Name: Yea-Fen Chen
New job: Director of Indiana University's flagship program in Chinese and a professor of East Asian languages and cultures
Previous position: Coordinator of the Chinese-language and Asian-studies-certificate programs at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee
Highest degree: Doctorate in language education from Indiana University at Bloomington
I started teaching Mandarin when I was a graduate student at Indiana University, after having earned my bachelor's degree in English literature at National Taiwan University. My dissertation was on foreign-language strategies, and my goal has always been to find more effective and enjoyable ways for students to learn another language.
In August, I came back to Indiana University, this time to direct its flagship program in Chinese. The National Security Education Program, at the Department of Defense, has helped finance flagship programs at a few dozen universities in nine languages seen as critical to the security of the United States.
The flagship program at Indiana is doing things that I had been trying to do at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, but at UWM I had to find funding from friends or pay from my own pocket. For instance, when I organized a Chinese New Year celebration, I had to establish a Chinese club and cook the food myself. At Indiana, I can organize these cultural events with financial support from the grant and help from staff members.
The resources of a formalized program allow me to have my vision and have people who help me implement it, and we can be more ambitious. Flagship students are supported by mentors and required to study abroad during their capstone year, when they take courses with Chinese college students and do six-month internships.
Before I left UWM, we had just started a Chinese major, and our goal was to get people to the advanced level. Here the goal is to prepare students for careers using Mandarin and get them to the superior level—which is very hard to attain, even for Chinese-Americans. Under proficiency guidelines developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, "superior" was the highest level of language fluency before the addition of a "distinguished" category last year.
Superior-level students can talk conceptually about subjects like environmental issues, and take a position and defend their position. Advanced students cannot do all that, though they can still tell stories and talk about current issues. Superior level is especially difficult to achieve in Mandarin because students need to spend so much time working on reading and writing characters in a totally different writing system.
Most jobs requiring Mandarin take people who are at the advanced level. But superior level is still the goal of the flagship program because we need to set the bar high. Even if we fall short, students will have advanced skills and be on the professional level. Without that goal, students may fall to the intermediate level. Then there would be nothing to distinguish them from students in a regular, non-flagship language program.
I've been at the job for only a short while, so I'm evaluating and asking a lot of questions. I want to eventually build up a good model for a flagship program. Not all schools have the resources from the Defense Department or their own institution to create such a program, but the Language Partnership Group, a nonprofit organization that is trying to improve foreign-language learning in the United States, is talking about ways we can apply the model we have developed to other colleges that want to strive to the top.
You cannot ignore the power of China. You cannot live one day without buying something made in China or being affected by its economic or political power. Americans need to learn another language, even if it's not Mandarin, because, unfortunately, in many countries the image of an "American" is still someone carrying a gun. Cross-cultural understanding through language can ensure that we have more friends instead of enemies.
—As told to Angela Chen