Learning to understand Americans
A veteran professor who teaches English and US studies to China’s creme de la creme shares secrets of language mastery and analyzing US policies, write Raymond Zhou and Yang Yang.
Mei Renyi’s career trajectory has t a ke n him from language instruction and English literature to American studies and eventually to cross-cultural studies. The turning point came in 1982 when a Fulbright scholarship enabled him to go to the United States, “to study either American literature or American history”. Mei took up the latter.
Mei considers the study of the history of American diplomacy as the “hub”, from which he extends his research into various related areas. “When you dig deep into this subject, you’ll inevitably encounter issues of American culture,” he said.
“Then you’ll have to come to terms with Chinese culture. The lines of academic disciplines tend to blur as you delve into each of them. You’ll have to possess the ability to transcend and merge. I’m still in the process of fusing different parts.”
The 80-year-old professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University is an expert who straddles these fields. He still teaches regularly. His advice for youngsters in need of a direction is as follows: Follow your heart and let your curiosity take you to explore all the options out there. “Even at our American Studies Center, we have very few compulsory courses. Most are electives.”
For students of English as a second language, Mei suggested that “grammar is something one should have some knowledge of, but one should not be too rigid about it. The more you dig into it, the more perplexed you’ll be”. There is a “threshold” in language learning, he said, beyond which one will attain a certain freedom in expressivity. And that, according to him, is “the feel of the language”.
Instead of cracking the codes of grammar, Mei advised students new to English take up reading, specifically simplified material that uses no more than 3,000 words, equivalent to books in the young adults section. Thirty to forty of these volumes should be taken up, of which a dozen must be read several times — to the point where the student can recall its phrases and sentences. “That is when you can shake off the sway of your native language,” he said.
For advanced students, Mei recommended essays as the main reading material, “rather than fiction”. Essayists come from more than the realm of literature. He cited Winston Churchill, whose non-fiction writings wielded wide influence. “We like to study John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, but it follows the literary tradition of the genre in its structure and its sentence patterns,” he said. “Language is power.
Language is power. When you become aware of that, the teacher should let go and you’ll know what to absorb from your reading.”
professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University
Mei Renyi thinks students should follow their hearts and let their curiosity take them to explore all the options out there.