Johns Hopkins Gazette | February 16, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 16, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 22
Chinese for 'Test Tube'? Help Might Be Near

Framework funds feasibility study for innovative language-learning program

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

In 2008, China stood as the second-largest economy in the world after the United States, witnessing steady growth over the past decade. A nation that once suffered a brain drain now experiences the exact opposite, even amid a global economic downturn.

With China increasingly becoming a world power and its influence spreading across East Asia, a little bit of — or better yet, a lot of — Chinese language training would significantly enhance a person's workplace marketability, or so says Kellee Tsai, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins and director of its East Asian Studies program.

Tsai recently secured funding from the Office of the Provost to conduct a one-year feasibility study for the establishment of an intensive Chinese language program at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in China. The unique program would feature a research component and specialized technical tracks such as medical Chinese, business Chinese, Chinese for engineers or public health workers and Chinese for social science research.

The program was one of the 11 inaugural grant winners out of 74 proposals submitted to the Framework for the Future's Discovery Working Group. Each selected initiative received start-up funding of up to $200,000 per year for up to three years. The university hopes these Discovery grants will ignite new areas and strengthen existing ones where crossdisciplinary interactions make a major difference.

The Discovery Working Group is one part of Framework for the Future, a strategic planning process that Provost Kristina Johnson and President William R. Brody initiated in May 2008. The other parts are Ways and Means, and People.

In addition to the Chinese language program, one-year grants went to the Johns Hopkins All-University Africana Studies Initiative, the Initiative in Computational Learning, Addressing the "Gathering Storm" in STEM Education and the Neuro-Education Initiative: Supporting Translational Research in the Brain Sciences to Transform Teaching and Learning.

According to Tsai, interest in East Asian studies has skyrocketed. All the courses at Johns Hopkins fill up quickly, she said, and long waiting lists are commonplace. Due to high demand, the East Asian Studies program introduced seven new courses and an honors track this past year.

The program has also laid the groundwork for an East Asian studies concentration or minor tailored for engineering and natural science students.

"This is where the use of the Discovery Grant comes in," Tsai said. "What I will be doing is tailoring a program specifically for that niche of students who are majoring in engineering, public health or pre-med, you name it, but also are really interested in working in East Asia. Many of our students are originally from that region."

Tsai said the time to implement such a program is right now.

"If we can get this off the ground really soon, Johns Hopkins would be at the absolute forefront of an imminent wave of students with science-East Asian double concentrations," she said. "It is just a natural, logical extension of the growing interest in the region."

The program would incorporate the Middlebury-style immersion pedagogy, which features the pledge to speak only the language of study for a set duration. Tsai said that the proposed technical language program would need to be "distinctly Hopkins" in its emphasis on specialized language training, with opportunities for students to pursue their research interests in collaboration with Chinese counterparts. It would also be an alternative to the conventional immersion programs in China.

"We see no need to offer yet another intensive Chinese language program for our students. There are already so many out there," she said. "Princeton has one. Duke, too. The list goes on."

Hosting the program at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, Tsai said, would capitalize on the center's reputation within China for crosscultural training and networking, and Johns Hopkins' strengths in medicine, engineering and science.

The Hopkins-Nanjing Center is operated jointly by the university's School of Advanced International Studies and Nanjing University. The center today is considered the most prestigious and largest facility in the world devoted exclusively to education for future leaders of the Sino-American relationship. This past year, 67 students enrolled in the center's academic programs.

Tsai said she believes there is growing demand among natural science undergraduates and graduate students, at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere, who would appreciate the opportunity to study Chinese in a manner that complements their research and professional interests.

Students enrolled in the program might, for example, visit labs in China where scientists are working on topics in their specific field of study.

While it would initially be targeted to undergraduates, the program could also enroll graduate students, visiting scholars, postdocs and faculty.

"This could be the beginning of something that facilitates research and professional collaboration with Chinese counterparts," she said.

The feasibility study will seek to determine the optimum level of Chinese required for the program, class size and structure, course materials, research-oriented activities, cost structure, staffing, scheduling and the overall objectives.

Tsai said the initial impression is that such specialized language training would require at least two years of college-level Chinese. The program would likely be six to eight weeks in duration and be offered during the summer.

"But I'm open to what the study shows us," Tsai said. "Intersession would be another possibility for when the program is offered."

In addition to classroom instruction, students might take part in field trips, laboratory visits, research seminars, workshops and other activities that provide an opportunity to interact with native speakers working within the same area of specialization.

What would be the outcomes of such a program? Tsai said that students would have the ability to translate a social science survey questionnaire, read an article in a Chinese medical journal or conduct field interviews in Chinese.

"Ultimately, upon graduation, the student would be better qualified," she said. "When an East Asian firm is looking at two applicants, someone who has Chinese/engineering or Chinese/public health training would have a competitive advantage over someone with a general Chinese language background."

Tsai said that she hopes to have a report on the program completed by September. The East Asian Studies program plans to apply for external funding to help fund start-up costs.


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