Chicago universities see language as U.S. bridge to China

Xinhua English
May 15, 2011

By Ted Regencia

CHICAGO — Amid the lingering misunderstanding between the world’s largest economies of the U.S. and China, two language professors from top Chicago universities said understanding Chinese is crucial to improving trans-national relationship.

“Chinese language is really a conduit. Actually it can serve as a bridge. Through learning Chinese, my American students can gradually get to know about China, about the Chinese people,” said Prof. Licheng Gu of Northwestern University.

“They (American students) have a lot of misunderstanding about China. But while learning Chinese, they have to know about the Chinese culture. So my Chinese language teachers explain to the students what the real China is,” he said.Prof. Li Jin, who heads the Chinese language program at the largest Catholic university in America, DePaul University, agreed, “language and culture are inseparable.”

Both Northwestern and DePaul offer comprehensive Chinese language programs. Northwestern has an estimated 350 students per quarter, while DePaul has about 50 to 60 students taking Chinese classes.

In both universities, enrollment has gone up in the last few years with many American students recognizing the importance of learning language in conducting business in China, according to Licheng Gu and Li Jin.

“The trend is very clear: It is very steadily and continuously growing and growing and growing,” Licheng Gu, who has been at Northwestern University for 18 years, told Xinhua.

“As long as China’s economy is developing and booming, and China’s relationship with the United States remains friendly and harmonious between the two countries, then there would be more students who want to learn Chinese,” he added.

“So the stability, the friendship, the cooperation between the two countries will facilitate the growth of the Chinese language program in the United States.”

Meanwhile, Li Jin told Xinhua that American students have practical reason to learn Chinese. Many students believe it will give them “competitive advantage in the future job market.”

As the Chinese economy further expands, more economic opportunities for American businesses will also open up and Chinese-speaking Americans will have the edge, Li Jin pointed out.

For Northwestern University journalism student Ali Pechman learning Chinese would help her as she plans to start a writing career in China.

“I want to start my career in China and work as a freelancer or write articles there,” Pechman told Xinhua. “It’s an easy place to live and as a young person I found and it was lots of fun. So I would love to go back and try to start a writing career from there, and be able to write about issues that I care about, write about culture.”

She said that while visiting China last year she found that easier to connect with people using the Chinese language.

“People are really excited about foreigners and people want to speak to you in English, people are excited that you speak Chinese,” Pechman added.

Still, Northwestern’s Licheng Gu cautioned that more work needs to be done to strengthen the two countries’ relationship, including increased language and cultural exchanges.

“If politically anything that is, for example, if there is a big turmoil or instability in China, and then we would see a negative trend. Very quickly. Very, very clearly that will happen,” Licheng Gu pointed out.

To help promote more cultural understanding among his American students, Licheng Gu have been organizing the Northwestern in Beijing program.

Every year, about 60 Northwestern University students travel to China to study at Tsinghua University in Beijing for two months. Last year, the students were joined by Northwestern University President Morton O. Schapiro. Schapiro is expected to return this year to further improved ties with Tsinghua, Licheng Gu said.

Students not only study the Chinese language, but also the economy, history and even traditional medicine.

“So you can imagine that through actually going to China, talking to the Chinese people, people on the streets, in stores, in shops, they really get to know the Chinese people,” Licheng Gu said, adding that Chinese taxi drivers “are the best teachers for my Chinese language students here from Northwestern.”

“They learn so much from them and they realize, ‘”Wow, that’s the real China that I’m seeing. It’s quiet different actually from what I learned from the American media,'” Licheng Gu added.

At DePaul University,  four years of Chinese language instruction are also offered, with additional advanced language courses such as Chinese Culture through Film or Business Chinese.

“The rise of China presents new economic, political and social realities that demand greater U.S. engagement at every level. As the foundation of that engagement, we urgently need to raise the number of Americans who can demonstrate a functional proficiency in Chinese,” DePaul University’s website states.

Every year DePaul also conducts studies for its students in Fudan University in Shanghai, according to Li Jian.

She said these annual visits help American students “become a better global and international citizen” by exposing them to a different culture other than their own.

Even within the four corners of their classroom at Northwestern University, students already learn a lot from their Chinese instructors beyond learning the language.

“One of the lessons that I always want to impart to my students is Confucius’ idea, “Don’t do to others, what you don’t want others do to you,”‘ Licheng Gu said. “Be sensitive and respect all those differences. If you don’t want to be discriminated against, then you don’t want to discriminate others. So respect each other, and then we’ll have a much better, more peaceful world.”

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