Flagship Chinese Institute condenses one year of Chinese language into eight weeks

Andrew Fluegel first became interested in Chinese language and culture after working at a church camp for Chinese foreign exchange students the summer before his freshman year in college.

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Andrew Fluegel in class during this year’s Flagship Chinese Institute. Photo by IU Communications

Fluegel immediately bonded with the campers and fell in love with the Chinese culture.

“I originally was only going to take one semester of Spanish in college and be done with foreign language forever,” Fluegel said. “But I made such a big connection with those foreign exchange students that I decided to change my language to Chinese.”

Fluegel joined IU’s Chinese Flagship Program which led him to IU’s Flagship Chinese Institute, an intensive eight-week program that teaches students a full year of college-level Chinese language and culture.

“I was very nervous because everyone who had taken it before said it was incredibly difficult,” Fluegel said. “It’s an entire year of Chinese in eight weeks; that’s intense.”

Only a few weeks in, Fluegel admits the program is worth it.

“It’s so crazy how much my Chinese has improved,” he said. “I have to study a lot, don’t get me wrong. But the thing is, when you really love something, it doesn’t feel like you are doing a lot of work.”

Running June 3 through July 29, the Flagship Chinese Institute, part of IU’s Chinese Flagship program, draws both IU students and Flagship students from throughout the country.

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Chinese Flagship Program Associate Director Jingyu Huo, left, helps IU student Nora Zeng during a kite-building activity. Photo by IU Communications

Students spend four hours a day, four days a week in a formal classroom setting, followed by a half-hour, one-on-one session with their instructor. They also engage two days a week in cultural activities, such as mahjongg, calligraphy and kite making and interact with Chinese-speaking Bloomington residents during some weekend activities.

Students must also sign a language pledge that they will speak only Chinese unless there is an emergency or they are calling home. Up until this year, IU’s program was the only domestic summer institute approved by the Language Flagship.

“This helps them create a language speaking environment for each other,” said Jingyu Huo, associate director of IU’s Chinese Flagship Center. “When we learn language, we get formal instruction in the classroom but we also pick up some words here and there in casual settings. So we are trying to get them used to speaking the language and eventually thinking in the language instead of translating back and forth.”

Student Inez Yu grew up speaking Mandarin — her father is from Shanghai and her mother is from Taiwan — but she did not know how to read and write in Chinese. Like Fluegel, she was nervous about being a part of the institute and struggled in the first week.

“Going into the program, I heard it was pretty tough,” she said. “It is very intensive and you can only speak Chinese. The first week was difficult. It was a lot more homework than I expected. It was also hard to make friends. If people can’t communicate it is hard to make friends with them. So I was really struggling. I thought ‘I have no friends, I have a million pages of homework, this is really terrible.'”

But in just a short week, things began to turn around. And she said that as each student’s language skills improved, including hers, the program became fun.

“It’s really cool to watch and hear everyone’s skills improving,” she said. “I’m really having a good time.”

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Inez Yu takes part in the classroom portion of the institute. Photo by IU Communications

Yu, a sophomore studying neuroscience, decided to join the Chinese Flagship Program because it involved the language course she was already taking and it would allow her to fulfill her dream of studying abroad.

Although Yu has enjoyed the intensity of the institute and the cultural activities — Mahjongg was her favorite — one of her favorite parts of the program is the Friday lunch gatherings the students have with their teachers. The group travels to a local Chinese restaurant where they eat in the traditional Chinese fashion — dishes are shared community style on a lazy susan — and share personal experiences.

“Everyone eats together like a big family,” Yu said. “It’s cool to be able to talk to our teachers about their experiences in a relaxed setting.”

The program has also brought another element to her family. Yu feels more confident speaking Chinese with her parents and looks forward to being able to write letters in Chinese to her grandparents.

She also plans to use her improved language skills to interact with international students and to one day work with Chinese-speaking people seeking mental health services.

“I want to be a psychiatrist,” Yu said. “The mental health system in China is not very good. I think if I’m able to speak Chinese, and if I know the Chinese culture better than I did before, it will help me help people, whether in America or China.”

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