Li Hua: Inspire students to empathize with Chinese culture by empathizing with local culture
(2022-11-07 16:11:04)

Li Hua, associate professor of the School of Foreign Languages, Renmin University of China (RUC), was recently interviewed about her working and teaching experience as the Chinese Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Costa Rica from March 2018 to March 2022.

The original intention of Professor Li’s decision to go to the Confucius Institute at the University of Costa Rica (hereinafter referred to as the Confucius Institute) to engage in international Chinese education is to go around the world and share the beauty of the Chinese language and culture.

She started an English creative writing course at RUC in 2006 after she returned from the United States. By 2016 and 2017, she felt that creative writing was developing very well in China, so she wanted to explore a new field.

“At the time I thought it would make more sense if I could travel the world and share our language and culture with more people,” she said. “Therefore, I decided to sign up as the Chinese Director of the Confucius Institute at RUC.”

Professor Li majored in English, but Costa Rica’s official language is Spanish. To overcome the language barrier, she made a lot of effort. After she decided to go to Costa Rica, she studied Spanish for 2 to 3 months, which was considered just a foundation and hardly sufficient there. “Because Spanish grammar is complicated, language was one of the biggest challenges my colleagues and I encountered when we first arrived,” she said.

However, this experience helped them to understand the difficulties of local students learning Chinese. She said that they all understood well that elementary class students had difficulties speaking Chinese since they also found it difficult to speak Spanish.

In case teachers were not yet proficient in Spanish, they used a combination of Chinese and English to teach students Chinese culture. They tried to explain cultural concepts in English since it was almost impossible for someone who learned Spanish for only 1 or 2 years to do the same in Spanish. She also encouraged Chinese teachers to speak Spanish and local teachers to speak Chinese, to reflect the exchange and integration of Chinese and foreign cultures in the Confucius Institute.

For Professor Li, English and Chinese have many similarities in teaching. She said that she could appreciate the wonderful feeling that she had in her college life in the process of teaching students. And she understood the sentence “you have enriched my life” more, which was said by her American English writing teacher, after years of teaching.

“Our students have written stories that I have never been able to write in my life. While their language may need to be developed, the creativity in it is very unique,” Professor Li said. “From this point of view, whether teaching English or teaching Chinese, we all hope that everyone could have deep communication between their hearts and empathy with each other.”

Professor Li introduced her experience of teaching students ancient Chinese poems during their communication, including when they communicated with local primary and secondary school students on “World Book Day”. For example, they taught students Li Bai’s short poem A Tranquil Night, which could be explained character by character and catchy to read. They also taught students to sing it, which was composed by Gu Jianfen, and the students were interested. “In faraway Costa Rica, I was very moved when I taught this poem to local primary and secondary school students,” she said. “Teaching poems could be easy because the poetry itself is very refined, imaginative, and articulate. As soon as I explain it to the students, they can immediately understand the artistic conception.”

In Professor Li’s opinion, the covid-19 pandemic stimulated everyone’s enthusiasm for learning Chinese, which gave the Confucius Institute a chance to fully convert to online courses in March 2020. She found the great potential of Chinese teaching in Costa Rica, but only 7 teachers including her were simply not enough. At that time, the time was not yet right to develop online courses, but the pandemic promoted the change to some degree.

To her consolation, the number of students at the Confucius Institute has increased when the whole world is hit by such a severe pandemic. Compared with 2019, there was an increase of nearly three or four hundred students in 2020, an increase of about 38%. In 2021, the number of students in the joint credit courses with the University of Costa Rica also doubled compared to 2020. She said, “it is possible that the pandemic inspired everyone’s enthusiasm for learning Chinese because everyone thinks Chinese is very important.”

After the pandemic, there were some changes in the planning and organization of the cultural activities of festivals. Before the pandemic, every festival activity would be planned by a teacher, who would share the plan with all teachers and then assign work. Professor Li gave an example of her participation in the Qixi festival, where she was arranged to read Qin Guan’s poem. She invited a senior student named Xiao Mei to translate it into Spanish so everyone could understand it. Accompanied by Guqin, she read the Chinese version and Xiao Mei read the Spanish version on the day of the event, both of them wearing traditional Chinese clothes. She said, “the whole event was successful.”

After the pandemic, they were worried that students could no longer actively take part in those activities. They felt that it would be a bit strange to participate in cultural activities without seeing each other through the screen. However, she soon realized that the most important thing about festival cultural activities is the meaning behind them. For example, they invited both students and parents to participate in the Double Ninth Festival in 2020 and asked students to prepare a small gift for their elders, which already taught them the true meaning of that festival, namely to care for the elderly around.

“I think this is a very heartwarming activity. Because of the covid-19, everyone would be especially grateful to the Confucius Institute for helping to convey such care,” Professor Li said. “The success or failure of festival cultural activities is not only determined by the specific form but the activity itself must be deeply rooted in the hearts of the people.”

Professor Li emphasized that a good teaching effect needs a common ground. For instance, Costa Ricans are very romantic and teachers would give such topics or scenes to interest the students, such as inviting the other person to dinner or watching a movie. According to her, this kind of teaching effect is very good, because students would feel that teachers are helping them say what they want to say, rather than forcing them on what teachers want them to say.

Besides, she believes that achieving empathy in language teaching needs two-way efforts. “We are not a one-sided teacher who only teaches Chinese,” she said, “We want to show the students that we love Costa Rica very much, and let them know that the teachers also need the help of the students.” Take herself as an example, she would put on a large dress with local characteristics on National Day in Costa Rica and sing a Spanish song to them during class. Sometimes she read to them the stories she wrote in Spanish, and when they read the stories they wrote in Chinese later, they would have more confidence. “Because they would feel that the teacher is the same as them, we are all learning how to master a new language, so they are also willing to share with the teacher,” she said.

She mentioned what a student once told her during years of teaching. He said that the best thing she does is that she “try not to teach”. “As a teacher, try not to ‘teach’, but try to stimulate students’ learning initiative,” Professor Li said in the end.

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