Chinese professor will retire after 32 years

By Rebecca Wu

George Chao, associate professor in the department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, will officially retire January 1 after over 32 years at the U of C. Chao, who recently stepped down from his position as director of the Chinese language department earlier this quarter, is retiring because he believes it is time to let the younger generation take over.

“Tenured faculty has no retirement age limitations. If you don’t retire, young people can never get promoted,” Chao said.

After his retirement, Chao hopes the new leadership can develop new visions for the department. He wants to see improvements in both the Chinese program and the foreign language department as a whole.

“I hope that the University doesn’t treat the language teaching groups as second-class citizens,” Chao said. “I hope we would have academic conscience. Before we increase the number of students, we must increase personnel.”

Chao was initially invited by the University to reorganize the Chinese program. He was given a free hand to control how the program was run, and gradually, the administration became more involved in the design of the teaching program.

“Some don’t know how to teach Chinese as a foreign language. They tell you to increase class size but do not give enough financial support to hire qualified teachers,” Chao said. “They want to use more TAs instead of qualified language instructors. I have nothing against using TAs, but they need to be trained.”

Chao believes treating every foreign language in the same way accomplishes nothing. Each language is unique, so quality instruction also needs to be tailored.

Chao said that the administration thinks that because someone is a native speaker, he or she is qualified to teach. “It is an insult to our profession because teaching a foreign language is an independent discipline now,” he said. “Also, we have to recognize that different languages have individual special characteristics. For example, the Chinese language has tones.”

Chao hopes that the future leaders of the department will follow his lead. “Don’t just follow the fashionable trend of language teaching and learning theories,” he said. “It has to be proven which can produce better results. There is no such one way; there is a need to tailor for the classroom individually.”

“The decision-makers on the hierarchy cannot force all the languages to be taught the same way,” said Chao, who has fought hard against bureaucratic encroachment into teaching.

Chao requires his students to learn standard Chinese with dutiful pronunciation, accuracy, and stress patterns, to uphold Chicago’s reputation and to refine students’ ability to speak intelligently in the Chinese language.

“I am very happy that my Mandarin was developed in such a way as to allow me to discuss very intellectual and complex subjects,” said Jay Monteverde, one of Chao’s former students and a graduate of the College (A.B. ’01).

“But on the other hand, I wish Professor Chao could have equally emphasized the ability to speak ‘street’ Mandarin and learn slang or colloquialisms that, although not necessarily grammatically correct, reflect modern life and the feeling of really living in Beijing or Taipei,” Monteverde said.

Chinese has over 100 dialects, but Beijing Mandarin has been deemed the standard of what the majority of Chinese people speak. “Studying other dialects is fine linguistically, but to use it as a tool to reach a majority, you have to have a standard,” Chao said.

Students studying Chinese enroll as either “true beginners”, having no experience with the language at all, or “partial beginners.”

“I coined the term ‘partial beginner’ as all those who speak the language at home with or without dialectal accents but cannot read or write,” Chao explained.

Although teaching students with no prior background in the Chinese language has its challenges, Chao thinks it is even more difficult to correct the old habits of those who already speak the language.

“It is hard to change the pronunciation for partial beginners, but not impossible. That is why we have such a good reputation,” Chao said. “If the tones and pronunciation could not have a solid foundation, it’ll be so difficult to re-learn it.”

Chao’s strict instruction coupled with Chicago’s curriculum has been well received and appreciated, but not without criticism.

“The focus on ‘sophistication’ and being able to speak intellectually instead of just conversationally was very good,” said Monteverde, after two years of Chinese with Chao. “I have been able to interpret for new immigrants from China and translate the most complex immigration laws into Chinese thanks to the Chicago curriculum. But I cannot get through a conversation on everyday topics.”

During retirement, Chao plans to relax, re-strengthen his body, and revel in being a proud new grandfather. In addition, he will reflect on his career as a professor and is considering writing about his teaching experiences.

“Some students see me as a teacher, friend, or as a fatherlike figure. When they have joys and pains, sometimes they come to me. Sometimes, they see me for some guidance,” Chao said. “I am not a fun person myself, but that makes me feel fun, and makes me feel joy.”