Beyond Pedagogy: Content Matters in Chinese

(Joshua Frank/Asia Society)

by Yun Qin

The linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” If we begin with the understanding that students learn a new language in order to experience a bigger world, then it follows that language teachers should not teach languages with the final goal being language acquisition alone. Rather, teachers are tasked with showing students how to use languages as a tool to explore different life directions, to expand their minds, and to push their students beyond their limits.

Most teacher-training events I have attended focus on teaching methodologies—in other words, “how to teach.” But without a focus on what to teach, the how to teach falls flat.

To provide an answer to this question of what to teach, the Chinese Language Initiatives team at Asia Society has designed a series of China Studies Seminars. Our goal is to help Chinese language teachers gain a deeper understanding and knowledge of modern China—of Chinese language and Chinese culture per se, as well as to guide teachers to integrate both traditional and contemporary cultural elements into their Chinese classrooms.

In the first part of their 10-day journey through modern Chinese literature, music, and architecture, participants interacted with scholars and experts in these areas. Lectures were scheduled in the mornings, and later on in the day participants exercised their new knowledge through field trips. For example, one morning Dr. Wenjian Ni (from the department of Chinese Language and Literature at East China Normal University) illustrated to us how to read Lu Xun’s essays, and identified several possible approaches to this famous and influential philosopher and author of modern Chinese literature. Following that lecture, participants visited the Lu Xun Museum in Shanghai, guided by Dr. Ni. The next morning, Dr. Ruirui Wu (from the department of music at East China Normal University) gave the participants an overview of the history of music in China, with a focus on modern perspectives, practices, and products. That night, two famous Pingtan (评弹) artists performed for us. Pingtan is a traditional opera, native to the Yangtze Delta, and is especially popular in Shanghai and Suzhou. Nowadays people have concerns that these kinds of local operas, which are usually performed in the local dialect, are not attractive enough to young people or to people who don’t speak the dialect. But in this performance, the adaptations of Pingtan to our contemporary times greatly renewed the participants’ impressions about traditional local operas. Our teachers say they will use these authentic cultural materials in their classes in the new school year.

In the second part of the seminar, language education experts instructed participants on the principles of integrating cultural elements into language teaching, using many examples. The most inspiring things to teachers include Dr. Weiling Wu’s interpretations about the perspectives, practices, and products of culture in language class and Dr. Frank Tang’s humanistic approach to the language and culture education. For instance, Dr. Tang showed teachers two photos.



In the first, a New York City policeman bought a homeless man a pair of boots. In the second, a Chinese girl held an umbrella in the heavy rain over a disabled beggar, she herself soaked. Though these acts of kindness happened in two different countries, they both tell of a common humanity, and Dr. Tang’s point is that teachers can integrate culture and language teaching from this perspective.

In the third and final part of the seminar, participants worked in groups to integrate the cultural elements they experienced in Shanghai into their Chinese language teaching plans, and prepared units with the goal of sharing their findings with the greater Chinese language education field. With both the what and how to teach in their toolboxes, teachers can introduce to their students the great and many charms of Chinese language and culture.

Yun Qin is Senior Program Associate, Chinese Language Initiatives, Asia Society.

Video: Asia Society China Studies Seminar helps teachers integrate culture into language instruction (6 min., 35 sec.)

Video: Participant testimonies (11 min., 7 sec.)

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