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WUSTL linguist partners with Chinese colleagues to find best ways to teach English in China

By Julie Kennedy

joe angeles

Yanming “Nancy” Gao, right, vice dean of the School of Overseas Education at Northeast Normal University in China, returned to China last month after spending the past year at Washington University researching methods for teaching English to native Chinese speakers. She studied with Cindy Brantmeier, left, associate professor of applied linguistics and Spanish in Arts & Sciences.

China is known to have the largest number of English language learners in the world, with estimates as high as 300 million people learning to speak, write and read English.

A linguist at Washington University in St. Louis has been collaborating with scholars from China to study the best methodologies and techniques for native Chinese speakers to learn English.

In 2008, Cindy Brantmeier, PhD, associate professor of applied linguistics and Spanish in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL, was selected to be a Northeast Normal University (NENU) Scholar for research on applied linguistics in China.

Since then, she has hosted three different visiting scholars from NENU who have been actively collaborating with experiments on language learning in China.

The international collaboration has been successful not only inside the lab but outside as well.

The exchange began in 2008 when Brantmeier was asked to go to NENU to share her expertise on second-language acquisition, especially in reading.

Brantmeier, who was not able to go to China that year because she was pregnant with twins, instead offered to host one scholar each year from Northeast Normal, where leaders were seeking a more data-driven approach to language-learning research.

Yanming “Nancy” Gao, vice dean of the School of Overseas Education at NENU, returned to China last month after spending the past year at Washington University working with Brantmeier.

“In China, many language professors will do their research based on their observation and experience, but it’s not quantified, or data-driven,” Gao says.

Brantmeier, the principal investigator of WUSTL’s Language Research Laboratory, also has hosted Xiucheng Yu, associate professor of Applied Linguistics, and Cao Jun, vice dean of the School of Foreign Languages.

All three of the Chinese scholars were chosen from a large pool of candidates in a very competitive selection process.

NENU has one of the 11 language training centers that are directly under the leadership of the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. The university has an entire School of Foreign Languages, not just a department, and is nationally known for language teaching and learning.

Brantmeier said she and Yu, the first visiting scholar she hosted from China, conducted a thorough search on the database of research that has been published on language acquisition by Chinese applied linguists. The majority of that research is qualitative, focusing on case studies of two or three students.

“That is why NENU came to me four years ago,” she said. “They want to do more quantitative, psycholinguistic experimental research that’s data driven with large quantities of students.”

Brantmeier says English is viewed in China as a powerful instrument necessary for the advancement of science and technology. “There is a great demand for English across all ages right now,” she says.

Gao also credited the Beijing Olympics in 2008 for increasing interest in English. “When we hosted the Olympics, nearly everybody was eager to learn a little bit of English so they could say ‘Welcome to China.’”

Brantmeier and Gao say the United States and China teach second languages very differently.

“In China, there is a lot of repetition and memorization in the language-learning process,” Brantmeier says. “That is not the standard way to teach language in the United States anymore. We have a low-risk environment with little reliance on habit formation or error-free production. Students here attend to the new language for meaning instead of memorizing chunks of words.

“We’re not saying this methodology will work in China,” Brantmeier says. “We’re trying to get at the best methodology and techniques for native Chinese learners to learn English. We want to use their current methodology as a way to move forward instead of saying, ‘This is not the right way to do it.’ That’s not what we’re about at all.”

Brantmeier says they want to learn how the Chinese have achieved success, and then improve upon those results when possible.

“There has been a great deal of reciprocity with the scholars in China,” she says. “I have learned more about the strong connection between language learning and culturally bound ideologies, a topic that sparked my interest years ago when I directed a language center in Nicaragua.”

Brantmeier says she and the three visiting scholars plan to produce an edited volume of language-acquisition experiments that are substantiated through quantitative methods with adults, elementary school children and preschool children. She says it will be the first of its kind that they know of in China.

The researchers hope to publish the work through a leading international publisher. Brantmeier and Yu already have published articles on experiments they conducted in China.

