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Chinese language classes foster international friendships

| Judy Berthiaume

Once or twice a week, Noah Turecek and Mingyang Qu track each other down on UW-Eau Claire’s campus so they can chat over a meal or study together in the library.

Students from China who are studying at UW-Eau Claire often join students in Chinese language classes, giving all the students a chance to practice speaking their non-native language.

Students from China who are studying at UW-Eau Claire often join students in Chinese language classes, giving all the students a chance to practice speaking their non-native language.

Typical college buddies helping each other get through a tough semester of classes?

Absolutely … though the support these Blugolds give each other goes well beyond the norm.

Turecek is an information systems major from McFarland who is learning to speak Chinese.

Qu, an international student from China who is studying finance at UW-Eau Claire, is working to improve his English.

When the friends hang out, they catch up on classes and life, but also help each other build their language skills and their understanding of cultures that differ from their own.

“We meet one to two times a week to help each other practice our English and Chinese,” says Turecek, a senior who is earning certificates in Chinese and Asian studies. “While the language barrier can sometimes be a bit tough, it’s an incredible learning experience for us both, and I consider him a very good friend. When we meet up to get food or study at the library it’s always a judgment-free zone, and we’re always interested in helping each other become better speakers of our non-native languages.”

Building friendships like his with Qu is among the reasons he encourages other Blugolds to enroll in Chinese or other language courses, says Turecek, who credits Dr. Kaishan Kong, an assistant professor of languages, with introducing him to Qu and other native Chinese speaking students.

“Professor Kong does a great job of introducing students in her Chinese classes to students from China so we can help them get acclimated to our culture and practice English, and in return, they can help us practice Chinese,” Turecek says.

Turecek is one of 20-plus Blugolds currently enrolled in Chinese language and culture courses at UW-Eau Claire. Several UW-River Falls students also take the classes, a distance-education opportunity created after budget cuts eliminated Chinese classes on the nearby campus, Kong says.

“I’ve been fascinated with China since middle school, mainly because the culture and geography is just so different than what I’ve grown up in,” Turecek says. “I enjoyed studying Spanish for three years in high school, but I fell in love with Chinese in college.”

Sophomore Caitlin Hedberg also discovered a passion for the Chinese language and culture in middle school, taking her first class as an eighth-grader.

Many students studying the Chinese language enjoy the beauty of the Chinese characters.

Many students studying the Chinese language enjoy the beauty of the Chinese characters.

She was drawn to it because of the beauty of the Chinese characters, one of the many things the physics major from Carver, Minnesota, still loves about the Chinese language.

“We listened to music and watched videos of calligraphy and I just thought all of it was so pretty,” Hedberg says of her introduction to Chinese years ago. “Even now, I think the language is really pretty.”

After four years of high school Spanish, Hunter Raatz, a sophomore from Watertown, came to college wanting to study a language but looking for something "a little more out there."

UW-Eau Claire’s Chinese courses were exactly what the political science major had in mind.

Now in his second Chinese class, Raatz says the courses are challenging, but worth the effort because he’s learning to speak a language and understand a culture that he had known little about.

“It’s helping me be more open to new ideas and beliefs, especially those that are not common in the United States,” Raatz says.

With China emerging as a leader in the world’s economics, politics and technology, a growing number of Blugolds — like Raatz, Hedberg and Turecek — are realizing that understanding the Chinese language and culture will help them personally and professionally, Kong says.

As a result, the numbers in UW-Eau Claire’s Chinese classes are steadily ticking upward, a trend that will benefit students now and in the future, Kong says.

“Chinese language and cultural competence are soft skills that open doors for graduates to tremendous job opportunities, but also improve individuals’ cultural compassion and empathy,” Kong says. “Research shows that learning languages is beneficial to multiple skills, such as communication, concentration and problem-solving skills.”

“Learning a language and culture empowers people with passion and curiosity to interact with others, overcome fear of unfamiliarity, build a community, engage in meaningful conversations and construct a peaceful world that celebrates cultural equity, diversity and inclusion.”

Integrating culture in language classes is a priority in the Chinese program, Kong says, noting that she creates many opportunities for students to interact with people from Chinese cultural backgrounds.

For example, international students from Chinese-speaking regions, including mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan, often work with students in the Chinese classes on speaking projects. The shared projects expose the Chinese language students to different vernaculars, and the international students can practice discussing cultural topics in English.

Kong’s students see great value in her approach to teaching.

