Pragmatism drives learners

Updated: 2013-04-15 10:41

By Cai Chunying in College Park, Maryland (China Daily)

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 Pragmatism drives learners

Skylar Falter, a senior at the University of Nebraska, listens to a question during the knowledge portion of Saturday's regional contest near Washington in preparation for the annual Chinese Bridge language-skills competition in Beijing this summer. Cai Chunying / China Daily

Martz Timms spent his 21st birthday competing against other Chinese-speaking American students for a chance to visit China this summer and meet fellow collegiate winners from around the world.

Timms, a junior at George Washington University, was one of 17 undergraduates who gathered at the University of Maryland on Saturday for a regional contest in Chinese-language proficiency.

Before heading off to university, Timms and his father - who on Saturday applauded his son's performance from the audience - sat down to discuss what foreign language could best prepare the young man for his future. They chose Chinese, and Martz has since fallen in love with the language as well as Chinese culture.

Many other competitors in the preliminary round of the annual Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students said they, too, were motivated by practical considerations.

"I realize studying Chinese and business together will be very valuable," said Rachel Woodlee, a senior at Wofford College in South Carolina who has a double major in the subjects.

Woodlee plans to pursue a master's degree at Oxford University in England in contemporary Chinese studies and international relations. "I hope to work in international policy in the US," she said.

Saturday's contest, in a region that covers Washington, DC, and 15 states as far west as Idaho and as far south as South Carolina, tested students in three areas: speaking, knowledge and cultural performance. A speech accounted for 70 percent of their final score.

Andrew Chester, a George Washington University senior, said in his speech: "Our school once had an event asking students to write on the blackboard, 'Before I die I want to ' I wrote 'Go to China many many times'."

On Wednesday, at the opening of the Confucius Institute on the GW campus in Washington, Chester's speechmaking impressed his university's president and the head of the Beijing-based organization that oversees Confucius Institutes, a Chinese government linguistic and cultural initiative. The student recited, in the original Chinese, an early 1920s poem by Xu Zhimo about his wistful departure from the University of Cambridge, where he had fallen in love with an English classmate.

"One hundred years ago, Chinese students came to the West to study," Chester said in prefacing his recitation. "One hundred years later, we go there."

Many students in the Chinese Bridge competition have done just that. Timms spent eight months last year at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, in an intensive program in which every day he memorized 100 words or more.

"He wants to go back this summer," Timms' father said.

Woodlee spent a semester at Beijing Foreign Studies University in a Mandarin-immersion program.

"I felt very welcomed, and I enjoyed all the rich history and of course the food," she said.

Chen Xiaoning, a visiting teaching fellow in GWU's Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures and a tutor of the university's two participants in the competition, said that four years ago, all of the students in her class for beginners started at more or less same level.

"But now, you've got half of the new students having either studied Chinese in their high schools or having been to China, so the level is quite uneven, which is challenging for us," Chen said.

Cui Jianxin, deputy director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland, which organized Saturday's competition, was pleased with the level of ability shown by the students.

"This is by far the best year," he said.

Chen said the annual language competition is a good motivator for her students, many of whom use it to sharpen their skills. Since 2002, about 150,000 students from 70 countries have competed in Chinese Bridge events.

The contest's knowledge section, arranged in quiz format, is tough for many students because of the unpredictable nature of the questions, which are culled from a trove of China-specific data. Much of the content, however, is seen in some form by participants in their preparation for the event.

In the cultural-performance portion, competitors showed off a variety of talents. Some went online to find guitar notation for popular Chinese songs, while others played traditional Chinese instruments or dressed in the traditional clothing of one of China's many ethnic groups.

Damien Liles, a University of Maryland senior, said he was intrigued by the slang used by Chinese Internet users. Part of his performance was a talk-show segment that wove some of those phrases into a retelling of stories from Chinese literature. The result: Liles won not only laughter and applause from the audience but the regional title as well.

Wang Yuli, his Chinese teacher at Maryland and tutor for the competition, praised Liles' determination to master the language.

"Every day when I come back from class to my office, he is already there waiting for me, always wanting to do it better."

Liles, who said he would like to work as an interpreter in international relations, will travel to Beijing in July. He and the winners of four other regional contests in the US will compete in the 12th annual Chinese Bridge contest, sponsored by China's National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, (commonly known as Hanban) and the Confucius Institute Headquarters.

China is also the destination for Timms who just turned 21. "After I graduate, I really want to go to China to work in the financial sector," he said.

(China Daily 04/15/2013 page8)