Chinese Classes Turn Away Students

Heritage students with high test scores are pushed out of lower-level classes

Despite the growing interest in Mandarin Chinese, heritage students seeking to improve their language skills were walled out earlier this year. Chinese language courses have seen a 27 percent increase in enrollment, from 273 to 348 undergraduates. But not all students have been able to enroll in the Chinese class of their choice due to a discrepancy between their score on the Chinese language placement test and their own perception of their Chinese ability.

According to Director of the Chinese Language Program Shengli Feng, about 15 heritage students were not allowed to enroll in Chinese 130a, “Advanced Modern Chinese,” after achieving placement test scores that were too high for that level.

One of these students was Yifan Zhang ’10.

“What really bothers me about the Chinese system is how they didn’t listen to your personal preferences or your own input on your ability level,” Zhang said. “They base everything on an arbitrary test.”

After trying Chinese 140a, “Advanced Readings in Modern Chinese,” Zhang found it too hard and decided not to take Chinese this fall.

Feng explained that in a class like Chinese 142a, “Advanced Conversational Chinese,” the presence of native speakers would make others in the class “uncomfortable.”

In order to ensure a fair learning environment, heritage students were excluded from Chinese Ba, “Elementary Modern Chinese,” which Feng said is not a class for those who can speak Chinese but can’t write it.

Feng said that some students think Chinese Ba—the largest Chinese class this fall with 104 undergraduates—is an “easy A.”

“We don’t want to create unfair competition, we don’t want to threaten them [non-heritage students] away,” said Feng, who is also a professor of the practice of Chinese language.

Feng added that he is awaiting approval for a track specifically geared to heritage students. The program is also looking to establish more preceptor positions, which are currently lacking.

“We have to have individual care, but if you have so many individuals you can’t take of them,” Feng said. “Otherwise we’d have to teach them in the middle of the night.”

There certainly isn’t a lack of interest in the Chinese language program.

“China is playing a very important role in globalization,” said Feng, who added that the success of Harvard Beijing Academy, a nine-week summer Chinese program in Beijing, helped to garner student interest in the language. “Harvard students are smart enough to follow the trend, they want to be the leaders of the future,” he said. “For heritage students, before, taking Chinese was for their identity, but now it’s for jobs, too.”

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