“Our teacher emphasizes that it’s important to use our Chinese whenever we can so we can hear a variety of different accents to practice our listening,” says Hedberg. “It’s not always going to be as slow, deliberate and clear as a textbook recording, so she likes to push us to talk with them whenever we can. It’s always fun having them in class because we spend the whole period interviewing each other, switching off between languages so that everyone gets some practice in.”

Kong also involves students in activities that immerse them in Chinese culture, such as attending events hosted by the Chinese Heritage Foundation or meeting delegates visiting from Chinese-speaking regions.

Students in the Chinese language classes gathered to make dumplings as part of the Chinese New Year celebration.

Students in the Chinese language classes gathered to make dumplings as part of the Chinese New Year celebration.

A favorite annual cultural experience for students is making dumplings, an important traditional Chinese New Year activity in some regions of China.

“Making dumplings is a family event to many Chinese people and it symbolizes togetherness,” Kong says. “Students also exchange new year wishes, exchange gifts and have a mini competition on Chinese New Year knowledge. The idea is to increase their awareness and respect of other cultural traditions.

“They are encouraged to make connections and comparisons between Chinese New Year and holidays in their own cultural contexts. They realize that although the ways of celebrating may be varied, the intention is cross-culturally similar, which is a desire for peace and prosperity.”

As UW-Eau Claire enters into new agreements with universities in China, more students from China are studying here, and more students from UW-Eau Claire are studying or engaging in research in China.

These exchanges create additional formal and informal opportunities for U.S. and Chinese students to learn from one another, opportunities students say they are making the most of.

For example, Hedberg traveled to China during Winterim 2018 with Kong and two other students for a research immersion, visiting numerous cities as they studied sociocultural perspectives on education to determine how they influence decisions regarding higher education.

“Our primary reason for being there was to collect data for research, but we still spent a lot of time just being tourists, and I loved every minute of it,” Hedberg says. “I definitely have plans to go back, not only to China, but to explore the whole region around it as well.”

Last summer, Turecek studied abroad in Chengdu, China.

“It was tough to balance school — I took a four-credit language course while there — and travel, but I learned more than I could have imagined,” Turecek says. “I visited one of the most populated cities on earth, Chongqing, and a remote village in the mountains of Tibet. I went with students from colleges across America, and keep in touch with many of them. I also made plenty of Chinese friends, and still use Chinese social media to communicate with them.

“It was an introspective experience; when I returned to the United States I was much more confident as a person, not just in my ability to speak Chinese.”

Turecek believes the confidence, knowledge, skills and relationships he’s gained from his Chinese studies will help him in his future career.

“Entwining a nontraditional second language into my professional development will open doors to unique opportunities,” Turecek says. “I’m entering the field of information technology so adding a language that is deeply embedded in the manufacturing and production of software and hardware should make me a qualified candidate for many different roles here and internationally.”

Raatz also thinks his Chinese studies will help him in the workplace, wherever his career takes him.

“Understanding and acknowledging other beliefs and languages helps improve the overall workplace and makes a stronger bond between co-workers and employers,” Raatz says, noting that through the Chinese courses he’s strengthening his interpersonal skills, which are highly valued by employers.

With plans to work as a planetary scientist at a place like NASA, Hedberg isn’t sure how Chinese will directly help her achieve her career goals, but she’s confident her language skills and cultural understanding will help her as she travels to China and other places that differ from the U.S.

Studying Chinese has shifted his perspective and sparked an interest in continuing to better understand people and other cultures, be they close to home or in another part of the world, Turecek says.

“I gained an appreciation for the culture I grew up in, but at the same time learning Chinese ignited a curiosity for international cultures and languages that I don’t see being quenched any time soon,” Turecek says. “I wish everyone could have their perspective shaken up by learning or speaking the language of a foreign culture because you learn a lot about a new place, but also about yourself.”

Still another perk of studying Chinese or another language?

Surprising people when you talk with them in their own language, Turecek says.

“It’s incredibly motivating when you piece together terms and grammar to create coherent sentences and have a native speaker be surprised that you know the language,” Turecek says. “The astonished look on their face and the smile that follows makes all the practice and preparation even more worth it.”

It also makes a visit to his favorite McFarland restaurant even more fun, Turecek says.

“My favorite restaurant is the Chinese restaurant in my hometown, and I always wanted to be able to chat up the family who runs it and order in their native language,” Turecek says. “And now I finally can!”

Top photo caption: Noah Turecek (left) and Mingyang Qu meet to catch up on classes and life, but also to help each other build their language skills and their understanding of cultures that differ from their own.