Institute trains teachers to promote Chinese language, culture

Updated: 2012-01-18 10:01

By Yang Ziman (China Daily)

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NEW YORK - In a classroom at Pace University, students are learning to bargain in Chinese for a couple of embroidered purses.

"Zhe ge duo shao qian?" How much is this?

"Yi bai kuai." A hundred yuan.

"Tai gui le. Pian yi yi dian er ba!" That's too expensive. Can you lower the price a bit?

"Use the phrases that you have just learned," teacher Wang Xiaojun said, "and we'll see who can haggle for the lowest price."

Wang, who used to teach English at Nanjing Normal University in China, went to Pace to teach Chinese a few months ago and will teach there for two years. She is among more than 100 teachers trained last year by Hanban, a government-affiliated institute for promoting the Chinese language and culture abroad.

Hanban has established more than 300 outlets that offer Chinese courses around the globe since 2005. These outlets are called Confucius Institutes for the great educator whose thought has influenced China for more than 2,000 years.

The United States has the largest number of Confucius Institutes, 72.

Wang went through five weeks of intensive training in Beijing before she was qualified to teach in the United States. "I had to take 12 hours of classes every day for five days a week, learning about the history of the language, Chinese culture and philosophy."

After she came to New York, Wang realized that Chinese was new to most of her students. Attracting them to learn a very difficult language would not be easy.

"I don't want to scare my students off by forcing them to recite a large volume of vocabulary," she said. She later came up with the idea of toning down the difficulty but putting her students in real situations, such as asking for directions, introducing themselves and ordering in a restaurant.

"Just now I taught the students to bargain in Chinese," Wang said. "The concept is easy to understand, and the phrases may come in handy if they visit China some day."

The students do have the opportunity to see China with their own eyes. Scholarships are offered to study in the country for up to two years. Last year, Olivia Drouhaut and Christopher Huang got the chance to study in China for one month and one year, respectively.

"I have 'Aha!' moments where characters that were previously just scribbles to me have actually become words and I can understand them," Huang, a Chinese-American, wrote to Pace Confucius Institute. "Sometimes I get really excited when I can completely read and understand a group of Chinese characters, and I get strange looks from other people."

Wang Xiaojun's approach to her students reflects Confucius' view on education: He believed that one should teach students in accordance with their aptitude. And just like Wang, many Chinese teachers have found ways to customize their courses.

Zhou Yanyu, associate dean of Pace University's Confucius Institute, taught elementary Chinese as a summer course. But her students were professors and deans at Pace who were going to open courses on Chinese culture.

"These scholars wanted to understand China at a higher level," Zhou said. "They were not going to be satisfied with merely pronunciation or self-introduction."

Therefore, Zhou, who used to teach sociology and philosophy in China, dissected Chinese characters to reveal the way of thinking hidden inside them.

"Chinese is the only language in the world that embodies phonetics, shape and meaning," she said. "It has truth, graciousness and beauty in it. Each character is a poem, a painting."

"Dr Yanyu Zhou did a great job of teaching us to learn to speak Chinese and also learn about the language itself," Pace professors Joseph Morreale and Anya Shostya wrote to the Confucius Institute. "Some of us never thought that we could learn to communicate in Chinese but came away able to do so."

The faculty was also exposed to other facets of China, including art, literature, history, economics and law. Last summer, they took a two-week trip to China, meeting with scholars and continuing their Chinese lessons at universities in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai.

These professors will open about 10 courses this year on subjects including China and US economic and political relations, China's financial system, Chinese contemporary literature and films, and contemporary Chinese art.