When I came to WVU in the fall of 2006, I was very excited about the opportunity and challenge of establishing a Chinese Studies program. The non-existence of any Chinese language or culture courses and the lack of resources at that time truly posed some difficulties.
Studying a foreign language — especially one that’s very different from our native tongue — means that we analyze things from a different angle. It opens our eyes and trains our minds. And there are many reasons to open our eyes and train our minds to Chinese.
China’s rapidly growing economy has fueled an international surge in the study of Chinese language and culture in the last two decades. Mandarin Chinese has been reclassified from a “Less Commonly Taught Language” to a “Critical Language” by the U.S. Government. Chinese is currently spoken by nearly one-fifth of the world’s population. Studying Chinese not only prepares students for new opportunities and challenges involving the greater China region, but it also helps them to better engage in the global socio-political and economic arena.
In WVU’s endowed program, students study Chinese language, business and media as well as culture, literature and social science courses. Our immediate objectives are to make sure that the students will be proficient and knowledgeable in the subjects. Our ultimate goal is to help the students develop a true passion for learning and a deeper understanding of humanity.
Outside of class, students participate in the Chinese Club’s hands-on workshops from making dumplings to calligraphy to learning the tile game mahjong. And they take part in cultural celebrations, including performing the Chinese Lion Dance at Chinese Lunar New Year.
The program has attracted students in humanities, social science, engineering, nursing, business and science. Our retention rate — students who choose to continue to the next level — is over 90 percent, and 80 percent of our majors are pursuing either double majors or dual degrees.
The program’s results have been swift. In 10 years, we have had 150 students participate in study abroad programs, more than 80 students have graduated from the program and our students have won national and international scholarships, including eight Critical Language Scholarships, three Fulbright Scholarships, six Gilman Scholarships, six Chinese Government Scholarships and two Taiwan Government Scholarships.
We are proud to report that more than 90 percent of the students in our program study in the region of China before they graduate, while the average percentage of students studying abroad in the U.S. is about 12 percent.
One of my students who graduated from the program, Matthew, did not really know what he wanted to do after graduation. He loved working out and going to the gym. When he studied abroad with us in the summer, he made friends with a gym owner in China. He then did his Chinese capstone thesis on the body-building business and the nutrition supplement market in China. Matthew is now the China branch manager for a large Pittsburgh-based company that sells health and nutrition products.
There is much more ground we can cover. There are more than 50,000 college students studying Chinese nationwide, but only fewer than 300 in West Virginia. I believe there is still space, from curriculum to teacher training, to develop Chinese programs in the K-12 schools in our state. From what we have witnessed in the last 10 years, there is no doubt that learning this critical language can benefit our students by expanding their horizons.
Huey Hannah Lin is the J. Vance and Florence Highland Johnson Professor of Chinese Studies in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at WVU. She holds a BA in linguistics from the University of Oregon and an MA in second language education and PhD in Chinese linguistics from the Ohio State University. Learn more about the WVU Chinese Studies program at go.wvu.edu/chinese.