The University of Pittsburgh’s Dr. Yi Xu Discusses Her Research in Chinese Language Acquisition and Psycholinguistics and Why You Ought to Check out Pitt’s Chinese Language Program

In an increasingly globalized world, it is essential that one not only integrates different cultures into one’s own, but that one actively looks to understand and partake in these cultures. The University of Pittsburgh’s Chinese Department offers four years of language courses integrated with traditional festivals, cultural nuances, and real-life conversations in order to facilitate cultural immersion. Silk Screen sat down with the Coordinator of the Chinese Language Program, Dr. Yi Xu, to discuss the program and her research in Chinese language acquisition for speakers of English Academic Research Dr. Xu

·          How did you develop an interest in linguistics, specifically in language acquisition? For example, did a teacher inspire your love of linguistics, or have you always enjoyed analyzing and studying languages?

 

I majored in English in my undergraduate study and worked as an EFL teacher in China for two years before pursuing my graduate study in English Language and Linguistics in America. I suppose my interest partly comes from my desire to be a teacher from early. In my M.A. study, my advisor (Dr. Rudolph Troike) inspired my interest in formal linguistics, particularly syntax. By doing several projects comparing the linguistic features of Chinese and English, I started to be interested in Chinese linguistics. Meanwhile, I also realized that while ESL/Applied linguistics in English has developed for several decades, there is much ground to be covered in Chinese as a second language/Chinese applied linguistics. That’s when I feel a possibility and a need to combine my desire to be a teacher and my scholarly interest into one, and go deeper into the second language acquisition of Chinese.

 

·         What are complex noun phrases, shi….de sentences, and copula sentences? Why do these structures deserve so much attention and research? Could you offer some examples of how these would be used?

 

Complex noun phrases can be attributive or noun-modifying clauses, and relative clauses in English, and they typically contain a subordinate clause. Copula sentences are sentences with “BE” verbs (e.g., He is a good student.) They all have counterparts in Chinese, although not all Chinese grammarians refer to the Chinese equivalent of English relative clauses (“The professor that teaches me” in English and jiao wo de laoshi in Chinese) using the terminology of “relative clauses”. (Instead, those structures may be referred to as subject-object phrases, or verb phrases as attributives, etc.) Shi…de constructions are unique in Chinese. At surface level, it is like a copula followed by a relative clause without the head noun; in function, it is generally believed to an emphatic structure expressing something similar to English cleft sentences ‘It was from China that he originally came from.’ We also teach this usage of shi…de construction in Chinese as a foreign language classrooms. In my most recent research, “A corpus-based functional study of shi…de constructions” submitted to the journal, Chinese Language and Discourse, I suggested that shi…de construction often serves to express one’s stance and marks stative prediction.

 

·         What troubles do English speakers encounter when trying to learn these grammar structures? What methods do you employ to make these structures more easily digestible to native English speakers?

 

English speakers are actually quite good at learning complex noun phrases (NPs) in Chinese (in general). Complex Chinese NPs are marked by the nominal marker de before the head noun (i.e., the noun that you want to refer to), so it is not too difficult to figure out the head noun in Chinese in comprehension tasks. Relative clause structure is typically taught in the second semester of 1st-year Chinese in most programs.

 

 In my opinion, the initial difficulty mostly comes from word order differences. The word order in an English relative clause is “head N (that) SV” or “head N (that) VO”, while the one in Chinese is “SV de head N” and “VO de head N”. But as you can see, both these languages follow the same SVO clausal word order, so that initial difficulty can be quickly overcome. However, the meaning intended by the relative clauses can all be expressed as two simple sentences (e.g., “The professor that teaches me came from China” can be expressed as “This professor teaches me and she came from China”), so learners are likely to resort to using two simple sentences instead of a complex NP in production. That is why sometimes we don’t see rapid improvement in those structures after the students initially acquired them in first year. 

 

One thing that we try to do in class is to require students to use certain complex structures, like relative clauses, so that they don’t stop progressing by always using the simplest way of expression. In initially teaching relative clauses, we use pairs of different items (e.g., two people who can be differentiated by the clothes that they wear) and ask students to use relative clauses to refer to them respectively. 

