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Chinese language teachers struggle to fulfill dreams
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Sun Tao's dream was ripped apart. After graduating with a Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (TCFL) qualification from Daqing Normal University in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province in 2009, he was in line for a "well-paying" job in either the United States or Europe.

All he had to do was to pay 7,830 yuan (US$1,191) to an employment agency in Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu Province, and shortly thereafter be offered a job that would pay at least 200,000 yuan a year.

But after months, the job offer from the agency didn't materialize.

Worse, the agency did not have a license to send teachers abroad.

Sun is just one of hundreds of young Chinese being swindled by unscrupulous and bogus employment agencies, cashing in on the popularization of the Chinese language around the world.

In 1950, courses in teaching Chinese to foreigners started at a few universities in China.

After 2000, the teaching of Chinese went mainly abroad, with the Confucius Institute, established by 11 Chinese ministries and relevant organizations, shouldering the main responsibility.

By the end of 2010, more than 322 Confucius Institutes and 369 Confucius classrooms were set up in 96 countries.

"The expansion of Confucius Institutes around the world is an efficient way to promote 'soft power'," said Wu Yongyi, director of International College of Chinese Studies at East China Normal University (ECNU). ECNU is one of the earliest universities of TCFL education and has co-established six Confucius Institutes in the United States.

"The US government now lists Chinese as a critically needed foreign language in the National Security Language Program and funded many programs to spread Chinese and cultivation of native teachers. Our school has many cooperative programs with the US."

Moreover, over the past 10 years, there has been a boom in studying Chinese, with more than 40 million people around the world learning the language. And the reason has changed from curiosity and academic research to practical concerns. In the US, Chinese has become the third largest language taught, after English and Spanish.

The enrollment of Chinese major students in universities and colleges has increased by 78 percent from 2002 to 2009, data released by Modern Language Association in US shows.

In 2010 Confucius Institutes had about 360,000 students, an increase of 100,000 over 2009, according to figures from Hanban, the Chinese national office for TCFL and headquarters of the Confucius Institute.

And TCFL courses in China are growing in popularity, with more than 15,000 students joining TCFL programs at 285 universities in China and more than 82 universities setting the Masters of Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages. A total of 38,000 students are studying on campus.

But the boom of TCFL education did not benefit the development of teaching Chinese overseas directly. Among those students, only 10 percent of TCFL graduates have teaching capabilities, Beijing Daily reported, citing from a national seminar of TCFL education held in December 2010.

Yet, international Chinese teachers are in great demand, especially for those who work in primary and middle schools.

"I'm confused about this," Sun said. "Since there are great demands and sufficient supplies, why aren't the demands fully met, and the resources not well distributed?"

This is a long-standing problem. Since the start of the 21st century there has been a flood of Chinese media coverage about the embarrassing situation TCFL students are facing at graduation.

Yet, TCFL's development hasn't slowed, intensifying competition and spawning fraudulent agencies, as experienced by Sun.

"I think the problems we are facing can be contributed to two conflicts," said Ma Jianfei, deputy director of Hanban. "First is that the reality doesn't match the expectations of students.

"Although Chinese is becoming more and more popular and foreign schools all need Chinese language teachers, the demand varies in different areas.

"Most of the students are attracted by (the possibility of) working in developed countries, such as the US and in European countries."

However, Ma said, positions there are limited, with more vacancies in developing or undeveloped countries, where most TCFL students show little interest.

And more importantly for the students, salaries are lower. In Indonesia, for example, TCFL graduates may earn only about 60,000 yuan a year.

"The second conflict is the imbalance between TCFL education and demand of foreign schools," Ma said.

"At first, the major of TCFL was set to teach foreigners who studied in China. As to teaching Chinese language abroad and carrying out cultural communication and public diplomacy based on Chinese language, we haven't done enough research. Therefore, the students of TCFL couldn't fully meet the demand of foreign countries."

However, solutions on how to ease the conflict are becoming urgent, given that the global cultural communication is becoming more and more frequent and in-depth.

Zhang Bo, director of the Center for Studies of Chinese as a Second Language at the Beijing Language and Culture University, said TCFL's development in universities and colleges should be slowed a little bit.

"As the carrier of Chinese culture, Chinese language has been treated as the bridge of cross-cultural communication, so the major of TCFL has enjoyed a boom period in the past 10 years," Zhang said.

"Even some universities and colleges in second- and third-tier cities have also set the major. It is kind of a waste of resources.

"If students cannot be sufficiently trained in campus, how can they find satisfactory jobs when they graduate?"

Wu Yongyi, the director from the ECNU, agreed. He said the development of TCFL should pay more attention to the quality of applicants, and enhance its practical parts.

"Different universities should carry out unique teaching programs, like the one we are negotiating with New York University (NYU)," Wu said. "The exchange program will send more students to NYU, encouraging them to intern in local schools and get the certification of teaching."

As to the dispatching of Chinese language teacher, Huo Guobao, a teacher who has been working for more than five years in Indonesia, said limitations imposed on the qualifications of agencies should be removed.

Huo had been sent by Hanban to teach Chinese in Thailand. After a year, he returned to China where a friend got him a job teaching Chinese in a private middle school in Indonesia.

"Without the participation of NGOs, most of the students who want to teach abroad have to seek opportunities from Hanban or other exchange programs," Huo said.

"Hanban has its own programs with limited entries. Thus many students on the Chinese mainland lose potential opportunities to fulfill their dreams, while foreign schools desperate to hire Chinese teacher cannot find enough candidates."

Ma said that Hanban attaches great importance to the two aspects, and has embarked on a reform.

"We have been exploring the innovation of Chinese language teachers' education for years. The Master of Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages (MTCSOL) began to enroll undergraduates in 2009. The syllabus of MTCSOL is drafted on the demand of foreign countries by experts from China and the rest of the world. Students of this major all have the opportunities to intern in Confucius Institutes overseas."

But Ma said it's "not the proper time" to let other agencies join in the "platform of dispatching international Chinese teachers".

"Teaching Chinese in foreign countries is a complex work involves language, culture, political system, religion and other cross-boundary communication activities; official organization can provide timely protection and help for Chinese students and teachers," Ma said.

Sun, who now works at the purchase department of a joint venture in Shandong province, hasn't given up his dream.

But after his experience, he has changed his understandings of Chinese language teachers.

"Maybe I will reconsider teaching Chinese language in some Southeast Asia countries after a few years, even if the salary is not high," Sun said. "After all, it's still my dream."

(China Daily March 18, 2011)

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