Chinese prof’s e-mail sparks internal debate

Administrators, professors and lectors in the East Asian Languages and Literatures department are sorting out whether an e-mail sent to lectors several weeks ago represents a misstatement or a curricular change that would mandate increased attention toward traditional Chinese characters.

On Nov. 15, Chinese language coordinator Wei Su sent an e-mail in Chinese to instructors and professors stating that at a faculty meeting the previous day, the department decided to “strengthen” its focus on traditional characters.

Two Chinese instructors, who translated the e-mail for the News, said the e-mail stated that all Chinese language courses should begin teaching the traditional characters, with a particular focus on third-year Chinese courses. But EALL department chair John Treat said Thursday that the department has not made any changes to the current curriculum.

Currently, students taking Chinese are taught simplified characters, popular in mainland China, in the first two years of study and are introduced to traditional characters — which are more elaborate and are used primarily in Hong Kong, Taiwan and classical Chinese literature — in the advanced courses, according to the 2007-2008 Yale College Programs of Study.

Su was traveling in China with the Yale Chinese-language debate team Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

Chinese language instructors interviewed said a departmental change requiring all classes to teach traditional characters would not be useful for Yalies studying at the introductory level and would be difficult for both students and lectors in introductory courses.

But despite many EALL lectors’ interpretation of the e-mail, Treat said faculty members did not decide on any significant changes to the Chinese curriculum during the November meeting. The recommendations for traditional character instruction apply to advanced rather than introductory courses, he said.

“We reminded the Chinese language faculty that in courses numbered 150 or higher, students must be taught to recognize traditional characters,” Treat said. “I didn’t receive Su Wei’s e-mail and even if I had, I don’t read Chinese.”

Chinese literature professor Kang-I Sun Chang said the potential emphasis on traditional characters represents a “reinforcement” rather than a change.

“It is true that some teachers did not reinforce it, which causes a problem,” Chang said. “We do see that some teachers are not doing that. It is a policy. It is not a democratic decision for the teachers to vote on.”

Chang said over the years, some of the students began her advanced classes unprepared to read classical Chinese texts because they could not recognize traditional characters. The decision to focus on traditional characters earlier, she said, represents a wish by department faculty to remain competitive with its counterparts at peer institutions.

“People at Harvard, Princeton and Columbia [universities] have no problem,” Chang said. “I want to make sure as a professor of classical literature that Yale is still leading. We are supposed to be the best — we cannot fall behind in this matter.”

First-year students at Harvard are exposed to both traditional and simplified characters, and Princeton requires students to recognize traditional characters.

Some elementary Chinese instructors said the change would benefit the majority of Chinese language students.

Earlier in the week, elementary modern Chinese instructor Li Li told the News she thinks introducing traditional characters in the first few years of language instruction would mainly serve the few students who decide to major in Chinese history.

One Chinese lector who asked to remain anonymous said although he thinks traditional characters are important to learn, it is the responsibility of advanced-level courses, not introductory ones, to introduce them.

Two more Chinese lectors who declined to comment until Su returns from China and the department holds a meeting about the issue. Su is scheduled to return to the United States today.


  • Anonymous

    who cares?

  • Anonymous

    In the real world, we are interested in communication with a billion people. Yale can advance that goal by teaching Chinese as it is currently overwhelmingly written and read, with simplified characters. Basic learning will not be advanced by the additional memorization of traditional characters for the same words. Scholars of Chinese culture and history may want to begin as soon as possible to also study the traditional characters in which original sources of that culture and history were written. Just as scholars of European culture and history might study a multitude of languages, or Old Norse, or Latin. But the rest of us have more immediate purposes. The faculty needs to look beyond their counterparts at Harvard, Princeton and Colombia, to China itself, and to its growing influence in world affairs, e.g. in the United Nations, in which documents are written in simplified characters. For people moving into that world, it is not practical to mandate the early learning and use of traditional characters.

  • Anonymous

    I am disturbed to see that the students are using the YDN as a weapon against the Chinese department's efforts to keep up with the times. The World Journal article dated Sunday, November 4, 2007 clearly states that even Mainland Chinese scholars are recognizing the importance of including Traditional Chinese characters in Mainland publications, educational materials, and road signs. Yalies don't need to be able to write them, but should be at least able to recognize Traditional Characters.

    The pendulum is swinging back.

    Yale's Chinese program is successful because it is strong in both listening/speaking AND reading/writing. The head of Princeton in Beijing (PIB), a favorite Light Fellowship Chinese program, mentioned to the Yale faculty this year, that Yale's first-year program students are just as strong as Princeton's in listening and speaking, stronger in reading and writing.

    Every year, the lectors at Temple Street work to improve language materials. Integrating the recognition of Traditional Characters in Chinese classes at all levels will only make Yale students, in the spirit of Beijing 2008,

    "Higher, Faster, Stronger"!