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[People of UIC] Meet Candy Cai: The value and culture of language

"From teaching Chinese as a second language. I've learned to appreciate cultures from around the world. I'm thankful that my colleagues and students have inspired me daily to be a better teacher and human." Chinese Language and Culture Centre (CLC) lecturer Candy Cai Jingjing said in the CLC 15th anniversary newsletter as she celebrates her 15th year working at UIC.

Ms Candy Cai Jingjing

Candy grew up in the cold north of Heilongjiang Province, where the winter temperatures can reach as low as -30 degree Celsius. For those who see her on-campus sporting a t-shirt on cooler days, this is why. In undergrad, she majored in Chinese language and literature. At her home university which comprised a diverse group of international students and teachers, especially Russians, she formed her interest in teaching Chinese as a foreign language. After a short internship in Beijing, she learned of a new college in Zhuhai, Guangdong, which had recently been established and was recruiting talent. She boarded a train and arrived for an interview. Unexpectedly, this trip changed the tracks of her life forever. Later, she visited City University of Hong Kong, where she furthered her teaching Chinese expertise as a second language, specialising in language acquisition and Chinese linguistics. Since 2006, she has lived a peaceful life in the warm south of Guangdong Province, where the summer temperatures are as high as 35 degree Celsius.

Although Candy prefers to take it easy, she often has an itch for adventure. She has trained for the UIC staff-dragon-boat team, joined colleagues in a community search for a stray cat, and discussed how to better rescue stray cats. Most of Candy's weekends are spent at home reading books, watching documentaries, or staring at her ukulele, hoping she will feel the power of its magic. She invests weekend time learning new ways to improve the classroom experience like writing course texts or finding suitable TV programmes for students to watch at different proficiencies. She occasionally dabbles in activities like bicycling, swimming or exercising at the gym. She enjoys—most of all—creating simple, fresh meals from scratch.

Candy had conflicted feelings about travelling halfway across the country for a startup college. Like any startup, it meant investing in a high-risk, high-reward opportunity. "I always wanted to be involved in an international environment with a cosmopolitan feel. I found college to have been one of the most enjoyable atmospheres in which I had ever immersed myself. I couldn't resist being a part of perpetuating that culture for others. I think all of those hopes about UIC have surpassed my expectations."

"I still vaguely remember reading about Liberal arts Education on UIC's home page " as she explains one aspect of UIC that attracted her.

Candy (front row, third from left) taking part in the Dragon Boat activity on UIC's campus

"I feel proud to have been able to witness UIC's dramatic transformations that have occurred since 2006," she said. "The campus' growth has been phenomenal. It has been fascinating and exciting to have seen it go from a class of none to complete: the development of the library, sports grounds, gymnasiums, activity space for teachers and students, guest speakers' outstanding lectures and seminars, the establishment of new and often unique professional disciplines.


Chinese language and culture

Of Chinese learning, there are ever more interested international students and teachers. She witnessed the attitude flip from ten years ago when students said they didn't want to learn Chinese characters to now when all of them have or seek to have a thorough understanding.

Candy (centre) with UIC interns and students at a festival

Candy explains that learners are now attentively moving through the HSK (standardised Chinese proficiency test) series courses. They want to formalise their Chinese level before returning home or set up a specific and clear learning goal to lay a solid foundation in the language. At present, we have set up courses for HSK levels 1 through 3 and a particular HSK vocabulary class. I hope that more students can study levels 4 and higher soon.

"We have travelled ever farther: from within Zhuhai to beyond, such as to Chengdu, Xi'an, and Fujian to see the Giant Buddha, the Terracotta Warriors, and Tulou. I hope we can continue to grow the opportunities for more international students to visit China's vast sights, cities, cultures, architectures, and landscapes," explained Candy.

In October 2016, on behalf of CLC, Candy led a UIC international staff member team to first place in the Second Chinese Contest in Zhuhai. The competition aimed to promote the Chinese language and culture by inviting foreigners to face off in a battle of wits and knowledge. Competitors had to tap into their understanding of Mandarin Chinese and classical Chinese culture to win.

Candy leading the UIC team to first place at the Second Chinese Contest in Zhuhai

The student body has noticeably diversified every year. With more partnerships between other colleges, my classes have included students from France to Germany, the US to the UK, and Venezuela to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Candy mentions how UIC has collaborated with academic institutions in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, the UK, and the US. UIC has arranged exchange programmes, short courses for visiting international students.

UIC uses English as the medium of instruction. As such, CLC is at a symbolic intersection here. Most of UIC's student body comprises Chinese students who already know the language and culture, so they are now looking for a convenient international experience. For them, CLC aims to sharpen their skills. For all others, CLC hopes to immerse them in China's language and culture and bridge the gap between those of different backgrounds. "Without it, we perceive that UIC's domestic and international students would find the language and cultural barriers inhibiting," says Candy. Rather than forming groups, she sees CLC as a catalyst for cohesion. After all, it would be ironic and unfulfilling for an international student at UIC to not learn Chinese.        

The CLC is committed to promoting education about Chinese Culture and Society. CLC advocates the combination of classroom teaching and academic culture outside the classroom by using cultural activities and encouraging culture's creative inheritance.

Chinese, as a foreign language, is challenging to learn, especially the basics. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) defines the difficulty of learning a target language by dividing it into five levels based upon the time taken by native English learners to reach a general professional speaking and writing proficiency. Among them, languages closely related to English, such as French and Spanish, take between 575 and 600 hours, while Chinese takes about 2,200 hours.

The fundamental reason why Chinese is difficult to learn is that it is not related to most adult second language learners' mother tongue. Neither the vocabulary system nor the writing system resembles the native speakers', and the tone system is absent in those learners' mother tongue.

Candy with some of her students

In classroom teaching, learners come from a full spectrum of demographics: from countries and cultures to occupations and ages. Personalities range from being gregarious to shy. Combinations vary wildly across each of these traits, and they can dramatically affect the classroom's pace, dynamics, and expectations. The tricky part is to find each student's perspective and personality, and then accommodate them as best as possible while maintaining a steady learning pace that meets the whole class's needs.

"Get out of your comfort zone and be brave to communicate with local people. There are some excellent examples of interns who like to go to the market to buy vegetables and others who want to chat with the locals, listen to Chinese songs, and read Chinese storybooks. Find the right point of interest for you and have the courage to open your mouth to communicate. Communication is the primary way you can find more motivation and fun in continual learning," explained Candy when asked for advice about learning Chinese. "Engaged learning methods and goals are the foundation, and the motivation to learn will make the process more fun and rewarding."


From MPRO

Editors: Samuel Burgess, Deen He

Last Updated:April 27, 2021
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