Crossing the Educational Divide

The Oriental Morning Post

Shanghai, China

July 30, 2004

Crossing the Educational Divide

By Bill Marcus

As most experts increasingly believe that language and culture and connected, educators and language students are beginning to question the value of segregated language education in a society that is becoming increasingly desegregated, changing the educational landscape as well.

They might be North American, Asia, Arab, or African university students, but they have all come to China to learn Chinese. But housed in segregated dormitories, they live and eat only with other foreigners, and so, they are not compelled to improve their spoken Mandarin. Living apart form Chinese people, they say their language education has still left them with fundamental questions and a thirst for cultural knowledge.

Ahsan Habib, 29, of Bangladesh describes his two years of language study at Fudan University’s International Cultural Exchange School as living on an island. “There’s no sports, no games. I don’t know the Chinese,” said Habib. “My language skills are not improving.”

Educators argue time and a narrowing income gap will eventually bridge the disparity that separates Chinese students from foreign students, including dorm rents of CN Y1,200 a year compared to foreign dorm rents of CN Y3,000 a month, thus removing the economic rationale for the separation. At Tongji University, for example, Chinese students are encouraged to visit the foreign students dorm and teachers introduce Chinese and foreign students. But when it comes to day-to-day life, the communities remain separate.

Staying on One Side of the Gap

Chinese students at Fudan in the foreign students dormitory who study English say they are not welcome in the foreign students dormitory or the classroom lobby where the foreign students study, both of which are unfounded, but rarely challenged assumptions.

“We do not like to talk to strangers directly, and, we think, neither do they,” said Fudan undergraduate electronic science and technology major Liu Xiaojun of Shanghai.

Experts say this artificial social segregation denies students the ability to experiment and risk making mistakes in a safe social setting. As a result of a lack of social experiences, self-doubt and low self-esteem transforms what ought to be a joyful time of interaction with a new Western friend into a stress-filled situation that students then directly associate with learning English. Fear of rejection magnifies the natural shyness of the young adults. Eventually it can impact the Chinese student’s entire program.

Obstacles can come from others as well. Maids are standard in foreign student dormitories, and they often perceive the efforts of most Chinese students trying to find a Western language partner as a romantic advance intended to result solely in socio-economic gains. Giving them dirty looks, many Chinese students are scared off.

In addition, with many Chinese vying for the attention of just a few native speakers Chinese are forced into playing the subservient role in a classical power relationship.


“They simply have no idea how to access (the culture),” says Dr. Dong Hongle, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Fudan University. Professor Hongle argues that the use of metaphors in Western language “reflects the way Westerners look at the world (and) reflects the way they look at themselves.” Without access to a culture, he adds, students can’t become fluent in its linguistic concepts.

Take, for example, the correlation between knowledge and light, says Dr. Hongle. That connection goes back as far as the Bible, and perhaps even earlier. In another example, he said, it might be tricky to explain why “looking up” to someone in English is positive while “looking down” on someone is not.

“What learners need is an opportunity to interact with other speakers, in ways which lead them to adapt what they are saying until the learner shows signs of understanding,” writes Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada in How Languages Are Learned. Motivation and attitude are integral to second language acquisition, they report, summarizing the position of psychological learning theorist Michael Long.

The First Steps
But cultures are beginning to mix at the “Voice of We,” a free style conversational English program broadcast 11 times since last fall over the Internet by Fudan students. Before each show foreigners and Chinese collectively brainstorm the topics they then pepper with music.

“Sometimes they may come up with a certain topic, which is not that suitable for Chinese audience,” said show producer Bonnie Wang, of Shanghai. “In that case, I will explain to them why it is not O.K. to talk about it in the show. And that’s the way they come to know the difference between two cultures.”

Native English speakers from the United States, England, and Australia have volunteered despite the small audience of 30 to 60 listeners. “People like our show and stay tuned, which made us pretty satisfied. I think this is just the taste of success,” said Wang.

By far, the greatest measurable success in overcoming cultural segregation in area schools is being made at the lowest level.

Starting from the Beginning

At Dulwich International School in Pudong, English speaking pre-kindergarteners aged 2 to 5 mix three times a week for 45 minutes in combined music and physical education classes with Chinese children who attend Dulwich’s sister school, Golden Key Kindergarten (Jin Qi) at the same location. “After that they have to go to their own Chinese school,” said Dulwich Headmaster Colin Nevin.

“Probably, completely unconsciously, their horizons are wider,” says Mathijs Hekkelman, Deputy Director of the international school where tuition for all is CN Y3,000 to CN Y4,000 a month. “If the language doesn’t extend outside of the classroom it doesn’t make very much sense.”

For three and a half year-old Yan Jiaqing, whose English name is Liz, the results have been profound, according to her mother, Alice Chen, 35, a Shanghai native who is general manager and chief Shanghai representative for the Belgian-based SD Diamond Company.

“She’s willing to learn English by herself,” said Chen, who said she noticed a change in her daughter after three months at Golden Key. “Before she watched TV, she (didn’t) want to watch English cartoon(s). Now she wants to. She’s happy to learn.”

Though Chen herself learned English from her grandparents, she doesn’t plan to start using it at home out of respect for her country and her culture. “I won’t speak any other language (but Chinese) at home.” Nevertheless, she said she believes cultural integration is necessary for her daughter and her classmates. “They have to learn how to be together.”

Once, while observing a class, she noticed two other children struggling over a toy. Finding their friendship impeded by a lack of understanding the children were forced to learn each other’s language, she said. “They solve the problem by themselves.”

“I think it goes both ways,” said Chen, crediting increased exposure to foreigner teachers and foreign classmates with her daughter’s ability to overcome a fear of foreign faces. “When kids grow they will be more and more self-confident.”

Original article in Oriental Morning PostCrossing the Educational Divide