LTI, Humanities, Teaching

Teaching Innovator: Billie Ng, Language Training Institute

November 17, 2014

Over the years, Billie Ng has seen a great deal of change at SFU. She is even responsible for some of it, helping bring technological and social innovation to her classes for the Language Training Institute.

The Language Training Institute (LTI) is a branch of the Department of Humanities that teaches a variety of languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, German, Greek, Japanese, Spanish, and Japanese, as well as training language instructors. Ng has taught Mandarin at SFU since 1993, and now serves as Director of the LTI. She is also Vice-President and Conference Chair of the Canadian Teaching Chinese as a Second Language (TCSL) Association, and has worked with the provincial government to help develop its Integrated Resource Package for developing Mandarin curriculums in BC's high schools.

In describing her work at the LTI, Ng says "as the world is becoming smaller and workplaces multi-cultural and multi-lingual, foreign language education has to be an integral part of how we prepare our graduates. Learning a foreign language not only equips students linguistically and culturally for more effective communication, it opens their minds to many more perspectives when approaching issues and problems. This is the kind of global citizens we want our graduates to be." She adds, "students learn a foreign language through which they learn about another culture. What's more, they learn about their own language and culture though learning other languages and cultures."

One of the changes that Ng has seen over the years is an increase in the popularity of Mandarin courses as China becomes a more powerful global player (although she notes that all the language courses at the LTI are popular). She welcomes the interest, and is also quick to debunk rumours that Mandarin presents an almost insurmountable challenge for English speakers: “It's a phonetic language, and if you have not had the experience of writing characters, it can be quite challenging. But students do well after two or three courses – I've always been very impressed. People perceive it as difficult to learn, but they do quite well. Many of my students say they learn quite a lot in two semesters.”

At SFU, Ng has developed her own course materials in order to best suit the needs of students in the Vancouver area. “I write my own course materials – I wrote four books. And students have been very happy learning with that because we use local content. Students can communicate in Chinese about local things, about Canadian life, about studying at SFU.” She feels this adaptability is important for learners to incorporate a new language into their own lives.

In the last few years, Ng's work has involved attempts to move into more “blended models of learning” that integrate electronic resources into classroom learning. For example, she has modified her own course materials as e-texts, so that students can follow links in the textbooks to further learning opportunities. This also allows her to incorporate a Chinese character writing program that she developed with a former student with an expertise in computer programming. “The character shows up with a dotted line, and then the student drags the lines in the correct order. If you don't know the order, the program will show you.” She makes this program available to all her students through Canvas, SFU's online course tool.

Of course, using electronic tools in the classroom does not always require new methods – sometimes it is better to use what is already to hand. One of the programs Ng started at SFU was pairing her students with language instructors in training from Taiwan, using online tools to allow for one on one conversations that helped each develop their skills. Initially, they tried using a dedicated program for online teaching but they found this created barriers to access: “We tried that, but it didn't fly – we tried as teachers, the tech person was standing by saying ‘you forgot to press this, you forgot to press that’. Every time we got online we spent about ten minutes doing that. So I thought no no no. What is important is that you get students talking, not handling all this technology stuff. So we went to the simplest thing that students are familiar with, which is Google Hangouts.” This switch to the ubiquitous chat platform led to the success of this test platform, which Ng hopes she will be able to continue.

Of course, it may not be necessary to communicate with people currently living in Taiwan to learn Mandarin. SFU's increasingly international status allows for learning opportunities on campus, which has led Ng to apply for funding to create infrastructure for helping students to connect with each other locally. She calls this pending program the “Peer Language Exchange,” and hopes that it will allow native speakers of various languages to forge friendships and develop their language skills. The Peer Language Exchange fits with Ng's philosophy of teaching, which is less centred on what happens in the classroom “It used to be you'd teach students a language in the classroom – but now we have a much more international campus and student body, so my students can go and find their own study partners.” Of course, classes are still essential – she jokes that sometimes students teach each other bad language habits which need to be corrected, but nevertheless respects their enthusiasm.

When asked if there are any elements of Chinese culture Ng wished people could experience in its original language to help inspire them to study Mandarin, she points to a symphony that can be experienced in any language – the Yellow River Cantata. She explains, “it's a symphony written in 1939. It was written as a symbol of the Chinese spirit of enduring difficulties, of going against the tide. The Yellow River is always flooded, and there's always boatmen holding the boats, singing during difficult times.” She notes, “both orchestra and audience are diverse, highlighting our point that music can be appreciated across generations and across cultures.”

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