July 31, 2007 — Dengting Boyanton knows first-hand the value of practicing a foreign language in a relaxed conversational setting. As a student at Central China Normal University in Wuhan City, she took part in weekly “English Corner” gatherings — found at every Chinese university, she said — to practice her English with other students and local residents eager to improve their fluency.
Boyanton, who will receive her Ph.D. in educational psychology from the Curry School in August, leads the “Chinese Corner,” part of U.Va.’s Summer Language Institute’s offerings to help students studying Chinese practice their language skills. The Thursday evening gatherings on the south end of the Lawn in front of Cabell Hall are casual events where students and native speakers from the community can chat in Chinese. “It also a way to build friendships and make contacts,” Boyanton said.
U.Va. added Chinese to its Summer Language Institute this year after a successful test run during the regular summer school session last year, said Dudley Doane, director of the summer session.
U.Va. students have shown an increased interest in incorporating Chinese study in their education. The new Department of East Asian Language, Literature and Culture already has a wait list of 15 students who want to take Chinese 101 in the fall and upper level classes also are in great demand.
“At the level of the federal government, Chinese has been identified as an important language for strategic and economic purposes, and national defense,” Doane added.
The Chinese Corner has attracted about 40 people each week. One student said it inspired him to study hard in his classes earlier in the week so that he could practice his recently acquired skills; an Afton resident, who is not a U.Va. student, was pleased to find a rare opportunity to practice his Chinese.
The event is just one of many opportunities for cultural and language practice that Boyanton planned this summer to facilitate the use of Chinese in everyday life in her role as the residential program director for the SLI's Chinese class.
In the Chinese Corner and one-on-one sessions with language-exchange partners, “the students are picking up things they do not get in the classroom,” said Shu Chen Chen, who teaches the daily 3 1/2- hour morning classroom sessions. “They learn about different ways of thinking firsthand, as well as have an opportunity to hear Chinese spoken in various dialects from a number of provinces.”
The morning classes are rigorous, compressing two semesters of study into nine weeks. “It is a challenge,” said Chen, who earned a Ph.D. in religion with a focus on Buddhist studies from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in May. She has taught Chinese at U.Va. for the past two regular academic years. “I am amazed at how well they are doing.”
Rising second-year engineering student Chris Myers said, “Coming into the class with a native English background, Chinese seemed extremely foreign at first, but as the class progressed the material became surprisingly simple.”
Chen attributes the students’ comprehension and retention success to the intensity of their exposure and to the fact that they have time to concentrate only on their Chinese. “They do not have to prioritize their academic demands as they do during the regular academic year,” she said. SLI students also pledge to speak only Chinese as they begin to cover material offered in the Chinese 102 portion of the course. Then it’s Chinese all the time — in class and during all the social and cultural times they spend together as well.
“Our students have to speak spontaneously and in written tests and essays master grammar and writing the characters. They work at an intense pace, building a solid foundation. The challenge of learning the material in such a short period of time gives them an edge that they will carry into their second year of study,” Chen said. “It builds their confidence.”
“Taking the class over the summer has really let me focus on improving my Chinese, and all of the extra activities that we have done with native speakers has definitely progressed my hearing and speaking beyond where it would have been if I had enrolled in the Chinese courses during the normal semester,” said Myers, who plans to study abroad in China next spring. “I think the ability to speak Chinese will become very valuable in the future because of the job opportunities in China as well as the increasing number of Chinese engineers studying or working in the United States.”