Monday 12 January 2015

On Learning Chinese (and NOT Learning Chinese) in Western Universities

Let's say that a team of researchers concluded that it takes 480 hours of instruction for an American student to reach level 1 in Chinese language ability, the lowest level of a five-level system of evaluation created by the American Council on The Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).  Yes, as you might suppose, there's a citation coming up for that claim.  Without expanding too much on how this "level 1" might be defined, we've already got a significant problem in figuring out how such a huge number of hours could fit into a western-style university system.

The studies in question concluded that it took seven semesters to reach this 480-hour mark, even under "ideal conditions".  The trouble is that the level 1 described here just doesn't add up to all that much of an outcome, relative to the enormous cost to the student: "In other words, a student who started to take Chinese as a freshman, and who continued with it throughout his/her college career, would at the time of graduation be able to orally 'ask and answer simple questions involving areas of immediate need, leisure time activities and simple transactions.'" (Madeline Chu, 1996, p. 135)

Some students might be willing to sign on even for this limited outcome, but few employers would be satisfied with it: a graduate with a B.A. in Chinese is expected to be many levels higher than this standard, even in moving on to an M.A. program, let alone applying for a position in government service, teaching, or tourism.  Madeline Chu comments, "The description [of level 1] not only classifies [the] level of proficiency but also illustrates the reality of deficiency". (Ibidem)

The trouble is that the studies Chu is reporting on gather together data from a period of "40 years", prior to 1986.  University education in Chinese has changed in many ways since 1986 (let alone 1946), with the most striking being the proliferation of computer technology.

If students received 480 hours of meaningful, face-to-face instruction in 1986, I would speculate that the vast majority of (North American) university programs now provide less than this, in both a quantitative and qualitative sense.  Of course, at the same time, computerized dictionaries have replaced paper dictionaries, and DVDs have replaced the audio cassettes, and so on.  While the tools provided to students have become more effective, they have also encouraged an institutional slide toward presuming that more and more of the effort made in education consists of the student sitting alone with his/her computer, and not engaging in those 480 hours of interaction with an instructor, under "ideal conditions".

Contemporary western universities are not really based around the language-teaching paradigm: they're based around a lecture-and-exam paradigm, with most of the people in the system (as graduate students, teaching-assistants, or professors) being deeply culturally committed to the academic lecture as the format that they should use to demonstrate their knowledge (and as the method that students should aspire to emulate).  In some subjects, this isn't problematic; however, for achieving level 1 in a language, starting from level zero, the use of handpuppets and story-books might really be more important than the academic lecture.  Effective language pedagogy is often humbling to all of the participants: it may be childish, repetitive, and poorly suited to academic pretensions in so many ways.

Now, what kind of people actually end up teaching Chinese in four-year college degree programs?  (I have a source to cite on this, too.)

"During the twentieth century, many Chinese teachers at four-year colleges in the West (i.e. Europe and North America) were Chinese graduate students who pursued their study of other disciplines at the institution where they taught Chinese.  These teachers, often under the supervision of a professor in (East) Asian Studies, did not have any formal training in teaching Chinese as FL [i.e., as a foreign language].  Despite this, the arrangement satisfied both sides: the  college could hire graduate students at a fraction of what it would cost to hire trained teachers and the graduate students definitely needed the financial support no matter how paltry.  As a result, their teaching methods (such as they were) reflected their understanding and experience of their own language acquisition as native speakers." (Janet Zhiqun Xing, 2006, p. 66)

As a rule, these are precisely the type of people who are "deeply culturally committed to the academic lecture as a format", and who will be the least inclined to put on hand-puppets, read a story-book, or lead the class in singing a song.  These are, as a rule, people who are not committed to effective language-teaching, but who are committed to their own status as professors, and who will use methods that magnify their own sense of professorial authority in the academic context.  These will neither be methods that get objective results, nor methods that are subjectively sensitive to what foreigners find difficult about learning Chinese.

These are widespread problems with the recruitment of both native-speaking professors and graduate students who end up teaching Chinese (in some capacity) in the western world.  I don't think these problems are impossible to solve, however, they provide real reasons for students to ask their professors, "Where did you learn to teach Chinese?"  The answer may be that their teacher has an M.A. in history, but was never really trained to be a language-instructor at all.

Quote, "One important factor is the passive mentality of teachers. The coverage of numbers of lessons, numbers of characters, and hours of classes is a common yardstick of teaching duties.  Mechanical tests in language knowledge are a common evaluation mechanism of student 'performance'.  When convenient, easy-to-calculate methods are considered a fair appraisal of teaching and learning, it is not difficult to understand why some teachers of Chinese language are conservative and students uninterested.  Even when the inefficiency of the system becomes obvious, passive attitudes may again restrain the teachers from striving for changes, and practical considerations encourage them to tread on easy paths. […]"

"Much emphasis is put on transmitting knowledge though linguistic structures, whereas not enough attention is paid to the signification of these structural and vocabulary items.  Some scholars of linguistics choose to fill much of class time with their esoteric research results while native informants drill the students with monotonous sentence patterns and test them on memorized sentences. […]"

"Too often these teachers yield to the philosophy and structure of the available textbooks and find themselves restrained by these textbooks. Indeed, when teachers cannot make use of their teaching tools, they themselves become tools, having a passive mentality and a mechanical approach." [Emphasis added] (Madeline Chu, 1996, p. 137–9)

Madeline Chu's article is in Scott McGinnis, 1996, Chinese Pedagogy: An Emerging Field.

The other source mentioned is Janet Zhiqun Xing, 2006, Teaching and Learning Chinese as a Foreign Language: a Pedagogical Grammar.