Aug. 31, 2007 — China is an increasingly important player on the global scene. The United States Navy's Seventh Fleet roams the western Pacific and Indian oceans, close to its Japanese bases, underscoring the U.S. military interest in the region. International attempts to curb North Korea’s atomic ambitions have required delicate U.S. diplomacy.
With East Asia constantly in the news, University of Virginia students are increasingly interested in learning the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Tibetan languages.
That interest has led to the creation of the University’s new department of East Asian Languages, Literatures and Cultures, and will soon launch the first graduate program for East Asian languages and literatures in the southeastern United States, according to Anne Kinney, professor of Chinese and department chair. On July 1, the former Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Culture split into two departments: the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, and the Department of East Asian Languages, Literatures and Cultures.
The division reflects the distinct cultural and historical sensibilities of the two regions and will allow “each program to develop to its full capacity,” Kinney said.
“It is important in our globalized world today to meet the needs of the commonwealth to train people in these ways,” she noted. With one in four people in the world who speak Chinese, "students interested in careers in business and government are at a disadvantage if they cannot speak Chinese."
The department, which has 13 faculty members, has a strong focus in both classical and modern Chinese and Japanese, which were introduced at the University in the 1970s through the then- Department of Linguistics. A pilot program in Korean was added in 2006-2007 and first-year classes in Tibetan will be taught starting this fall. “The goal is to add a Ph.D. program as soon as possible,” Kinney said.
Student interest in studying Chinese and Japanese has expanded exponentially in the last few years. Enrollment ranges from heritage students, who already speak the languages and are offered accelerated classes reflecting their proficiency, to those whose awareness previously extended only to their familiarity and interest in East Asian popular culture in areas such as anime, the Japanese cartoon genre, and its influence on story-telling worldwide. Once students begin to learn the language and more about the culture, they become committed, said Tomomi Sato, a lecturer in Japanese.
Japanese scholar and professor Michiko Wilson said, “It's nice to see how the students grow with their interest in the language and look beyond their own world.” The goal is for the students to be able to not only understand the language, but to become proficient enough to converse metaphorically, Wilson added.
“The level of language instruction is high because of the proficiency of the lecturers, many of whom have Ph.D.s and are known in their fields,” Kinney said.
The University’s 21 current Japanese majors have a wide range of interests. About one-third are double majors, according to Wilson. In addition to Japanese, they major in physics, anthropology, foreign affairs, history and economics. With already demanding academics they are “challenging [themselves to] one of the most difficult languages in the world for an English speaker,” Wilson said. Japanese and Chinese require upwards of 1,300 hours of study for proficiency, as compared to the 450 hours needed to learn Spanish, French and Italian.
Wilson, who has taught at U.Va. since the 1970s and heads the Japanese program, has witnessed the steady growth in class offerings and student interest. “U.Va. has been successful in retaining student interest over the years, unlike the dips seen on other campuses,” she said.
“Fourth-year students are trained well enough to be able to take courses in a Japanese college,” Wilson said. “Their intellectual level of proficiency is really amazing.”
Hsin-hsin Liang coordinates U.Va.'s Chinese language program, where enrollment has increased 20 percent in the last two years. Interest in study abroad programs in China has also grown; more than 110 students traveled to China, Taiwan and Hong Kong during the summer or past academic year to boost their language competence and gain a greater cultural understanding.
With a Ph.D. in linguistics and two master’s degrees, one in Chinese and another in teaching English as a second language, Liang developed U.Va.'s successful summer program at East China Normal University in Shanghai, which has become a model for other American universities’ programs. The strength of her philosophy and approach lies in the blending of different methods of teaching Chinese to meet student needs.
This year, Liang took 22 students to China. Each takes a pledge to speak only Chinese and to attend daily lecture classes, small group discussions, language drill class and one-on-one sessions with carefully selected ECNU graduate students. Liang developed the program to take advantage of exposure to current, everyday issues from the Chinese perspective while maintaining a high intellectual level by recruiting ECNU Chinese graduate students as instructors.
Both U.Va. and Chinese students benefit from the arrangement, according to Liang. “The Chinese graduate student instructors learn the American way of teaching language. It's like an internship for them. It's a way for them to get good jobs,” Liang said.
Liang forged an agreement with ECNU to bring the best teacher she has trained to U.Va. for this academic year. Wenhao Diao’s arrival will ease the demand of teaching the 259 students signed up to take Chinese in the fall. She will teach nine hours of language instruction and live on the Chinese-language floor of Shea House, a residence hall devoted to the total-immersion study of East and South Asian language and culture, where she will interact with students at meals and conduct group activities.
Rick Carew, who first visited China with the ECNU program in 2000, benefited tremendously from his study of Chinese. Carew has called China home since graduating from U.Va. with a double major in economics and Chinese language and literature in 2004. A journalist covering economic issues in China for Dow Jones Newswires and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, he is grateful not only for the level of language preparation and study abroad immersion in the “living language” he received — which he credits with giving him the confidence to move to Beijing — but also for the network of people in China he was introduced to by Kinney and economics professor Bruce Reynolds.
“People with Chinese language skills are in high demand right now,” Carew said.