Teletandem students meet in Taiwan

Chinese Language Program Facilitates International Friendship

Two women taught each other their native languages, introduced each other to their cultures, and became friends in the process, all while living on opposite sides of the world.

Morgan Jacobs and Shi WeiMorgan Jacobs and Shi Wei first met through VCU’s Teletandem program, an online language exchange program which pairs foreign language students with native speakers in other universities abroad.

“We want them to use language as a tool to know the whole world and to communicate with other people from different countries. That’s why I think technology will be a bridge to help us make students know others better, faster, and more efficiently,” said Yan Gao, adjunct instructor in Chinese at VCU, Principal of the Central Virginia Chinese School, and Director of the Chinese Language Teachers Association of Virginia.

Gao is responsible for extending the Teletandem program at VCU to include Chinese, and recently won the K-12 Online Teaching Award from the American Council on the Teachers of Foreign Languages Distance Learning and Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium for her work integrating technology into the teaching of Chinese and Mandarin.

Jacobs, a strategic advertising student at VCU, was taking Chinese to communicate with her grandmother in her native language, and Wei, an English major at Wenzao Ursuline University in Taiwan, was trying to improve her English speaking.

“The professor really wants us to be expanding our ability to speak, and so if you don’t have anyone to speak Chinese with, having that partner set in place is a really good opportunity to enhance those skills. And then you can ask your partner stuff that might be slang, or we don’t learn in our textbook or it’s not taught to us in class,” said Jacobs.

As part of the Teletandem program, the two Skyped for an hour every week, splitting their time equally between conversing in Chinese and English.

“I thought it was really cool, I appreciated that she would also ask me questions,” Jacobs said. “That was really fun for me, to also get to teach back.”

Over the course of the semester, their grasp on each other’s languages gradually improved and they were able to learn more about either other’s lives. They found they had many things in common, and soon became friends.

“There’s just so many things that, despite cultural differences, that were very baseline relatable college things,” said Jacobs.

For the entirety of the semester the two talked electronically, sharing updates on their lives and their worlds. Then, Jacobs shared some excited news – she had won the Huayu Enrichment Scholarship to study Chinese in Taiwan and would be attending Wei’s university in the summer.

“She actually picked us up at the airport and everything which was so nice of her because we had never really met,” Jacobs said. “Thank goodness because I don’t know how we would have found that apartment – we arrived at midnight in this foreign country so we were very blessed to have her.”

Jacobs spent two months studying Chinese at Wenzao Ursuline University in Taiwan, where she learned to write in traditional Mandarin, explored the culture of her host country, and had the opportunity to meet some relatives living in China for the first time.

“It was so different than being here. My life was so different because it’s so unsaturated. My life felt unsaturated specifically in Taiwan and that was from being separated from my life in the US and this allowed me to solely devote my focus to Chinese, which I’d never been able to do before,” said Jacobs.

Jacobs says she came back to America with a newfound appreciation for Chinese culture, a connection to a family she had never known, and a life-long friend.

Written by Megan Schiffres
May 10, 2018