Institutional exchange

Both Washington University and Northeast Normal University have gained from this exchange beyond the experiments run by Brantmeier and Gao.

Gao became involved with other areas of Washington University, including giving a lecture about the history of learning English in China. She audited three sociolinguistic courses offered by John Baugh, PhD, the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor in Arts & Sciences, and attended theoretical linguistic courses offered by Brett Hyde, PhD, assistant professor of philosophy and of philosophy-neuroscience-psychology, both in Arts & Sciences.

She also attended all of the applied linguistics courses offered by Brantmeier.

“They (WUSTL linguists) want to share what they have and for me to share what I have,” Gao said in an interview before she returned to China. “That’s why it’s been a wonderful experience for me to sit in their classes and communicate with the students in the classes.”

Brantmeier praised Gao’s willingness to learn new ideas but also stand her ground on ideas that have worked in China.

“Exposure to someone like Nancy was incredibly valuable for the PhD students in my department,” Brantmeier says.

Gao plans to implement some of the techniques Brantmeier uses to train her doctoral students to teach language.

“When I go back, the first thing I’d like to do is set up a workshop discussing those new teaching methods for the new student teachers,” Gao said.

And it seems the time has come for Brantmeier to become the visiting scholar.

“I’ll be going to China,” she says. “They want me to come for six to eight months. I’m very seriously considering working there that long, but, at this point, I’m agreeing to go for a month, most likely within the next year. My 4-year-old twins will be coming with me, and we’re all studying Chinese right now to prepare.”

Cultural exchange with community

Years ago, Brantmeier had lived and worked in other countries, such as Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Spain, and therefore understands international exchange outside the limits of a lab and classroom. Brantmeier took the extra step of including Gao in her everyday life so that she could get a fuller cultural experience in St. Louis.

“I tried to expose Nancy to the whole social aspect of learning outside the classroom,” Brantmeier says.

Some of these events included a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, birthday and dinner parties, her twins’ basketball games and an Easter egg hunt.

“I’ve been involved in all kinds of life here — everyday life and academic,” Gao said.

Gao’s 12-year-old daughter, Diana, became good friends with Brantmeier’s twins. Diana spent a year at Wydown Middle School in Clayton. When she entered the seventh grade in January 2012, she had limited English skills. Diana is now very comfortable with English and ended her year there with an A+ average.

Diana’s teachers even nominated her for a scholarship to return to the United States for college.

Gao, who became involved with Wydown Middle School, said she saw the value of extracurriculars in her daughter’s education.

“My daughter’s school organized a lot of activities and parties for the students,” Gao noted. “That makes the students love school life so much. This is something I’ve learned from them as a mother and a teacher. In China, we focus more on academic achievement, but here we do find the fun in life.”

One of the biggest cultural shocks for Gao was that people in the United States more freely express their emotions and opinions than people in China.

“In China, we are very reserved,” she said. “Even though we love our parents, we don’t hug them and say ‘Mom and Dad, I love you.’”

She also noted that in classes, Americans don’t hesitate to share their ideas, whereas Chinese students may be more likely to wait for a professor to call on them. Conversely, Brantmeier noted that she has reinforced her notion, from the visiting Chinese scholars, on the value of really listening to others before forming an opinion.

“So, we can learn a lot from each other,” Gao said. “I’ve learned a lot from my stay.”

Global engagement

This partnership is an example of why global engagement is a priority at Washington University, says Richard J. Smith, PhD, dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and the Ralph E. Morrow Distinguished University Professor.

“Working with international researchers with new points of views benefits not only research; cross-cultural exchanges enhance the institutions and communities involved, as well,” says Smith, who helped spark the exchange by putting scholars at NENU in touch with Brantmeier.

“It works two ways: We get to enrich our campus with an international scholar who interacts with our students, and we’re growing the number of faculty in China who have a tie to Washington University.”

“I saw this simply as planting a seed, and Cindy has grown it,” Smith says. “All the things that can come with a collaboration seem to have grown out of this. It’s terrific.” ​

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