 

As for shi…de construction, one typical error in learner production is that the sentence final de is sometimes dropped. As for copula sentence, a common mistake is productions like Ta (*shi) hen shuai (‘He is very handsome’), which is absolutely grammatical in English but awkward in Chinese, since Chinese adjectives are stative verbs, and a copula should not be used.

 

·         Your dissertation emphasized the psycholinguistics of learning Chinese relative clauses – could you give us a brief overview of  the field of psycholinguistics, and a thorough description of your findings and research?

 

This is a very big question. I will only comment on one small aspect of psycholinguistic experimental techniques that I am familiar with: in my dissertation, I used a reaction time reading task, in which learners were asked to read sentences on a computer screen, and a software was used to record how long it took them to comprehend a sentence. There is a long track record of using such tasks in English, initially in first language studies among native speakers, and then in ESL studies. But there are yet not too many attempts in Chinese as a second language studies using this technique, especially in investigations related to Chinese syntax. One difficulty is that the learner has to be pretty good at reading complex sentences (when pressed by time) in order to complete this task successfully, and it could be very difficult to recruit a good number of Chinese as a second language participants for that purpose.  For psycholinguistic studies in second language acquisition in general, I refer readers to an article by Leah Roberts “Psycholinguistic Techniques and Resources in SLA research” published in 2012 in the journal, Second Language Research.

 

As for my own findings in the dissertation project, it’s difficult to give a description without getting into a lot of technical details. But in general, previous studies found that subject relative clauses (“The professor that teaches me ….”) are much easier than object ones (“The student that I teach ….”) in processing and in acquisition in English. I found, in corroboration with previous studies, that this asymmetry may exist, but can be much less robust in Chinese. At the same time, demonstrative-classifiers (e.g., zhe-ge, na-ge) play a role in relative clause processing ease. When a relative clause is preceded by such a demonstrative-classifier, subject relative clauses in Chinese are easier than object ones. Also, in one of my experiments, native speakers as well as Chinese as a second language learners completed the same written task, and they showed strikingly similar patterns of structural preference in production. Readers who are interested in this topic can expect to read more about the details in the following two articles: “CFL Learners’ production of relative clauses with demonstratives – From theory to empirical research” ,  to be published in Chinese as a Second Language Researchand “Evidence of the accessibility hierarchy in relative clauses in Chinese as a second language”, to be published in Language and Linguistics (April, 2014 issue).

Personal Interests and Background

·         Could you tell us a little more about yourself? Where are you from originally? Do you have any hobbies, like gardening, writing, painting?

 

I am from Hangzhou, China. It’s very pretty and if you and your readers have a chance to visit China, it’s a great city to visit and I recommend a week’s stay there. It’s close to Shanghai. In my spare time, I enjoy singing and watching movies most. But I mostly sing in Cantonese and watch movies in English. (I am not comfortable with expressing feelings in a direct way as those lyrics do in Mandarin Chinese. Also, since Cantonese have more “tone variations”, it seems to go really well with melodies.) When I can afford the time, I like reading detective and mystery novels. I learned calligraphy and some music instruments in my earlier years but no longer practice them actively. 

 

·         Why did you choose to teach at the University of Pittsburgh?

Pitt offers an excellent research environment. Several professors at the Department of Linguistics and the Department of Psychology at Pitt were my idols in my graduate study: I read their papers as part of my study and it is a great honor to have the potential opportunity to work with them. The Department that I am in also gave me a lot of room for professional development. Of course, the students are awesome too (though I only have first-hand knowledge of that after I came).

 

·         Could you tell us five things that you like about Pittsburgh – a restaurant, park, festival, weather, etc?

 

(1)   There are not too many Chinese restaurants, but the number and the food is good enough for a city of this size in America, so I am content in that aspect

(2)   Lots of trees in the area that I live in

(3)   Many universities around the area, and I like that overall college atmosphere;

(4)   A good population of the Chinese people in the city, making it easier to connect my work with other things going on in the city.

(5)   There is enough to do in the city, but not too much that it would distract me from doing serious work.

