UW’s Tianjin program gives UW students strong boost in Chinese

Brendan Dowling had never studied Chinese—or any other foreign language—when he received a grant to travel to China during his first year as a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

After returning to Madison after his semester abroad, Dowling, of Carpentersville, Ill., enrolled in several Chinese courses. In fact, he enjoyed it so much that he decided to major in Chinese.

In just two-and-a-half years of study, Dowling’s Chinese speaking and listening skills had reached an advanced level. Then, he gave his language learning a further boost by returning to China in 2013 through the 11-week UW Intensive Chinese Language Program at Tianjin, a summer program offered by International Academic Programs (IAP).

While many UW–Madison students enroll in study abroad programs to advance their language studies, what distinguishes the summer program in Tianjin is its intensive focus on perfecting students’ knowledge of the Mandarin Chinese language. Participants earn a year’s worth of language credits in one summer session.

Hongming Zhang, left, and Brendan Dowling after 2013 speech contest
Hongming Zhang, left, and Brendan Dowling after 2013 speech contest

“The Tianjin summer program is the largest and longest summer program on this campus,” says Hongming Zhang, associate professor of East Asian Languages and Literature, who directs the Tianjin program. The program established in 2003, was UW­–Madison’s first summer program in mainland China.

“There are other programs run by UW-Madison [that send students to China], but the mission is different,” Zhang says. “This is the language-intensive program.”

He says he selected Tianjin – a seaside city in northern China and one of the country’s largest cities – for the intensive language program because of its affordability, reputation as a cultural, political and economic center, and proximity to Beijing, the Chinese capital.

“Beijing is a good place [to be near to] because … the official Chinese is defined as Beijing dialect,” he says. Zhang thought that placing students in a city where they were surrounded by China’s primary dialect would help them in advancing their language proficiency.

Prior to each summer session, Zhang travels to Tianjin several times to discuss the curriculum design, interview and select instructors from Nankai University’s College of Chinese Language and Culture (CCLC), and conduct a training workshop.

This process, he says, resolves “some issues with culture shock” and ensures that the Chinese teachers are well-suited to meet students’ needs.

“It’s one of the most successful summer programs on this campus, particularly in teaching quality,” Zhang says.

In addition to language courses, program participants also enroll in a non-credit cultural course “designed to introduce students to diverse aspects of Chinese culture while reinforcing their regular language study,” according to the IAP website. In this course, specialists from the host university and the Tianjin community teach about such topics as calligraphy, tai chi, singing, dancing, chess and erhu (a Chinese musical instrument).

The program also includes a 10-day break in which students are free to explore. Some have traveled to Beijing, Shanghai, Inner Mongolia, Guilin, Chengdu, Yunnan and Xi’an.

While in China, the UW–Madison students compete in a speech contest run by a group of Ivy League schools that also have study abroad programs in China – including Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the University of Chicago.

While participating in the Tianjin program last summer, Brendan Dowling took first place in the non-heritage advanced-1 (third-year) level.

“We trained hard for that for weeks, really intensive training,” Dowling says. “It was a good experience in that I was able to focus a lot on annunciation and pronunciation, which is something that’s not really possible during regular academic periods.”

This spring, Dowling traveled to Purdue University to compete at the Midwest Universities Chinese Speech Contest. He won a gold medal in the fourth/fifth-year and heritage group.

Dowling and Trager Metge — a UW–Madison junior majoring in Chinese, environmental studies and political science, who won the gold medal in the third-year group — earned a trip to China in July to represent the Midwest at the 13th Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students. There, they will test their language skills against peers from more than 100 universities.

— by Haley Henschel