Some Chinese language instructors and students are unconvinced about a significant change in how the University will teach Chinese courses next semester.
Just before the Thanksgiving break on Nov. 15, Language Coordinator Wei Su, who oversees Chinese language instruction at Yale, sent several language instructors an e-mail in Chinese indicating that the department needed to “strengthen” its teaching of traditional Chinese characters in addition to simplified characters, particularly in third-year and more advanced courses.
Currently, all introductory Chinese courses teach only simplified characters — the type used in mainland China — while the more complex traditional characters, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong and seen in ancient Chinese literature, are reserved for upper-level courses.
Elementary modern Chinese lector Li Li translated Su’s e-mail from Chinese into English for the News.
The e-mail said several Chinese history and literature professors and Japanese literature professors complained during a Nov. 14 meeting of some members of the East Asian Languages and Literature department about their students’ lack of knowledge of traditional Chinese characters.
During the meeting, Department Chair John Treat announced his decision to require an increased focus on traditional characters, the e-mail said.
The e-mail said professors were concerned Yale students’ lack of expertise in traditional Chinese characters would cause them to fall behind their counterparts at Princeton, Harvard and Columbia Universities.
Currently, Harvard teaches traditional Chinese characters in the first year of instruction. Princeton teaches only simplified characters but requires students to be able to recognize traditional characters.
Treat did not return requests for comment Wednesday.
Several introductory and intermediate-level professors and students said they think the change will be difficult for beginning students accustomed to simplified characters. But some upper-level professors said the change is a positive step in Chinese language instruction overall.
Li said because traditional characters are mostly useful to the minority of Chinese language students who major in Chinese history, it is best not to require all students to learn traditional and simplified characters.
“This should not be compulsory to all students, regardless of their needs and motives,” Li said in an e-mail.
Four Chinese instructors interviewed said the department plans to have a meeting about the curriculum change when Su returns to the United States at the end of November.
Su is currently traveling in China with the Yale Debate Team and did not return requests for comment.
Intermediate modern Chinese lector Min Chen said she does not think it is best to teach traditional and simplified characters at the same time.
“It’s very hard for non-background students to learn Chinese characters,” Chen said in an e-mail. “It would be even harder if [we] asked students to learn both simultaneously.”
Chen said because the textbook she teaches from already lists both traditional and simplified characters, she plans to fulfill the new policy by requiring increased use of traditional characters on homework and tests.
The Chinese language instructor said a committee headed by former Yale Chinese professor Charles Laughlin — who was the resident director of the PKU-Yale Joint Undergraduate Program — submitted a proposal to department members in 1999 to discontinue teaching traditional characters in first-year courses.
The department approved the proposal following this multilateral conclusion.
But Senior Chinese lector Zhengguo Kang said since the 1999 decision, few of his advanced language students have been able to read the required traditional texts for his class.
Kang said he heard from other professors that several students had recently complained that they were not learning traditional forms, which may have contributed to support for the policy change.
“If students in the beginning are forced to read the traditional forms, and then read the simplified form, it’s easy,” Kang said. “Some people think traditional forms are very different from simplified forms, but I think that is a misunderstanding.”
Students in elementary modern Chinese, who have only been exposed to simplified characters so far in their single semester of studying the language, said they expect the change to be challenging.
Micah Fredman ‘10 said the sheer number of Chinese characters that have been simplified from their traditional forms makes the task of learning those forms next semester more difficult.
“To remember a lot of [the characters] in a more complicated way is going to be harder,” Fredman said. “The class is a lot of work and somewhat difficult as is. [The change] is probably not so exciting for most people.”
Stanley Seiden ‘10 said he does not understand the point of changing the department’s current methods, because most students will be using their language skills to travel and work in mainland China.
“These sort of traditional characters are sort of less-used in regions or areas Yale students would be visiting,” Seiden said. “Traditional characters won’t do us more good as Yale students learning beginning Chinese.”
According to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research, in the 2006-2007 school year 693 students enrolled in Chinese language and history classes.