Unconventional approach speeds Chinese fluency

Method leads to Brandeis' new MAT middle, high school program in Chinese

The characters mean "teaching Chinese."

Ask any non-native speaker the hardest part of learning Chinese and the answer is almost invariably the same: mastering the language’s complex characters.

Yu Feng, associate professor of Chinese, has watched many students struggle and ultimately concede defeat in the face of learning 10,000 characters. He has taught Chinese for years, first at Harvard and, since 2008, at Brandeis. One of his Harvard students, still unable to read, write, or even speak the language after three years of intense study, inspired Feng to rethink how Chinese is taught.

At Brandeis, he devised a method that doesn’t require students to write characters at the outset, as the conventional approach demands. Feng’s method promotes speaking fluency as students learn a system of simplified Chinese characters, known as Pinyin. The linchpin in Feng’s system is using a computer with a Pinyin keyboard that types out characters. This approach, says Feng, enables students to focus on speaking fluency while building recognition of characters over time.

“My slogan is ‘Become fluent in four years,’” says Feng.

His success in reforming Chinese language pedagogy is behind Brandeis’ new MAT middle and high school program in Chinese  — one of only two programs certified by the state department of education, according to Marya Levenson, the Harry S. Levitan Director of Teacher Education and Professor of the Practice of Education.

The program will launch this summer with a handful of students, including several from China who will return to their homeland to teach. The MAT requires one full year of study plus two summers. Students also complete a practicum observing and teaching in a local school.

“Because of the strong collaboration between the education and Chinese programs, Brandeis will be preparing qualified teachers ready to teach middle and high school students eager to learn Chinese,” says Levenson.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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