"Long Live Chairman Mao!"
Those were the first English words spoken by William R. Kenan Professor Hong Gang Jin as a child, back during China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Despite such an inauspicious beginning, once that chaotic time was over, Jin devoted herself first to learning English, then to finding more effective ways to teach her mother tongue to non-native speakers. At Hamilton she and her husband, Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures De Bao Xu, have developed an innovative methodology that uses different strategies for each distinct stage of learning.
Students spend the first 100 days focusing on tones, pronunciation and the basic formation of Chinese characters. Next comes comprehension, as Jin and Xu try to enable their students to have real conversations by quickly learning to simultaneously speak and understand the language. They have developed a set of multimedia materials for students to work on outside of class, including all homework and speaking and listening exercises.
In the classroom, all the lessons and texts are computer-based and highly interactive. Students say the atmosphere in class can be boisterous as they learn the language by discussing the issues of the day, in Chinese.
"You cannot not pay attention in Chinese class because they're all so fast-paced," says Kaitlin Britt '09. As a high school senior from the Seattle area, Britt visited an astounding 33 colleges, looking for just the right place to major in Chinese. After sitting in on Jin's second-semester class, she told her father she was hooked on Hamilton. "I just said 'Dad, I have to go here, this is so perfect.' It was so interactive and cool, and everyone in class was into it."
That includes Jin, whose study of pedagogy has helped professionalize the field. "Language is a discipline, and you need to do it in a very professional way," she says.
That commitment is equally apparent in the Japanese minor, which now draws about 40 students to its language courses, says Kyoko Omori, assistant professor of Japanese. The minor provides four years of language instruction, with all teachers "trained in Japanese language pedagogy specifically for the college level, which is not always the case in a small liberal arts environment," she says.