 

·         Silk Screen’s major event is a ten-day international film festival held in May that features movies from Asia and the Middle East, and as such we intend to spotlight different international films on our blog that are both innovative and profound. Are there any films (comedies, dramas, documentaries, even children’s films) and that you personally enjoy and find insightful/ enlightening? Could you tell us briefly why you enjoy them so much? Similarly, are there any novels or poems that you find particularly beautiful?

 

Personally, I like essays written by Su Qing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Su_Qing) and novels by Wang Anyi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wang_Anyi). I found Su’s feminist view very avant-garde in her time and Wang’s writing very true to life. (I am speaking as a non-expert.) As for films,  I don’t necessarily have a favorite but can name a few that I liked, including  “A World without Thieves” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_World_Without_Thieves) “Cell phone” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_Phone_(film)), “Infernal affairs” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infernal_Affairs). For the last one, I believe the American film The Departed” was made modeling after it (or was an American remake). “Cell phone” impugns some social problems at the time with a comedian tone. “A world without thieves” has a blend of comedian and sorrowful elements and I think the overall message is inspirational and optimistic.

 

 

·         May we  list your email, so that readers could contact you if they have more questions about your research or the Chinese language program?

 

. If after reading the information online, any of your readers have additional questions, they are welcome to contact me by email (xuyi@pitt.edu) regarding the program. Readers can contact me if they share similar research interests too, but perhaps I should clarify that I will not be directly advising any graduate (or undergraduate) student for specific research projects in the recent couple of years. On the other hand, I will develop some upper-level new content courses, some of which will have a graduate credit option. 

Chinese Language Program at Pitt

·         Could you tell us about the language program at the University? Why is it that certain methods are employed, i.e., why must students memorize dialogues, the character workbook? Why is the benefit of having both FACT and ACT classes, instead of just setting aside time to teach the grammar in ACT classes?

 

The Chinese Language Program (CLP) was established long before I came to Pitt. It used to separate the listening/speaking courses from the reading/writing courses. We worked to change that to a four-skill integrated curriculum sometime around 2008-2009. I wouldn’t assign a particular terminology to describe our teaching methods, as I perceive our methods to be eclectic, and I would like to employ a variety of activities to implement in our ACT classes (and some in our FACT classes too).

 

 In my opinion, memorizing dialogues is helpful due to the following reasons: (1) That is how most native speakers of Chinese learn (to memorize classical short essays in Chinese, ancient poems, etc.); (2) That is consistent with the idea of developing listening/speaking skills somewhat in advance of developing reading/written skills; (3) That is consistent with the audio-lingual approach, a very traditional approach of foreign language pedagogy. – This approach may have weaknesses in some aspects but I found it to be useful in developing listening/speaking skills, which are very essential at the beginning of one’s Chinese learning (partly due to the difficulty of tone). In asking students to memorize the dialogues, I am really asking students to listen to the native speaker’s speech over and over and internalize the key patterns till everything comes out automatic. (Producing sentences while trying to recall all the grammatical rules is very costly; I think students should memorize certain chunks/patterns and their production would be much more fluent.)

 

Character workbook is required also for beginning learners because the writing system in Chinese is vastly different from that in English. (The Chinese script non-linear and generally has no grapheme-phoneme correspondence.) We are not requiring it just because that is how native speakers of Chinese learned to read and write, but mostly because scientific studies on reading illustrate that writing characters actually helps developing reading skills. In a recent paper, “Reading, Writing, and Animation in Character :earning in Chinese as a Foreign Language” by Xu, Chang, Zhang, and Perfetti, to be published in the Fall 2013 issue of Foreign Language Annals, we refer to these kinds of research.  That said, memorizing dialogues and handwriting characters on character workbooks is only required for 1st-year students (for the most part) to help them lay a solid foundation. I believe that as students improve in proficiency, different methodologies should be used.

