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Professor Fei RenAssistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures translated the challenges of learning foreign languages into linguistics research.
If there’s one thing Fei Ren knows, it’s that learning a new language can be a daunting task. For her, however, the challenge serves a vital purpose: the illumination of the psychology, sociology, construction, and function of human communication. Ren, an Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, arrived at Georgetown in August 2010 from the University of Texas at Austin. “Georgetown [is famous] in the world of linguistics and language education,” she explained. “The department I graduated from heard about this news and they were all excited.” Bilingual in Chinese—her native language—and English, Ren is most interested in researching the complex lingual idea of tense and aspect, or “how the concept of time is conveyed in a language” through the use of various verb forms. Most of her studies connect the complexities or nuances of Chinese and English, with Chinese serving as her source of reference since she has “a better judgment about the grammaticality of a sentence and how a word should be used, [and] more knowledge about the pragmatics, the context, or some connotation” of the word or phrase, she explained.
Ren traced her academic interest in linguistics—“science that researches all the human languages,” she said—to the early struggles she had learning English as an elementary and middle school student in China. The Chinese method of teaching children language, which begins as early as kindergarten, emphasizes translation and rote memorization of grammatical rules. For Ren this method was ineffective, and the classroom was often a place where she felt embarrassed for her lack of fluency in English.
“I remember when our teacher was teaching third-person singular form, ‘she’ or ‘he.’ That hit me very hard and I didn’t really understand what that means because Chinese doesn’t have that,” Ren said. “We learned that if you talk about weather, you use ‘it’—like, ‘Is it raining today?’ I still remember our teacher asked me to go to the blackboard and translate sentences like, ‘It is raining,’ and I was at a loss. But that led me to think about the rules.”
According to Ren, her struggle with English proved to be a positive challenge. By highlighting the inefficacy of this type of language learning, she began to appreciate linguistics for its real-world applications. After moving to the United States and becoming steeped in American culture, Ren realized that there is a distinct method to mastering every language: grammar and syntax provide a framework, and learners ideally build on that framework through frequent, authentic contact with a language. Rules worth memorizing need context worth experiencing, she said, and vice versa—a concept that represents the type of “linguistic questions” she experienced in grade school and today explores in her research.
“Although [the Chinese] teaching method is not that good [in some ways], it’s good in a sense to me because it showed the differences between language and grammar,” Ren said. “I think the best way to learn a language is to get immersed in that language. You’re kind of forced to speak and you have to understand. Also, you have all those contexts. That will facilitate the language learning process,” Ren continued. “But I would say still the rules we learned in the past are very helpful too, because that will help you absorb the data or the input when you are in a language-speaking environment, and also they help you produce more correct English, or for any language.”
Debunking the common myth that English is among the hardest languages to learn (a title that should be shared by various East Asian languages, she said), Ren plans to continue her research into the intricacies of human communication, and hopes to learn Japanese and Korean along the way. In her short time as a Hoya, she has also been impressed by the devotion and flexibility of both the students and professors in her department. “I visited the classes [of colleagues] and I [found] that all skills of the foreign languages are emphasized and taught,” Ren said. “The strength [of the department] is [that] we can offer a very, very good language education.”
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