Gap

Participating teachers commented on several characteristics of American schooling that make teaching their difficult specialty a challenge.

"I was assuming that there would be about 1.5 hours of study at home each day," said Mr. Ch'en in response to suggestions by some at the conference that the pace of instruction in his new textbook was too rapid. "I didn't realize that high-school students only spend about 20 minutes on homework a day." He said he planned to revise the book.

Other teachers said they have been forced to spend much of their time as "salesmen," promoting their classes to a skeptical student body.

Most of the teachers at the conference said they had not yet settled on a specific text to use. They also said they were still trying to set common standards for courses, so that the first, second, and third years of study are comparable nationwide.

According to Mr. Light, "When you say you are covering so many characters in a year, you can be saying so many things."

"Are students able to recognize the characters; can they recognize and read simplified and complex forms; do they read the character only individually, or do they know what it means in combination with other characters?" he continued.

The conference participants concluded that they should work to develop standardized tests to measure various levels of accomplishment in the subject.

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