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.

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS -

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

ZHANG WEI / CHINA DAILY

Mei Renyi thinks stu­dents should fol­low their hearts and let their cu­rios­ity take them to ex­plore all the op­tions out there.

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