 

As for the separation of FACT and ACT classes, these have been implemented in many languages classes at the University and I think it works fine. Some benefits include (1) ease in enforcing a “no English” rule in ACT classes, (2) making sure that only full-time instructors, lecturers, and professors who were trained in Chinese linguistics and teaching pedagogy would teach lecture and explain grammar, (3) creating a different atmosphere in ACT classes so that students can feel more like talking to a native speaker of Chinese or holding conversations instead of talking to a “teacher/lecturer”. Some institutions don’t have this FACT/ACT bipartition, and I think that is also fine, as long as we make sure that (1) explicit grammatical rules are taught in combination with a lot of practice, and that (2) only trained instructors teach grammar rules and they do so consistently in all sections.

 

·         What are some hurdles or problems that you often see Chinese language learners have, and what teaching methods do you employ in order to remedy them?

·          

I will name three: Tones; character reading and writing, including the ability to write them correctly, and to quickly retrieve a character’s sound and meaning information when encountering them; producing sentences accurately. I cannot go into a full list of methods, but those include (1) asking students to imitate the tones and intonation in recordings, requiring them to make recordings at the beginning of their study and regularly correcting their tones in classes; (2) teaching radicals and other orthographic knowledge to help them learn to read and write; (3) encouraging students to self-correct their oral productions or written homework, if the production is not exactly accurate. 

 

·         Approximately how many study hours does it take for one to attain fluency in Mandarin?

·          

Standard of “fluency” might differ and the intensity of classes also differs. For instance, according to a report by the Center for Applied Second Language Studies at the University of Oregon, after 720 class hours of high school CFL learning, only 15% of students reached intermediate-mid proficiency (http://casls.uoregon.edu/pdfs/tenquestions/TBQHoursToReachIH.pdf). In our case, students typically receive 200 hours’ instruction in 1st and 2nd year Chinese classes and 150 hours in 3rd year. I am happy to share with readers that several of our non-heritage Pitt students (who finished their 3rd year of study) took ACTFL’s OPI interview test (in the recent academic year) and they were placed at the advanced levels.  

 

·         In your own opinion, what makes the Pitt Chinese Language Department so special?

·          

I consider our CLP program to be excellent and I take pride in our students’ achievement. For instance, from 2012 to 2013, three of our Chinese language students received Critical Language Scholarship, another three received the Boren Scholarship, one received Fulbright Scholarship, two received scholarship from the Chinese government or Hanban, and many received prizes in speech contests at the national and regional level. We underwent some reforms in 2008-2009 and there is a lot of good energy (including new teachers, new curriculum, strict implementation of principles, etc.) I think both the students and our teachers are very committed to teaching/learning and we implement a semi-intensive curriculum that challenges students to their best. Learning Chinese can be challenging but also highly-rewarding: our students realize that quickly.

 

·         What types of celebrations does the Chinese Department throw in order to immerse its students in Chinese culture?

We typically have the Mid-Autumn festival celebration and the New Year Celebration. In summer sessions, there are also some sessions in which students learn to make Chinese dumplings.

·         Besides Chinese language, do you teach any other courses at Pitt?

Right now, I only teach language courses and serve on M.A. students’ thesis committee and Ph.D. students’ comprehensive paper committees from time to time. In Spring 2014, I will teach an “Aspects of the Chinese Language” course, which will have an undergraduate and a graduate course option. It’s a basic Chinese linguistics course that can be helpful for those who intend to have more explicit knowledge of the Chinese grammar, including those who are interested in linguistics in general. I also plan to propose a new course on Chinese Language Teaching (with both a practical and a research orientation). Those courses will be particularly useful for those who intend to teach Chinese as a foreign language in the future.

 

·         For incoming students, or current students who are looking for fun or challenging coursework, why do you think that they should study Chinese? Aside from fields like translation or interpreting, in what ways have students parlayed their Chinese language abilities into careers?

 

Several of our graduates were so interested in Chinese and its culture that they went for graduate study; some are teaching English as a foreign Chinese in China. Others found jobs in international companies that have branches in China, so that they can rely on their communication skills in Chinese (and in English) to conduct business and facilitate the operation of those international companies.

 

 

It was an immense pleasure to speak with Dr. Xu and learn more of her fascinating coursework in Chinese linguistics and second languages acquisition. You may contact her at xuyi@pitt.edu or visit the East Asian Language and Literature Department’s website (which houses the Chinese Department) for more information: http://www.deall.pitt.edu//index.php

 

 

 

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